IV: The “Problem” with Superhero Films
In the end, one of the most annoying things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and most superhero films in general is how comic fans take them too seriously and no else seems to take them seriously enough. The end result is that different sets of audiences seem unable to recognize these movies for what they are and judge them accordingly. DC/Marvel junkies profess that movie-adaptations must always follow certain rules of the source-material mythology and those that do are good and those that don’t are bad, and that’s that. Like any fan of a book that get’s turned into a big screen-adaptation, comic book junkies see the original source material as an infallible Bible that simultaneously is too awesome to suffer any criticism yet also too nonsensical to suffer any criticism. This line of logic is so absurd given how the comics on which all these movies are based are so self-contradictory, endlessly convoluted, and have so much history that it’s impossible for anyone to come to a consensus on what’s “right” with these superheroes and what’s “wrong” with them, or what the true essence of their particular hero actually means. Come to think about it, that does sound an awful lot like the Bible ….
Much of what all this comic book-fan banter has made me conclude is that many diehard superhero fans have just downright bad tastes in movies. They act as if, for some reason, filmgoers have no reason to judge the logic and reason of the source material itself —as if “being true to the source material” somehow automatically indicates cinematic quality. As it’s been noted by others, sometimes the source material is just plain silly, and particularly for adaptations to other mediums, certain and sometimes drastic changes needed to be made for the better of the final project.
In a particularly scathing indictment of the modern comic book/superhero-movie craze, Red Letter Media’s Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman held this taunting, sarcastic exchange during their review of The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014):
— Mike: “You know what Jay, I’ve been thinking about it, and the biggest money-making schemes around nowadays are turning comic books into movies.”
— Jay: “Hey you’re right! If some comic book ideas were just original scripts today, they’d be laughed at, but because the source material is a comic book, they’re treated with legitimacy for some reason…even though comics were originally just trash whipped up to sell ads to children!”
On the other side of the spectrum are general audiences and film critics who both view these endeavors as so goofy that they don’t ever bother taking them seriously at all. General audiences, as always, simply want to watch their mindless entertainment and shovel popcorn down their mouths while all those colorful mismashes of “stuff” collide on screen. They don’t care what’s playing as long as its flashy, good-looking, and happens to be trendy at the time. As MCU and other superhero films fit the bill right now, those are movies they pack cineplexes to go see. Likewise, film critics for the New York Times or the Washington Post or Variety or wherever look at these superhero adaptations as obligatory dumb blockbuster fun they have to review before going back to jizzing over cliched indie romps like Boyhood (2014) or the latest overrated foreign art film. Films like both Thor (2011, 2013) movies, both Iron Man (2010, 2013) sequels, and the disappointing Dark Knight Rises (2012) all easily manage “Fresh” ratings on Rottentomatoes because no reviewer ever stops to consider analyzing these films beyond the context of their subgenre. They never compare them to movies in general, but rather juxtapose them solely against other corny-titled superhero flicks.
This is a problem with the inherently snobbish mindset of critics and film academics who consistently and laboriously view genre film as subservient and inferior to “higher brow” or drama cinema. As Gareth Evans noted, “Some people look down on horror, comedy, and… action, but a serious drama? Oh my God, it’s like the pinnacle of cinema… “
As such, people who view film in a more artistically-conscious mindset for some reason think of non-drama, non-“artsy,” non-Oscar bait movies as on a different plane than “real” cinema. They then judge an Iron Man 2, or a Thor TDW, or a Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) only against a small subset of like-minded films. Film critics only compare MCU films to other superhero films when examining if the film in question has done something that the subgenre, and the subgenre alone, has not done before, rather than stopping to think if perhaps any of this stuff has ever been done better in other, non-comic book movies.
In other words, reviewers mostly give superhero movies a pass because they grade them on such a big curve; they measure them with such a low bar because they view the subgenre with such inherent snobbish disinterest and condescension that they can’t bring themselves to review an MCU film as an actual movie. This is the soft bigotry of low expectations. What this does is in fact insult the genre as a whole and perpetuates the trend of mostly underachieving, underwhelming superhero films that rarely make press for being truly good movies but instead only become noted for being good “for a superhero film.” This is the problem with expectations. Just like a student who is never expected to achieve much of anything in school or in life or is never regarded as smart, special, or notable in any way has little chance to succeed and surpass those expectations, so do superhero films get indirectly dealt a backhanded blow by being regarded as second-rate cinema that’s only noteworthy if it escapes the confines of its subgenre. A movie can never be expected to astound until people start believing that it can, including both the people making them and the people watching them.