Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Why does anyone care about superhero movies? I don't mean, anyone period, obviously a lot of people, non-nerd "civilians," go to see them. Specifically: why do comic book fans care about superhero movies?

Why do Twilight fans care about the Twilight movies? Why do millions of people who read Dan Brown books flock to see the exact same stories played out in live action on the big screen? Why do Tolkien fans get so excited about seeing Frodo and Co. on the big screen? Why do Jane Austen fans swoon at watching that damned undying BBC miniseries adaptation of Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time?

If you think about it, the phenomenon doesn't make a lot of sense. Perhaps there is something to be said for the idea that the current era of visual media has fundamentally crippled our imaginations to such an extant that we can't regard any open text as being "closed" until we receive corresponding visual input. And of course, once we see the movie version we've received the "definitive" version, the version set in our minds eye whenever we care to re-experience the original text.

There are many, many people in this world who loved the Spider-Man films without ever feeling the need to experience more Spider-Man in their lives than was provided onscreen. But there are also many Spider-Man fans who enjoyed the films as well. I wasn't one of them. It seemed as if every concrete decision that was made to visualize Spider-Man's universe onscreen closed off just as many of the open-ended possibilities that make the comics so endearingly fascinating. The best thing about classic Spider-Man, for me, is just how shabby the whole enterprise is - all the characters are threadbare, all the costumes have a garish, dime-store novelty, all the motivations (even Spider-Man's!) are just a tad pettier than you would expect. But that mood will never be precisely replicated onscreen, and the faux-epic, sincerely empathetic jingoism of Raimi's films is a poor substitute for the essentially pitiless texture of Lee & Ditko's original stories. So why do fans care about these movie at all? Why are fans somehow validated by the existence of a big-screen version of their favorite books?

I dutifully watched them all but found the big-screen Lord of the RIngs films to be remarkably bloodless, big on spectacle and certainly enjoyable for all that, but not a patch on the books. And with that the obvious question is, why did they make these movies? The real answer is that they wanted to make a lot of money and Tolkien's characters could sell a lot of action figures. But then another "real" answer is that a group of filmmakers were very excited by the challenge of bringing to life some of the most amazing spectacles ever seen on the big screen. So, if you confront this motivation, why did they think the books needed to be adapted in the first place? Were they somehow "incomplete," in need of Peter Jackson's vision before they could be rendered whole?

So why do these things get fans so excited?

The success of the Iron Man films is no reflection whatsoever on the strength of the comics, its a reflection of the durability of the original concept - entirely separate from the idiosyncratic talents of the men and women (mostly men) who have brought Tony Stark to life - to be molded and mangled to fit a two-hour consumer infomercial. Iron Man is an interesting case because, i would argue, he lacks the type of truly defining charter run that characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the (All-New, All-Different) X-Men enjoyed. I sat down a couple years back and reread from somewhere around #150-200 of his first series. In one or two sittings, it was remarkably good. On an individual basis the issues themselves were no more than mediocre, but taken as a whole it was a long-form serial that gained energy and momentum from its size and scope. Whatever pathos the characters of Tony Stark and James Rhodes has was teased out over the course of years, not months, the kind of time frame that flatters the limitations of cheap melodrama and allows careful long-term plotting to reveal thematic details that, given the limitations of the serial format, can only with great difficulty be communicated more concisely. How can these charms be communicated onscreen? Quick answer: they can't.

So why do we get excited that Iron Man has been bowdlerized by the movie business? Iron Man! Hardly Fritz the Cat - and yet, there you go, the folks behind Iron Man are afraid to put the Mandarin on film for fear of being criticized for perpetrating a disgusting "yellow peril" caricature. The absence of a real "arch villain" is undoubtedly the most palpable absence in the Iron Man films, and the fact that they can succeed on a raft of B-listers like Whiplash and Justin Hammer is frankly amazing, and a testament to the fact that the moviemakers are adamant about hiring good people to flesh out seriously skeletal concepts. So it's an advertisement for action figures - there is nothing at all novel in that observation - but why do we line up to see the advertisement? It has no impact whatsoever on all the Iron Man comics I loved or loathed growing up. And yet we line up all the same for the cheap thrill of seeing a childhood idol come to life on the silver screen, just as ten-year-olds across the globe thrill to seeing Harry Potter walk and talk in real time.

Are our imaginations so sclerotic that we depend on Hollywood to legitimize our fantasy, or is it that we are simply trained to see a motion picture adaptation of a text - any cultural object, from The Da Vinci Code to the Bible - as the apotheosis of our culture? Because, frankly, all the superhero movies that have ever been made have done nothing more than convince me how good the originals are, even in cases such as Ghost RIder where the originals weren't even that good to begin with.

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