Tuesday, February 23, 2016


* originally posted HERE at meh.

Up, up, and... away?

There's no disputing that these Bubba Hero tumblers have super powers when it comes to keeping hot liquids scalding, and cold liquids freezing, and lukewarm liquids supremely indifferent.

But do the powers make the hero? That's what always gets me when people complain about Superman being so powerful that he's "boring." Superman is a hero because he could enslave the planet and he doesn't. He could zap every bad guy on Earth into a smoking pile of ash in a single leisurely afternoon. Superman isn't limited by what he can't do, physically - he's limited by what he won't do, morally. Put him up against some bad guys with no such qualms, and you've found a dilemma that has informed storytelling since the very beginning: the morality of power.

Nowadays, it feels like superhero stories are about... superhero stories. This kind of self-referential, inward-gazing, continuity-fetishizing fan service - with a side order of gratuitous brutality - ruined superhero comics. And it's starting to ruin superhero movies.

What am I talking about? Isn't Deadpool proof that the genre can still take fresh approaches and tell new stories? Am I just making another one of those complaints about how the blockbuster economy, and the pursuit of teenage boys of all ages, has crowded mid-budget pictures for grownups out of Hollywood?

No. That's been covered better by other people, and frankly, I'm only half grownup myself. Assholes can be fun, and so can Deadpool's mockery of itself and the whole genre. But that very self-awareness is what I'm talking about: a superhero movie that assumes you've seen a lot of superhero movies.

See, once upon a time, superhero comics welcomed new audiences. You could pick up any issue ofFantastic Four or Green Lantern and join the fun. The characters had their lore, their backstories - but nothing that couldn't be covered in a blurb right at the top of the first page. The primary concern of each issue was to tell a compelling story in 22 pages, a story that didn't require that you had read the last 75 issues to understand.

Then, in the late '70s, comics started demanding more of their audiences. Epics like "The Kree-Skrull War" inThe Avengers spanned the better part of a year's worth of issues. Chris Claremont's X-Men spun an ever-more tangled skein of alternate universes and divergent futures, with a dark dystopian flavor. It was great, if you went all-in. If not, good luck finding your way in.

As comics moved from candy shops and drugstores to specialty comic stores, and the casual readership drifted away, both DC and Marvel catered more and more to the fanatics. Good storytelling and a sense of wonder weren't what this jaded audience craved. They wanted massive crossover events, more and more blood and grimness, deeper inside jokes, meta-stories about comics lore that only insiders knew or cared about. The god Continuity ruled all. Thousands of issues of comics spanning several decades must be hammered into a coherent whole, no matter how many dull, contrived epics it takes to retcon away minor inconsistencies.

To move the sales needle and get some mainstream media attention, both big publishers resorted to stunt events. Marriages, like Spider-Man's and Superman's (to other people, not each other). Killing off beloved characters, like Jean Grey and Robin and Superman. Killing off entire universes of characters, starting withCrisis on Infinite Earths and continuing in a wearying procession of apocalypses. Superteams would spend years breaking up into factions, fighting each other, reforming, and splitting apart again. "Gritty reboots" dug up charming old characters and turned them into psychopaths. And cynical relaunches were always good for juicing the market: did you miss Batman #1 the first time? Don't miss out on it this time! (Or in four years when we do this again!)

As this audience aged, a certain element felt some residual embarrassment about spending so much time enjoying a "childish" medium. Rather than accept superhero comics for what they are, they insisted on "realism", meaning a relentless grimness smeared all over characters and stories that were more superficial and one-dimensional than ever. If there's one thing you can be sure of about a superhero comic marked FOR MATURE AUDIENCES, it's that the content will be immature.

OK, so... why, as superhero comics readership collapsed, did superhero movies take off? Because X-Men (2000) showed how to make a superhero movie that appealed to the hardcore (the black leather, the scowling, the nods at comics history) while also welcoming new audiences.

It's weird to think about now, when dozens of superhero movies are meticulously planned for the next decade, but nobody was really sure if X-Menwould do well enough to warrant a sequel. So director Bryan Singer and screenwriter David Hayter couldn't play cute with the storytelling, partially revealing characters and storylines, saving some juicy bits for future movies. They had to make a self-contained blockbuster, something that pretty much doesn't exist anymore.

It worked. New Spider-Man and Batman movies followed the same formula, with even more success. They all generated lucrative sequels. Finally, Marvel did what fans had been craving for years: created a multi-film, multi-character universe akin to their comics universe.

Now, look, it's a blast seeing all of the Avengers assembled on one screen. I'll be seeing Batman vs. Superman the first week, if not opening night. I've really enjoyed superhero movies as diverse as X-Men: First Class, Ant-Man, and The Dark Knight. I'm both anxious and excited about the upcoming Justice League franchise.

Problem is... it's all starting to feel awfully familiar. The emphasis on continuity and inside jokes, on Easter eggs and smirking, winking references to comics minutiae. The grimacing and darkness and gore. The "mature content" squarely aimed at 14-year-old boys. It's giving me the same numb feeling as standing in a comic store in 1995. So much muscle, so little heart.

Maybe this sounds ridiculous to you. Maybe you see the cinematic superhero universe as a healthy, diverse ecosystem with something for everyone. Maybe I'm wrong to wish that the people who told me Guardians of the Galaxy was a fun romp for the whole family had warned me about that beheading in the first ten minutes. And certainly, the ever-climbing box-office numbers for big superhero hits seem healthy enough. It wouldn't be the first time I've been wrong.

But everything works until it doesn't. These movies are hits because they attract people who've never been inside a comic store in their lives. As the movies demand more attention and previous knowledge from their audiences, as they pile on the dick jokes and gore, this particular brand of heroic fantasy might be approaching the point of diminishing returns.

Shitty movies are one thing. Shitty movies that make no sense unless you've seen fifteen other shitty movies are something else. A few overhyped clunkers in a row might be all it takes to bring the whole thing crashing down.

And whew, man, speaking of crashing... I really gotta lay off the 20-ounce cups of coffee.

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