"Superheroes suck!" So blares the headline for the excellent film critic Matt Zoller Seitz's provocative Salon.com article on the movie genre that will once again conquer the world this weekend in the form of Iron Man 2. I know, I know, a lot of you are either rolling your eyes or breaking out the torches and pitchforks. But Seitz is a far cry from your usual Ebert-ian dismissal of an entire subgenre on some sort of moral or aesthetic high ground. No, he loves superheroes -- and it's because he thinks so few movies do them justice that he's sick of their cinematic incarnations.
After first citing his lifelong love of superheroes and a trio of memorable images from recent superhero movies -- the Joker sticking his head out the car window in The Dark Knight, Superman hoisting the Daily Planet's globe in Superman Returns, Peter Parker walking down the street to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" in Spider-Man 2 -- Seitz makes his case:
The aforementioned moments are just that: moments. Dazzling fragments of films that tend to be visually adept and dramatically inert or vice versa. Even at the peak of their creative powers, big-budget comic book films are usually more alike than different. And over time, they seem to blur into one endless, roiling mass of cackling villains, stalwart knights, tough/sexy dames, and pyrotechnic showdowns that invariably feature armored vehicles (or armor-encased men) bashing into each other. When such movies accumulate praise, it's encrusted with implied asterisks: "The best superhero film ever made," say, or "The best Batman film since Tim Burton's original." If the Hollywood studio assembly line is high school in a John Hughes movie, superhero films are the jocks -- benighted beneficiaries of grade inflation and reflexive fan boosterism. (Critics who don't like a particular superhero film -- any superhero film -- are apt to be simultaneously blasted in online comments threads as aesthetic turistas ill-equipped to judge the work's true depth and snooty killjoys who expect too much and need to lighten the hell up. Neat trick.)
He then goes on to dismantle the vast majority of superhero movies in methodical fashion. I was particularly impressed by his comparison of the relatively uniform approach of big-budget superhero movies to the much wider variety of tones and takes see in the horror subgenre of zombie movies.
Every superhero fan seems to have a different set of favorites and goats. Personally, I think Tim Burton's 1989 Batman is far and away the best, most interesting, most entertaining, most defiantly weird superhero movie, while the much-lauded Spider-Man 2 leaves me cold -- and that puts me in an opposite camp from Seitz, who reverses that ranking. Like Seitz, I think Ang Lee's Hulk and Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, two genuinely adult takes on the superhero concept, are interesting failures, but the "failure" outweighs the "interesting" for me in both cases. So there's much to disagree with here on the specifics. But in general, Seitz's argument -- that superhero movies as a group are stylistically, visually, and dramatically conservative and rote, even when compared to their comic-book origins -- strikes me as persuasive.
Of course, the above page from Daniel Clowes's brutally black comedy Wilson (via Matthew Perpetua) takes a much harsher approach...
What say you?