Saturday, August 9, 2014

Down the superhero rabbit hole

You could not make a more obvious comment about the state of movies today than that superheroes rule the roost.

If any more evidence was needed, just look at last weekend's U.S. box office. Even the off-brand superheroes featured in Guardians of the Galaxy rode enough smart advertising and word-of-mouth to $94 million in domestic ticket sales. That is, frankly, ridiculous.

But it's other examples of the dominance of superheroes -- or, more broadly, comic book characters -- that are sometimes more sobering. 

Yes, I say "sobering." Because I'm not entirely sure this decade-long trend is something to be overjoyed about. It's blurring the line between "movie fans" and "fans of comic book movies." Movie discussion groups, which may have once been more balanced between lovers of the form and genre lovers, now tend to be dominated by genre lovers. When you want to have a good talk about movies, which means all movies, it's harder to find that talk without getting sidetracked into the latest thing Marvel Studios is doing. 

Few examples are more sobering than the email I got this week from MovieWeb. Although I don't remember doing so, I must have signed up for their weekly newsletter at some point in the past, and I tend to glance through it whenever I get one.

Let me take you down through the email -- down the rabbit hole, so to speak -- and describe my thought process as we go:

Okay, fine. Nothing unsurprising here. The movie that joins history's two most iconic superheroes has been getting almost as much "first look" coverage as Star Wars Episode VII is sure to be getting soon. 

Speculation on the mashing up of more properties. Just as summer music festivals have replaced giant stadium tours by individual bands, it's seeming more and more like we want to get all the movie characters we like in the same place at the same time. There's something extra ridiculous about this (probably true) rumor, because The Avengers is ALREADY a gathering of characters who were previously separated into different movies. Adding Guardians to the mix just makes the gathering exponential. 

Huh? Isn't Darth Vader already dead? I don't even want to know what this speculation means, because it suggests all kinds of weird things about time travel and alternate timelines that I don't want to consider. Let's just hope that this doesn't mean that Star Wars is considering time travel. At least this story is not about a comic book movie.

Cool. This was not something I knew anything about and I find it genuinely interesting. Also, it's only vaguely fanboyish.

Okay, this is not about superheroes or comic books either, but bear with me, we're getting somewhere.

More Guardians stuff, not much of a surprise. But what I find noteworthy about this -- and it may be more an indication of the age we live in generally, than specifically about comic books -- is that there is essentially no actual news here. It's just the director engaging with his audience, as today's Twitter-loving celebrities are wont to do. I doubt MovieWeb would include a link where Martin Scorsese thanks his audience for going to see The Wolf of Wall Street, to take an example of a different kind of movie popular with this same demographic. Though Scorsese would probably never do that in the first place. 

This is where things start to get a bit more arcane and geeky. Sure, Spider-Man is a popular superhero -- he might be right behind Superman and Batman in terms of his iconic status -- but a spinoff in the Spider-Man universe featuring a female Spider-Man? A Spider-Woman? I'm sure there is a corollary in the comics, and it seems like a reasonably smart move with box offices becoming increasingly female-driven, but we're starting to see how much studios are willing to stretch and expand their superhero products to keep amassing our dollars. This feels like fringe information, but it's intended for a mainstream audience.

Another one that interrupts my flow, so let's just skip ahead. It is interesting to note, however, that this is the second story in this email that has a connection to Tim Burton (after the bit about the Alice in Wonderland sequel, which is not being directed by Burton). 

Okay, here's where we go off the rails into total fringe geekery: the "in what movie will such-and-such character from the comic book finally appear?" story. MovieWeb is here taking for granted that its readership not only cares when this character will appear (allegedly, in a sequel to a movie that has not even been released yet), but actually knows who this "Darkseid" is. I consider myself acquainted enough with comic books to be familiar with many of the names, but this is my first introduction to a name this piece considers an "iconic villain." 

And last but not least ...

More Spider-Man. What I consider strangest about this story is that the previous Spider-Man rumor, about that female spinoff, is also allegedly planned for 2017, though from a different studio. (Which studio owns the rights to which parts of which comics is a discussion for another time, one I would probably never undertake because that would require trying to understand it.) Second strangest: the fact that both studios don't consider the Spider-Man universe dead after the largely disliked Spider-Man reboot and its largely disliked sequel. Yet another indication of how the movie mainstream has been co-opted by the comic book fringe ... or what was once considered the fringe, anyway.

After I got to the end of this email, I felt exhausted and out of touch.

To be clear, I don't mind that there's a strain of popular movie fandom with which I don't feel comfortable aligning myself. I don't particularly want to be part of the movie mainstream. And I'm certainly enough aligned with them, as I have high levels of affection for the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier just this year alone. 

But there is a tendency amongst human beings to have an uneasy relationship with the popular, one paradoxically characterized both by a sense of liberating distance from the popular, as well as a struggle to understand the popular, which often takes the form of mocking and resentment. That's kind of where I find myself now. I feel like I don't fully understand people who can get all their cinematic nourishment from superheroes. In the 1990s people thought that superheroes were just stunted adults running around in tights. Has so much changed since then?

If MovieWeb had existed in the 1980s, would I have expected the stories to be about My Dinner With Andre? No, likely not. It would have still catered to the popular.

So I guess what disturbs me the most is that what's popular at the movies has become kind of homogeneous. In the 1980s and 1990s, weird phenomena were able to jump out and become popular. As just one example, a podcast I listen to was recently discussing how Crocodile Dundee could never become the second-most popular movie in a calendar year these days. Crocodile Dundee would be more likely to become a straight-to-video curiosity than it would be to beat 99% of the other releases that year. 

So as this blur of colorful superhero outfits is starting to blend into something muddled and gray, I'm seeing a world without distinguishing features, fueled only by the desire to fulfill a wish to become superhuman.

And I find that super boring. 

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