Success means blandness for superhero movies

    I refuse to watch Amazing Spider-Man 2. My unfortunate roommate had to go see it alone the other night, not because I'm stuck on a midterm-filled #Nerdwestern struggle bus, but because I think this film represents the death of something I loved and I refuse to indulge it.

    Oh boy, another comic nerd on a rant. I've recently been rereading Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 1985 graphic novel of superheroes and nuclear paranoia. One line in particular has really been bouncing around my head: "all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'Save us!' ... and I'll look down, and whisper 'No.'" The line is uttered by Rorschach, a gritty vigilante who became Watchmen's breakout character even though Moore and Gibbons undoubtedly intended him as a deconstruction of the fantasy antihero. Like everything Rorschach says, your reaction to this line should be somewhere between a cringe and an eyeroll. Instead, comic fans - many of whom are just as hyper-reactionary to trivialities as Rorschach - fell head over heels for him.  As I stand here passionately arguing a topic most people feel entirely ambivalent about, just know that I recognize the Rorschach-ness of my doing so. But Rorschach wasn't always wrong; in the end, he saved the world.

    Watchmen is widely acclaimed as the best graphic novel of all time, and rightly so. Its precise layout and panel transitions add multiple levels of metafictive meanings to seemingly innocuous scenes in a way only possible in the comic book medium (despite the fact that it has rarely been attempted before or since). Grant Morrison described it in his book Supergods as "a Pop Art extinction-level event...delivered directly to the heart of DC Comics itself and allowed to detonate there in the heart of the Man." Moore, thunderous and pretentious, certainly intended it to end superhero comics for good with all the finality of a nuclear strike.

    They survived, obviously, and they did so by copying Watchmen. But they didn't copy the societal commentary or the formal structure or the literary references. No, they copied the most superficial aspects: the violence, the rape, the grim tone. The result was an entire decade (that would be the '90s, not nearly as rosy as BuzzFeed listicles would have you believe) of superhero comics filled with super-violent antiheroes who had no moral qualms about killing. These comics were wildly successful; their most famous artists actually accrued enough success and fame that they were able to break away from Marvel and DC to form their own company, Image Comics. Unfortunately, these comics' success didn't mitigate the fact that they were shallow. The reason I refuse to see Amazing Spider-Man 2 is because I see it as a sign that we have reached this same point with superhero movies. Marvel has said that they are in "Phase Two" of their multi-year plan for movie adaptations. I think a better designation for this era of superhero movies would be the "Image Comics" phase.  

    After a long and tortured history of embarrassing financial failure, superhero movie adaptations are finally ascendant. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has made approximately 10 gajillion dollars, and Amazing Spider-Man 2 laughed away my opposition to the tune of a $92 million opening weekend. The most successful and acclaimed of these movies have been Marvel Studios' multi-film Avengers franchise, and Amazing Spider-Man 2 is clearly Sony's attempt to replicate their success through mimickry. But instead of copying the things that truly made those films good (Robert Downey Jr's snarky acting in the Iron Man movies, say, or the Obama-era political commentary of Winter Soldier) they're copying the silly things, the multi-year plan (Sinister Six and Venom spinoffs are already announced) and the over-emphasis on action. They're not the only ones doing so: DC recently announced that they're trying to turn Zack Snyder's Man of Steel (which itself thoughtlessly copied the dark tone of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies without ever realizing that tone had absolutely nothing to do with Superman) into a multi-film Justice League franchise

    I've been a comic book fan for a long time. For most of that time, I've enjoyed comic book movies; The Dark Knight is one of my favorite movies ever and I've lost count of how many times I've casually rewatched The Avengers. But I just can't help but note, though it makes me a hipster Rorschach, that this era of fun, smart superhero movies is all but over. Forget you, Andrew Garfield, and the cheap reboot you rode in on.



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