Last night I went to a multiplex cinema and watched “Thor,” directed by everyone’s favourite Olivier knock-off luvvie Kenneth Branagh. I didn’t see it in 3D, as that would in my mind constitute contributing to the downfall of western civilization. It’s the same reason I don’t eat any food which is preceded by “Mc.” However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. Sometimes you have to slum it. Sometimes you have to eat a greasy hot dog to enjoy the taste of chateau-briand all the more.
That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have its merits. It was certainly visually impressive in its own way, but this impact is always tempered when you can tell for a fact just by looking at a cinematic image that it’s all been done inside a computer. Nevertheless, it looked like a cross-over between “Flash Gordon” and “Power Rangers,” and as such was never less than fun. Indeed, the entire film was camper than a row of pink tents owned by Graham Norton, with the script and the actors deliberately sending up pretty much the entire superhero genre whilst gleefully creating an entertaining and stirring adventure film in its own right. Sir Anthony Hopkins in particular appears to be under the impression that he’s in a pantomime, and this stands in hilarious contrast to how seriously people normally play these things: it’s kind of like “Mamma Mia,” in which Meryl Streep attacks a painful rendition of “SOS” with Pierce “I was once James Bond but now I can’t even hit a middle C” Brosnan with the kind of gusto and emotional truth you’d normally expect from her if she was playing Hedda Gabler. All in all, I liked it: which is more that can be said for the bloated, boring, over-sexed, tedious, tiresome, derivative, crass, ploddingly obvious, shame-facedly greedy, exorbitant, odious and completely uninspired and underwhelming crop of comic book super hero movies that swamp irreversibly into cinemas every predictably naff summer blockbuster season.
Seriously, just because a couple of films based on majorly famous and influential pop culture superheroes were big successes, does that really give studios the right to pump film after rubbish film based on every comic book character past, present and future in all charted and uncharted dimensions into cinemas on an almost rotational basis? It’s been just about a solid decade now, and it shows no signs of stopping. Not only does it seem that every film of this type that at least breaks even thereby earns the right to spawn a franchise of even more inferior sequels and spin-offs, but we’re now at the stage where studios want to throw as many of these characters as possible in what will almost certainly be an over-the-top, out of control and complete mess of a film in the shape of Marvel’s “The Avengers.” And the DC comic book heroes are looking set for the same thing, despite the fact that Christopher Nolan’s incarnation of Batman is in no way suited to this. The answer: reboot the hero and make him more suitable. What? Nolan’s trilogy isn’t even finished yet, and people are already talking about re-doing the whole thing. This is absolute madness, and although I found Thor quite refreshingly tongue in cheek and funny, I still feel bad for having gone and seen it: it’s all money that keeps this seemingly un-killable machine churning out the bad stuff. It’s as if me paying for that cinema ticket has helped keep The Terminator in spare parts for a year.
Is there more to this superhero craze than studios merely answering to what seems to be popular taste, assuming that mainstream audiences genuinely like this as opposed to being content to put up with this drivel for lack of an alternative? Is it possible that the popularity of superheroes is a reaction against the confusion of the twentieth century? When our world is full of uncertainty, with religious fundamentalist factions apparently hopelessly locked in ideological conflict, politicians vying for a vague middle ground to appease an increasingly disillusioned population of voters, and with global economic turmoil threatening our future prosperity, is it not in a sense comforting and cathartic to escape to a world where the divide between good and evil is much more clearly defined?
Before the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, there wasn’t much cinematic attention afforded to comic book heroes, and this wasn’t because special effects weren’t capable of adequately presenting the worlds of these heroes and villains on screen. It was more that this kind of good versus evil continuum was a bit too simplistic to satisfy audience tastes, and this wasn’t helped by the perception that a comic book costumed hero is essentially a camp and laughable creation. The television series’ of “Batman” and “The Incredible Hulk” are certainly fun, especially the utter brilliance of the former, but you’d hardly look at those presentations of superheroes and think it were conducive to hugely popular mainstream cinema, on the cutting edge of the medium’s technological innovations.
What films were made tended ultimately to surrender to this tendency towards camp, no matter how honourable and serious their intentions originally were. The original, and yet to be bettered, “Superman” series starring Christopher Reeve was little more than a post “Star Wars” attempt to produce a piece of populist cinema that tapped into the trend for fantasy adventure and heroes of heightened strength and integrity. They were never meant to be taken seriously, as is evidence by Gene Hackman’s overacting and Marlon Brando’s overweightness. Although the first two films in the series were very entertaining and quite well-constructed as pieces of entertainment, by the time Superman started battling against Richard Pryor and rounding up all the world’s nuclear weapons the lack of seriousness which was always present became particularly pronounced. The original “Batman” film cycle was similarly never a genuine attempt to put Bob Kane’s dark and conflicted hero on-screen: it was more a vehicle for Tim Burton to create some of his most stylish and distinctive work, as gothic and visually twisted as it was celebratory of the eccentric loner. But then Burton left the series, and this ultimately led to “Batman and Robin.” If you though Adam West looked a bit silly in the batsuit, wait until you see George Clooney in a nipple-sporting leather-fetish monstrosity. And the Governator in a costume made entirely out of girders.
The current trend got started in earnest with two trilogies which surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, weren’t particularly amazing. Sam Raimi’s “Spiderman” films were rather plodding and pointless affairs which showed a man made in a computer fly around a city at a speed so fast that you can’t actually take anything in or be remotely impressed by what’s happening. The characters were deeply irritating, the plots were non-existent, and as has been commented on ad nauseum the trilogy follows precisely the same progression as the aforementioned “Superman” series. In the first films we get the origin story, developing interpersonal and romantic relationships and rise to prominence of the hero; in the second episodes they surrender their powers to be with who they love, only to be forced back into action against a powerful nemesis; and in the third instalments our heroes battle an evil version of themselves. Been there, done that. The “X Men” films, the original trilogy before it was decided that every conceivable spin off should be whole-heartedly pursued, was a similarly underwhelming affair. These films were actually graced with very good casts and, in the case of the first two, a more than competent director. They also, in keeping with the comic as I understand it, touched on some interesting allegorical ideas involving the heroes and villains as the respectively pacifist and militant manifestations of a civil rights movement, but ironically this wasn’t consumed in a blaze of over-done action sequences until the final film. What sinks the first two films is strangely an over-emphasis on the characters: it was almost as though the filmmakers were determined to fully develop everyone who appears on screen, which isn’t possible when you have about ten major characters. Any more information about Wolverine’s mysterious past in the trilogy itself would’ve been grossly indulgent, never mind an entire new spin-off film which also has a sequel in the pipeline.
I’d like to think that the subsequent explosion of films within this genre, coming from these sources, really do represent the reaction to the modern world I illustrated above, but in truth only Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films do this. It would be impossible to say everything there is to be said about the way the first two films were not just superlative action adventures, boasting filmmaking which is exceptional on every level in both conception and execution, but also posed serious questions into superhero psychology and the fine line between justice and vigilantism, and about contemporary terrorism as anarchy attempting to overthrow the deeply flawed established order of things, and hence subvert integrity to despair. In short, these films display a quality and intelligence no other film of this type has come even close to replicating, and it is to be mourned that the phenomenal achievement of these films has only spurred more comic book adaptations, as opposed to killing the craze stone dead by producing a standard which is impossible to live up to. When the adaptation of the uber-acclaimed graphic novel “Watchmen” fell flat on its arse, surely we got the incontrovertible proof we needed that Nolan’s work is without peer, since no remaining material has the inherent potential to match it.
I await next year’s “The Dark Knight Rises” with great anticipation, because it will be a thrilling film which uses the metaphorical element inherent in comic book literature to communicate something very intelligent about the world of reality through fantasy and escapism. But I won’t watch anything else based on a comic book. I’m fed up with the consistent lack of quality control. And if we all vow not to see them, they’ll have no choice: they’ll have to stop making them, and then we really will have a reason to celebrate.
This column may be absent for up to a fortnight after this, but like James Bond I will return…