A Quick Braindump on the State of Superhero Movies

I remember sitting on the steps outside the Capri movie theater in Barranquilla Colombia at the age of five, bawling my eyes out because the screening of Batman Returns that I was so excited for had completely sold out. My Grandpa sat along with me. When most adults would’ve tried to talk me out of my despondency, growing increasingly exasperated as they explained how it was silly to cry because there was going to be a screening just a few minutes later, my Grandpa understood the extent of the heartbreak. He knew what it meant, and that it was important for me to feel it at that moment. When we finally made it into the theater (thanks to a friendly theater manager who witnessed the sad scene), the feeling was rapturous. The movie itself was almost secondary to the sheer act of being there, of bearing witness to this superhero with whom I felt a profound personal connection. In my five-year-old mind, it was a bit like going to church.

This marked the start of an intersection of interests that would remain with me throughout the rest of my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. My interest in Batman bloomed into a full-blown fascination for everything related to comic books, and my interest in superhero movies became a lifelong devotion to the art of film. Even all these years after I stopped reading comic books, comic book movies have thus become an integral part of my movie fandom, taking up about as much of my attention as Award-season prestige juggernauts and brainy arthouse festival fare. It feels weird to compare those categories, but I’ve gotten good at meeting movies on their own terms, and recognizing that I don’t seek the same things from each film genre, same as how I don’t seek the same thing from different music genres; they each a different each, although ultimately I seek an emotional response from anything I watch.

I realized that I don’t really write about this aspect of my movie fandom very often. Mostly that’s because I feel like I have very little to say about the topic that hasn’t been covered to death on all manner of Internet “geek” blogs. But I have had a lot of folks ask me about where I stand on the Marvel vs. DC thing, so I’m going to try to lay it all out as plainly as possible.

Through the years I’ve seen various iterations of the comic book movie; from soulless pablum designed solely for cross-marketing opportunities to genuinely affecting stories featuring characters who happen to be wearing tights. With over a dozen movies in its roster since 2008, and having established by far the most successful cinematic “shared universe” since John Hughes, Marvel Studios is the current reigning champ of the comic book movie. And what they do, they do well; they know the characters inside and out, they know what their audience wants, and they know how to meet the nerds halfway in terms of creative concessions and not surrendering completely to comic-book silliness. The serialized shared-universe approach can come in detriment to an overall sense of catharsis and thematic exploration, but Marvel doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in those things; it wants to replicate the feel of a comic book — which are serialized and steeped in continuity by definition — on the big screen. It can be messy, and it can make the whole endeavor feel ultimately senseless (especially when each movie seems so goddamn concerned with setting up the next one– I see you, Age of Ultron), but it seems to be completely in line with their stated goal and the template they are working with. It may not be to everyone’s liking, and some cinema purists may scoff at what they’re attempting to do. These movies do lack depth, they are often very messy structure-wise, and they do often devolve into iconography porn. But what they do, they do well.

My main source of frustration with Marvel movies has to do with the uniformly boring aesthetic choices in their films. Through bad color grading and prosaic cinematography choices, most of everything looks TV-flat, boxy and dull. The fact that they hire so many TV directors has a lot to do with this, as they direct in service of the writing; it’s a “cinematic universe” that’s sorely lacking in any sort of truly cinematic visual. And this works directly against their attempt to create big-screen versions of comic books; comics are a visual medium, often an incredibly exciting and creative visual medium, and shooting these stories with all the panache and visual excitement of a Party of Five dinner scene feels like an enormous missed opportunity.

On the other hand, there’s DC, everybody’s favorite punching bag. I was always much more of a DC fan than a Marvel fan when I was an avid comic book reader. My early connection to Batman led to Superman which led to other members of the Justice League. I even got way hooked on VHS copies of that Flash TV show from the 90s.

Look how fast I’m going.

For many years, they completely dominated the comic-book movie genre. Nolan’s Batman series, for all its unevenness, set the benchmark for what a comic book movie could be– visceral, thrilling and “smart”. But their latest forays haven’t exactly endeared them to the public. And I must admit that they are a punching bag for good reason: they have made some truly horrendous choices in their movies so far. I think DC’s main fault has been their inconsistency and general flakiness in sticking to their convictions; the universe, as initially announced, was to be the flipside to Marvel’s genericness. Auteur films made by visionary filmmakers who would apply their own ideas to the franchises they were to helm. And, love him or hate him, Zack Snyder’s two DC entries were exactly that: 100% his vision. And what a vision it is! Contrasted with Marvel’s aversion to any kind of directorial flair, Snyder’s DC entries are an embarrassment of riches from a filmmaking standpoint. His painterly style really captured the highly operatic, gods-and-legends feel of the characters on the screen. Batman V Superman, in particular, is an absolutely gorgeous movie to look at, with a huge amount of powerful moments that resonate on a visual level. But it is also an impenetrable mess; it features unclear character motivations, a wonky dramatic structure that feels haphazardly slapped together, and some truly baffling writing. More than anything else in the “comic book movie” genre, it feels like an enormous missed opportunity. This film could’ve been great.

As everybody knows by now, audience and critical reactions were not kind; most alarmingly, the film fell short of financial expectations, causing DC/Warners to radically re-think their approach. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was botched in a big bad way during post-production, by hastily scrambling together some re-shoots that amped up the quips and “fun” tone of the film. Most catastrophically, WB hired a trailer house to help edit the final film– again, an agency that makes movie trailers— resulting in one of the most comically unwatchable films in modern memory. I get the feeling that if Warners would’ve given Ayer enough time to flesh out the story and write a better script, and actually stuck to their guns with the tone and ideas they were going for before the tepid reaction to Batman V Superman soured things, this could’ve been a good movie. It could’ve been so good.

And yet. The worst thing about these movies– both Marvel and DC– isn’t subpar visuals or story problems. The worst thing about these movies is that they barely register on an emotional level. None of these movies feel like the gut-punch I want to feel when I see a great film. Some of the shots in Batman V Superman come close to true cinematic beauty, but they ultimately ring hollow. Meanwhile, Fox’s underdog Logan– a movie I had absolutely no interest in watching, about a character I never really cared about, by a studio whose comic book offerings oscillate between complete garbage and sheer mediocrity– is one of the most profoundly affecting pieces of cinema I’ve seen all year. It eschews the “superhero movie” tropes to instead tell a small story about refugees, legacy, and the indignities of old age. It’s not without its problems (again, there’s a serious lack of visual panache) but it is a gorgeous story that resonates profoundly. Particularly near the end. It was the first superhero film in a long, long time that reminded me of the profound power of the medium.

Can DC or Marvel come close to that? I don’t know. I doubt very much that Marvel wants to change anything, considering how wildly successful their formula has proven to be. Snyder’s Justice League might be what breaks their losing streak– the film is already looking like it’ll surpass its predecessor financially, at least– but will a filmmaker like Snyder be able to find a compromise between operatic visuals and effective, engaging storytelling? This has been a constant problem with him. The rest of the DC slate is starting to feel very Marvel-y; the reshuffling of their slate has resulted in the hiring of Matt Reeves– the most boring blockbuster director working today– for the solo Batman movie, and Joss Whedon for a Batgirl film. But this is all starting to feel a bit stale. A bit formulaic. A bit like a weightless nothing. Empty calories.

I love these characters. I want these films to be good. I want the filmmakers to care about making good movies. And I want them to show me something real. Admist the talking raccoons and flying Gods and superpowered aliens, I want to find a little nugget of beauty that reminds me that our own nonsense, fragile, non-superpowered existence means something. I want to feel like that little kid felt when he was finally let into the movie theater after crying outside with his grandpa.  Is that too much to ask of a superhero movie? I don’t think it’s too much to ask of a piece of art to move me, to show me something real, regardless of the very obvious artifice it operates with. I think it says something about the kind of mediocrity we’ve been acclimatized to that this is some kind of controversial stance. Logan, in its own imperfect way, is a reminder that it can be done. I hope the right people learn the right lessons from it.

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