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Superhero Cinema

by on September 29, 2010
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Sam: In honor of this week’s DVD release of “Iron Man 2,” I will be discussing the recent trends of comic book films, specifically those in the Marvel Studios canon. Joining me is Ball State junior, Evan Dossey, who participated as a panelist in this year’s Comic Con, speaking with other students about attributes of fan culture.

Comic book films, particularly 1978’s “Superman,” initially focused on the fantastic and embraced escapism. Audiences were lured by the promise of seeing a man fly. “The Dark Knight” created a new appeal — the promise of seeing a superhero story grounded in harsh reality. It is constructed not as an escapist comic book film, but a gritty, credible crime drama in the vein of Michael Mann’s “Heat” and David Fincher’s “Seven.” The character portrayals are still accurate to the comic books yet their quirkiness does not interrupt the film’s verisimilitude. The film still shows that violence is real, evil is real, and the world is not a pretty picture.

The Marvel films, on the other hand, dabble in a little bit of everything. The first two “Spider-Man” films offer a relatable, down-to-earth hero faced with fantastical elements in a realistic setting. “Iron Man” provides the same exhilarating escapism and sense of fun as the original “Superman.” Ang Lee’s “Hulk” blends playful action with intimate, psychological character study. Like producer Gale Anne Hurd said, it is “an epic spectacle with an indie sensibility.” Given their variety, what do you think is the overriding glue that holds these films together?

Evan: When comparing DC to Marvel, it’s worth noting that the core properties owned by each company have seen a vastly different path to cinema. DC is owned by Warner Bros, its films primarily produced and distributed by the company. Marvel’s properties, on the other hand, are widely strewn across the studio landscape. “Daredevil,” “Ghost Rider,” and “Spider-Man” are owned by Sony, whereas the “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” characters are owned by Fox.

Marvel had much of an opportunity, then, to experiment in new directions with sheer volume, unfettered by continuity. It wasn’t until the post-Raimi “Spider-Man” era that “Iron Man” was produced and the “Marvel Movie Universe” launched. Yet I feel that, on a whole they haven’t experimented. Like most of our major blockbusters (i.e. “Avatar”), we see repackaged archetypes and properties inhabiting the same shelf space as similar films in the past. What we see in the case of Marvel is the best answer to your question.

I’m at risk of sounding cynical, but don’t meant to rag on the universal practice of re-appropriating core thematic conflicts. The central glue that holds the best of these films together are enigmatic, distinct heroes with uncanny abilities navigating relatable difficulties. Love interests, hyper-choreographed punch outs, drama on the level of good vs. evil. As much as you laud “The Dark Knight” as comparable to crime drama, I suppose the real question is, what makes “Heat” not a superhero film?

Back to Marvel, “Iron Man 2” has the important role as First Sequel of this grant “Marvel Cinematic Universe” the company is currently constructing, which is very much the genre’s pillar. You’re more on the cinema-side of analysis than I am, having seen more movies than I’ve ever thought about. What is your opinion on a company’s decision to craft a half-dozen interlocking films, and what do you think the affect will be on the films themselves?

Sam: You’re right about the formula of these films being repeated, but I think recent Marvel films have used that formula more successfully than previous entries in the genre. They have a universal quality that transcends the comic book genre. They reach wider audiences by focusing on the men behind the masks. In DC films (“Superman,” “Batman”), the mild-mannered alter egos (Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne) are the masks. Therefore, the Marvel films, particularly “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man,” have a more human appeal. That’s not to say they are better, just seemingly more accessible to non-comic book fans.

Now, as you noted, the success of the Marvel films has spawned a new project that involves all of the superheroes of the Marvel canon.

In order to set up “The Avengers” film, new superhero films seem to be getting short shrift. By that, I mean they are losing their individuality. For example, about 90 percent of the “Thor” trailer is devoted to the SHIELD subplot, which involves the teaming of the superheroes which will become The Avengers. The notion of seeing a bunch of distinctly different comic book characters interact is difficult for me to consider with a straight face. I don’t think these characters’ mythologies will mesh well together. Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, etc combining forces? It seems like an attempt to merely reach every demographic — a project based more on capitalism than creativity. I think the hype surrounding this Avengers film may lessen the impact of the individual superhero films that precede it. Personally, it left a bad taste in my mouth during “The Incredible Hulk” and “Iron Man 2,” the taste of Hollywood greed and hubris.

Evan: Honestly, I’ve felt the long-standing myth that Marvel properties are somehow better translatable due to their soap-opera skew has been due for a kneecapping, and nothing served as a better bullet than the box office receipts for “The Dark Knight.” Superman and Batman in particular serve different narrative and thematic roles than Spider-Man or X-Men, but are just as accessible. It boils down to, as I said before, the addition of an incongruous element into a standard idea (High Concept). Each has a unique High Concept, but they are in essence equal to the wider population.

That aside, the topic at hand!

“Capitalism vs. Creativity” — a common dichotomy, not so clear cut. Nor an entirely appropriate debate for a column about the impending release of “Iron Man 2.” I cannot, however, resist a little pot-shot at the subject. We’re dealing with properties of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Properties that engage a wide demographic in an effective way. A marketable way. We’re never going to see pure “creativity” in the genre of adapted comic-originated Super Hero properties because that simply is not the nature of the beast.

To play devil’s advocate to my own materialism-tinted vantage point , however, isn’t the combination of multiple tent pole properties this recognizable and popular a hitherto unseen cinematic experiment? Is this not the basis of creativity?

I felt “Iron Man 2” suffered structurally due to its role as “Prelude to ‘The Avengers’.” You obviously have some trepidation on Marvel’s strategy. I’m curious…if the company’s upcoming film slate succeeds in producing decent films and “The Avengers” proves successful, how will it affect your opinion of “Iron Man 2?”

Sam: My inner film snob came out with that last response. Believe me, it is never my wish for a film to fail. If “The Avengers” is good, I’ll be the first to admit it. However, my hesitance lies in the response to Marvel experiments, most notably the response to 2003’s “Hulk.” Ang Lee’s “Hulk” is an ambitious film for the genre, one that emphasizes character study over spectacle. Plus, it blends quirky action scenes (Hulk biting off the end of a missile and spitting it at a helicopter) with heavy drama. Audiences found that combination too jarring. So, “The Incredible Hulk” reversed that structure, embracing popcorn action over character. Producers even admitted their intentions to go in a more mainstream direction. This is why I worry about “The Avengers,” it might play by the rules too much, which is not always fun to watch.

If “The Avengers” is successful, it will add depth to “Iron Man 2.” However, like I said before, I wish the characters in these films were allowed to be individuals instead of having to constantly adhere to the Avengers subplot. It doesn’t seem fair that the “Spider-Man” films can stand on their own while “Iron Man,” “Thor,” “Captain America,” etc. have to fit into this Avengers niche.

Evan: Your thoughts on “Hulk” lend it a bit too much worth. Although I vastly prefer it to the 2008 film for the same reasons as you, “Hulk” falls apart in the third act, providing the requisite battle sequence against an ultimate enemy. Something I thought was also a weakness of “Iron Man.”

I understand what your fear is, however, in continuity dragging down the individual identities of each character. This has been a central debate among fans of the “big two” comic characters for decades. Think of it this way: the character we’re seeing constantly developed is the entire pantheon of colorful heroes, the world they live and fight and die in.

Though I felt “Iron Man 2”’s problems are too grievous for me to ever say “The Avengers” could warrant a re-watch, there’s a lesson we can learn from the monthly source material. At their best, we see films utilizing high concept characters to impart fantasies with relevancy and depth. At worst, we pay $10 to witness award-winning actors beating each other up in metal suits we fondly recognize. Either way, Marvel is providing moviegoers with an entire alternate universe to spend time in.

To paraphrase Jerry Bruckheimer in an old pre-“Pirates of the Caribbean 2” interview: “You’re coming to see characters you know and love, in new situations meeting new characters…” He sounded so damn sleazy when I first heard it, like a salesman conning his mark into complacency. In the years since, I’ve come to understand, it is what people want. Drawing from my experiences at Comic Con (at last, my credentials!), it’s apparent that the ongoing relationship between the silver screen and the four-colored page isn’t going away, only evolving into a more prominent position in popular culture. Will it eventually die off? Sure. But the roles these characters fulfill will always be filled in some form or another.