Robot 6

Critic (and superhero fan) to superhero movies: DROP DEAD

from Wilson by Daniel Clowes

from Wilson by Daniel Clowes

“Superheroes suck!” So blares the headline for the excellent film critic Matt Zoller Seitz’s provocative Salon.com article on the movie genre that will once again conquer the world this weekend in the form of Iron Man 2. I know, I know, a lot of you are either rolling your eyes or breaking out the torches and pitchforks. But Seitz is a far cry from your usual Ebert-ian dismissal of an entire subgenre on some sort of moral or aesthetic high ground. No, he loves superheroes — and it’s because he thinks so few movies do them justice that he’s sick of their cinematic incarnations.

After first citing his lifelong love of superheroes and a trio of memorable images from recent superhero movies — the Joker sticking his head out the car window in The Dark Knight, Superman hoisting the Daily Planet’s globe in Superman Returns, Peter Parker walking down the street to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” in Spider-Man 2 — Seitz makes his case:

The aforementioned moments are just that: moments. Dazzling fragments of films that tend to be visually adept and dramatically inert or vice versa. Even at the peak of their creative powers, big-budget comic book films are usually more alike than different. And over time, they seem to blur into one endless, roiling mass of cackling villains, stalwart knights, tough/sexy dames, and pyrotechnic showdowns that invariably feature armored vehicles (or armor-encased men) bashing into each other. When such movies accumulate praise, it’s encrusted with implied asterisks: “The best superhero film ever made,” say, or “The best Batman film since Tim Burton’s original.” If the Hollywood studio assembly line is high school in a John Hughes movie, superhero films are the jocks — benighted beneficiaries of grade inflation and reflexive fan boosterism. (Critics who don’t like a particular superhero film — any superhero film — are apt to be simultaneously blasted in online comments threads as aesthetic turistas ill-equipped to judge the work’s true depth and snooty killjoys who expect too much and need to lighten the hell up. Neat trick.)

He then goes on to dismantle the vast majority of superhero movies in methodical fashion. I was particularly impressed by his comparison of the relatively uniform approach of big-budget superhero movies to the much wider variety of tones and takes see in the horror subgenre of zombie movies.

Every superhero fan seems to have a different set of favorites and goats. Personally, I think Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman is far and away the best, most interesting, most entertaining, most defiantly weird superhero movie, while the much-lauded Spider-Man 2 leaves me cold — and that puts me in an opposite camp from Seitz, who reverses that ranking. Like Seitz, I think Ang Lee’s Hulk and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, two genuinely adult takes on the superhero concept, are interesting failures, but the “failure” outweighs the “interesting” for me in both cases. So there’s much to disagree with here on the specifics. But in general, Seitz’s argument — that superhero movies as a group are stylistically, visually, and dramatically conservative and rote, even when compared to their comic-book origins — strikes me as persuasive.

Of course, the above page from Daniel Clowes’s brutally black comedy Wilson (via Matthew Perpetua) takes a much harsher approach…

What say you?

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20 Comments

The problem is that he starts from a false premise: He equates “comic book movies” with superheroes, and thus goes off the rails from the start. He is so narrow-focused, so utterly myopic, that as far as he’s concerned, comic books are the exclusive province of the superhero, and that’s the end of it.

Except he’s dead wrong. Superheroes are not the be-all, end-all of “comic book movies.” What about “Road to Perdition?” What about “A History of Violence?” What about “Ghost World?” “American Splendor” is a comic book movie. So is “From Hell.” So is “Stardust.” Something more superheroish but still comic book? “Men in Black.” How about “From Hell” or “V for Vendetta”–both of which had a lot wrong with them but also a lot right. He seems to adore spectacular failures: How about “Modesty Blaise,” or the slightly more tolerable “My Name is Modesty.” An adventurous goofball comic book film with minimal CGI? How about “The Phantom,” which I know a lot of people hated, but I thought was charming.

By cherry picking only the most excessive, over-the-top, occasionally overwritten big studio films, he narrowcasts his field to such a degree that it’s meaningless. What he’s REALLY saying is that he doesn’t like most of the films based on top-level Marvel and DC characters. But that’s barely scratching the surface of what “comic book movies” have to offer and he’s doing a disservice to the staggering variety of films that the medium presents.

I think superhero movies like comics themselves are created to entertain, if it entertains you then who cares what some critic or anyone else says. Anything can be made to look bad if you over analyze it.

Don’t like the ‘Wison’ strip. It just seems mean-spirited instead of critical, basically saying “Anyone that like superheroes, religion, or is patriotic are all dumb and ugly and poor.” Good job being such a dick.
I’ve only read halfway through Seitz’s piece and so far, it’s hard to argue against.

“Don’t like the ‘Wison’ strip. It just seems mean-spirited instead of critical, basically saying “Anyone that like superheroes, religion, or is patriotic are all dumb and ugly and poor.” Good job being such a dick.”

Uh, the character Wilson is saying that, and apparently Wilson is portrayed, through pretty much the whole book, as a mean-spirited cynical man.

So apparently Clowes is criticizing that attitude.

So what Wilson says is not what Clowes thinks. Wilson is not Clowes’ mouthpiece.

@Peter David:

“The problem is that he starts from a false premise: He equates “comic book movies” with superheroes, and thus goes off the rails from the start. He is so narrow-focused, so utterly myopic, that as far as he’s concerned, comic books are the exclusive province of the superhero, and that’s the end of it.”

He might have at some point have used the semantically incorrect term “comic book movie”, but to me it’s clear that his critique is specifically directed towards superhero movies, not comic book adaptations in general. From that standpoint, i’d say that most of his points are accurate. He’s not even dismissing the superhero genre, he’s only calling for more daring and original superhero movies (which, granted, is unlikely to happen anytime soon)

Sean T. Collins

May 6, 2010 at 4:06 pm

PAD: I assure you, Seitz is not a person who equates comic books, or comic book movies, with superheroes. As Guido points out, this is an article about superheroes, hence the focus. I thought that was pretty clear.

Joe: As Dr. Fleming says, Wilson’s a dick; that’s his thing. Hence his critique of patriotism, religion, and superheroes, however valid or bogus his underlying sentiment, is presented in the most obnoxious possible way.

Although he ignores what I consider to be some of the best superhero movies: The Incredibles and Unbreakable for two.

Sean T. Collins

May 6, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Matthew: Yeah, I noticed that too! I’ve been reading Seitz for years but can’t remember if he’s talked about those movies one way or the other. (My two cents: Unbreakable is great, Incredibles wildly overrated.)

Cole Schenley

May 6, 2010 at 6:13 pm

He talks about both the Incredibles and Unbreakable in the comments section for the article. I recommend checking them out because he goes into further detail about the article while defending himself from trolls, haha.

One: name five good comic book movies that are also great films. Akira? Maybe? It doesn’t age exceptionally well though.

Two: The inherent ridiculousness of superheroes are what makes them near impossible to translate seriously to a film. There is a reason that superheroes dominate comics. Outside of animation, they are the best medium for the genre of the modern superhero.

Three: Wilson is totally dead right about religion.

As much as I appreciate your assurance, Sean, of what he meant, I’m more interested in what he actually said. In his first graf:

“Whiplash is surrounded by technology, by money, by the most spectacular comic book vistas that Hollywood can buy, and he can barely muster the energy to sneer.”

And in the next graf says:

“The comic book film has become a gravy train to nowhere.”

He then goes on to focus on superhero films. Fine. But superhero films are not the sum and substance of films with comic book origins.

PAD

Three: Wilson is totally dead right about religion.

Totally, especially atheism, the most dim-witted and self-important religion of them all.

What, is Clowes doing Pussey! again?

It looks like the cynics and haters now have a new touchstone, or at least stand-in, to refer to for a long time.

Of course, I haven’t read Wilson yet, so the above may be totally out of left field. Stay tuned.

“Incredibles wildly overrated!” Sean T, I had to turn my Brad Bird action figure away from the computer so he could not read that blasphemy.

Seriously though, give us a link where you elaborate on why you find it overrated, I’m intrigued. (And itching for a debate…)

PAD: I still think you have to weigh those two uses of admittedly over-broad terminology against the stated purview of the article from the headline on down–to do otherwise strikes me as a willful close-reading of the trees in lieu of the forest–but I can see I’m not changing your mind.

Sean T. Collins

May 6, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Ah, here it is: Seitz’s review of American Splendor from 2003. Does that help?

Andrew Collins

May 7, 2010 at 12:28 am

Totally, especially atheism, the most dim-witted and self-important religion of them all.

Except it’s not…*sigh* this isn’t even worth bothering with…

Biting my tongue on that one two Andrew.

That should have been too of course and not two.

It’s probably your dim-witted atheism that made you misspell that word, Josh. ;)

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