Saturday, July 24, 2010

Entertainment Weekly: "Are Superheroes Still Super?"

It's been a pretty slow summer blockbuster season, superhero-wise. The Iron Man sequel was ok, but not great, and there wasn't really anything else to fill the void (and Harry Potter won't show until November) until the next batch. (I was so underwhelmed by Inception...that's right, I said it...) So I was exited to see the EW arrive with the first glimpses of Green Lantern and Thor. I wasn't too keen on the cover; it looks like Hal Jordan was skinned alive. But I'll reserve judgement for now, and I'm glad they're going with the more recent version of Thor for the movie.

But I was also intrigued by the essay after all that: "Are Superheroes Still Super?" by Jeff Jensen. The main premise of the piece that "when any movie genre starts toying with parody, it's a sign that the genre may be played out. Is the superhero movie past its prime?" Well, off the bat, I'd say "no." There are parodies of every genre, yet we still have romantic comedies, vampire movies, and action flicks, so it's a non-sequiter to say that parodies signal the end (hell, what would the good people at MAD magazine do, if that were the case?). As long as life is a struggle, there will always be a need for heroism.

But there are a few interesting points in the essay that seem to answer the title's question in the positive (and connects to the core of what this blog is all about, which was a response to the idea that heroism was a bad thing, something to be overcome.) Comic books were not immune, but all the "moral dubiousness" of the anti-hero trend began to work against the genre; as Jensen puts it, "[all] that edge and irony made comics cool again, but over time it actually narrowed the appeal of the medium to just the geekiest geeks." This has translated into less-than-stellar box office for the movie adaptions for Kick-Ass, Jonah Hex, and even the venerable Watchmen. Jensen seems to take this as a bad sign for comic book movie in general, but one can only do that by ignoring (or critically maligning) the unexpected phenomenon of 300, which affirmed the idea of heroism.

Jensen is not unhopeful, however, and continues by speculating on the next wave, including Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers: "If they succeed, the next decade of superhero cinema could be as fertile as the last, and, one hopes, marked by greater diversity (Cut to Wonder Woman, impatiently tapping her her red leather boot.)

This is something that crossed my mind; it seems that the movie versions are best suited for the origin story, or with the trilogy taking on the "hero's journey" motif of classical mythology; it's less suited nowadays for the "serialization" approach of the comic books. This seems odd, at first, considering that the golden age of cinema featured popular serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. I don't know if it's a change in the audience, the cost of production, or that the epic nature of movies now compared to then simply call for a bigger story than what was featured in the shorter serials of yesteryear. In any case, if, by diversity, Jensen simply means more female or ethnic characters, that would only be a surface-level change to the the above, it would still focus on the origin and trilogy approach, whereas the serialization approach of the comics allows for character development over a longer timespan. And that brings us back to the parody aspect, it's easy to parody a formula, and the more epic, the better, so it may be more accurate to say that the parody is less around the idea of heroism and more about the formula. But the side-effect is that the idea of heroism gets attacked by-proxy.

Jensen concludes by noting the "repackaging" of unused or even recently-used characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man: "the same heroes who ignited the current superhero boom...may be burdened with the great responsibility of revitalizing the very genre they started. Hopefully, there's a superpower for that." This is to miss the point; it focuses too much on the "super" and not enough on the "hero." It is a start to point out the fatal flaw of the anti-hero approach, but we don't define a positive by its negative. Incidentally, no "superpower is needed," it's a power available to any who stand up for their values. It's not superpowers or costumes, but integrity and courage, which, by the way, are the best defense against parody.