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Thursday, October 1, 2020

My Thoughts on Superhero Cinema

I believe I already mentioned I’ve been watching tons of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and TV series. I will probably review them soon, but perhaps I should mention my background and biases about action movies in general and comic book superheroes in particular, so that no one will be too surprised.

I didn’t have much of an allowance growing up, and didn’t get to go to any comic shops… not even sure if my town had one. So my comic selection was limited and intermittent. I did pick up sketchy information on a reasonably wide range of comic characters, enough to develop a clear preference for Marvel over DC, although I loved the DC horror comics (and Plop!) Later, I borrowed a roommate’s large number of Spiderman and Fantastic Four comics and filled in a lot of the storyline that way. When I had free money as an adult, I tracked down as many issues as I could of my favorite character, Doctor Strange. I also bought the comic series that summarized the history of the Marvel Universe, and also those crazy encyclopedias.

One thing that took me a while to fully understand was that I really didn’t like what most superhero fans consider the core feature of superhero comics: punching things to fix problems. I like stories about people with unusual abilities, but I got bored with heroes zapping and powing their way through obstacles to win the day. So, although I wasn’t a fan of the X-Men when it became a big thing, I kind of liked the X-Men stories I did read, because even though they all contained an obligatory slugfest, there was also a lot of stuff about how society viewed mutants and how mutants reacted to the way they were treated. And although I was a big fan of Peter Parker and Benjamin J. Grimm as a kid, a big reason why I liked them is because they had a lot of personal issues that had nothing to do with fighting things. This probably also explains why I bought Howard the Duck #1 as a kid, and why I liked Doctor Strange despite never getting more than a couple comics as a kid. (More on that when I get to the Doctor Strange movie review.)

This kind of carries over into action movies, too, and I don’t just mean superhero action movies. It’s not just that I don’t find long moments of punching, kicking, headbutting, shooting, and blowing things up unappealing. It’s the way movies have evolved a certain action-movie look that turns me off: fast cuts, jittercam, use of blurs and shadows to mask what’s really going on, repeated shots of the same explosion, and just a general directorial style that tries to overwhelm the senses rather than give you a sense of what’s going on. You can probably guess I don’t much like Michael Bay films. You can also probably see now why I didn’t think highly of the Kelvin timeline Star Trek movies.

And beyond all of that, I have to say I have some serious reservations about the core concept of most superhero and action hero stories. Basically, I don’t think fighting is a good solution to problems, and I suspect the increasing number of movies that glorify exactly that may be the source of a lot of problems.

Still, I do like some superhero movies, either when the fight scenes aren’t as dedicated to sensory overload, or when there a lot of non-fight story going on, or a lot of humor, or the emphasis is not on fighting bad guys but on rescuing people from catastrophes. Or when it’s a good horror/thriller disguised as a superhero movie. Or when some or all of the superhero action is not punching, but solving the problem nonviolently.

The upshot of this is that my upcoming superhero review will disregard the part I don’t like (the themes of violent opposition to bad guys, for example) and focus on the quality of the cinematography, how I feel about the characters and secondary themes, how funny or moving the scenes are. Some stuff is just going to feel average. Some gets a better rating because other elements save it from being “just an action slugfest”. Obviously, I didn’t watch (and rewatch) something like twenty movies and a huge number of TV shows just to pan all of them. I’ve got my favorites, and others I thought were pretty good.

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  1. I totally agree with all of this! I actually think some of the superhero movies have decent cinematography and can appreciate the action more so in film than in the comics, but generally that's less so what appeals to me.

    I recently became obsessed with the Doom Patrol show and Harley Quinn show, both of which are more about the characters than about punching problems per se. I'm also increasingly realizing that the idea of people with powers, in a superhero-like Weird world, as a vehicle for exploring deeper issues but also just being Weird, is my main jam. Like, I can deeply appreciate a Weird gonzo heavy metal etc. science fantasy action-y setting, but that's less so what I'm really about nowadays, and I kind of think that was always more my thing and it just took me a while to realize it quite like that.

    1. Ooh also I started reading Immortal Hulk recently and it's quite good. It's Hulk so obviously smashing is a big part of it, but it's not about the smashing. It feels just as much rooted in cosmic horror or just horror in general as superheroes. I actually wish it leaned even more heavily into that, there are still moments occasionally that feel more superhero-y, but on the whole it's really good

    2. Yeah, it's the weird powers and events that make superhero media distinct. Superheroes without powers who just fight normal human criminals are basically no different than action heroes who don't wear costumes... so if the latter is what somebody wants, why would they put up with the costumes?

      I think this is one of the main reasons why TV networks had such a problem with superhero series for a couple decades. Most of them failed because they'd introduce a superhero with a gimmick, then pit them against boring mundane stuff.