The Heroes We Deserve
If you like superheroes and movies, it's undoubtedly a good time to be alive. Since the turn of the century we've had five X-men movies, four Spider-Man movies, three Batman movies, six Avengers movies, and more. Heck, even Ghost Rider and Hellboy got in on the act. So why do most of these films leave me cold? My friends had to drag me to the theater to see Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2, and I still haven't bothered to see X-Men: The Last Stand, half of the Avengers films or any DC movie that doesn't have Batman in it.
In part, I'm just tired of these franchises in way that the general movie-going public is not. When you read superhero comics all the time the movies somehow seem less special, because you've never taken a break from the characters. Then again, the movie-going public doesn't exactly have the insatiable desire for the characters that it takes to drive the sales of a monthly comic, either. Even so, you'd figure that a guy with several hundred Spider-Man comics in his possession would eventually want to see The Amazing Spider-Man. But no.
Could it be because most of these movies aren't any good?
And before anyone jumps on me, no, I'm not saying these movies are bad.1 What I am saying is that they're not good. They may be perfectly fine disposable entertainment, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'll stand the test of time. (There's a reason that we still watch Goldfinger but not For Your Eyes Only.) It is, of course, possible to be both financially and critically successful. But it's rare.2
And once the adrenaline rush has worn off, there's really not much in most superhero movies that merits a second thought.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Starring American Psycho, Star Trek: Nemesis, and Les Miserables
Batman is of course a famously adaptable character. Over the course of his lifetime he's been the avatar of both high camp and grim'n'gritty storytelling. He can be a child's fantasy, the world's greatest detective, a scientific genius, a stoic action hero, an mentally-unbalanced vigilante, a brooding loner, a gadabout playboy, a member of the Justice League — or any combination of the above you can think of.
So at first glance Batman seems the ideal vehicle for Christopher Nolan to explore ideas about heroism, terrorism, and the security state. There's only one problem.
Nolan's movies posit a world where our existing institutions are basically utterly defenseless against terrorism. The police, the army, and the courts are powerless and unable to act against the Ra's al Ghul, the Joker, and Bane. Only one man, acting above the law, can do what must be done.
Except Batman isn't real. You can scour the world and won't be able to find someone so civic-minded, indomitable, incorruptible, possessed of infinite ability and unlimited resources. He is a fantasy. The Nolan movies basically ask us to put our faith in great men and trust that any extraordinary actions they are taking are ultimately for our benefit. Anyone who might object to this is either handwaved away, superficially mollified, or evil.
Likewise, the threats Batman faces are specifically constructed to be threats only Batman can defeat. Real world terrorism is rarely so convenient or easily foiled. You can't make economic inequality and widespread class-based unrest go away by punching Thomas Hardy in the face. If Batman is a fantasy, then the problems he tries to solve are equally fantastic — a child's understanding of terrorism and international geopolitics.
These strike me as very dangerous fantasies. The sort that leads to warrentless wiretapping, intelligence overreach, drone strikes, and years and years of unwinnable, illegal wars. Except for some reason here I'm supposed to cheer it.
Let's give credit where credit is due, though. Even if I think his themes are wrong-headed at best, at least Nolan has themes and is actively trying to explore them. On the other side of the spectrum...
The Avengers (2012)
Starring Julian Wells, The Huntsman, Dave Toschi, Jake Wyler, Silken Floss, and Hansel
Quick, what is The Avengers about?
Had some trouble with that, didn't you? It's because at its core The Avengers is about Loki opening up a magic sky anus and taking over the world with Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and his army of space weevils. Oh, to be sure, Joss Whedon wheels out some hoary old clichés about learning to put aside but don't be fooled. It's all about the sky anus and the space weevils.3
And all of Marvel's lastest movies are like this — all surface, no depth. You can't ask yourself what Iron Man 2 or Captain America or Thor are really about, because they are not about anything more complicated than men in funny tights punching bad men in the face. At least the surface is admittedly pretty and fun to watch, filled with inventive eye candy and the occasional fine performance from the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston. I always leave the theater with a smile on my face.
But that's just on the surface. I also never wind up leaving the theater with more than I brought in.
- Okay, Wolverine: Origins and Green Lantern are bad but those aren't exactly controversial statements.
- It's a credit to popular taste that when you take a look at inflation-adjusted gross receipts that the top films are actually pretty good. You actually have to scroll down to #43 (Airport) before you, "What, really?" and all the way down to #67 (Smokey and the Bandit) before you go "You have to be kidding me."
- Special thanks to RiffTrax for the disturbing sky anus imagery.