Thursday, August 2, 2007

Why superhero films aren't very good

Contrary to popular belief, I don't love superhero films. I just watch them when they come out, lured by the promise, always slightly let down. Somehow, superheroes work in comics. Stories in the superhero mode work on TV (Smallville, Heroes, Buffy.) But movies... despite the huge budgets, just don't seem to cut it. I don't just mean obvious stinkers such as Supergirl (which may have lead DC to kill off the 'actual' character in the comic, out of shame) - it's the good ones too. Here's my theory as to why:


Comics are serial stories with beginnings, but no ends. Think about it - the narrative of Batman started in 1939. It has never ended. There has never been a conclusion, any final 'closure', a 'Reader, I married him' moment. And it's the same with most major character superhero comics. (Graphic novels such as V for Vendetta are different in that they're not based on serials.) Movies, on the other hand, do have endings. Even if sequels are expected, each individual film has a climax and some form of conclusion. Thus, the best comics-based films have great beginnings but tail off into disappointing battles and showdowns. This is as true of Popeye and Annie as it is of the long-underpants characters. (Robin Williams once quipped about Popeye, in which he starred, that "If you watch it backwards, it has a plot." It certainly didn't save the best until last - somehow we get from the heartbreakingly-beautiful opening scene of Popeye rowing into the harbour of Olive Oyl's village, a masterpiece of choreographed detail, to a fight with a rubber octopus.) TV has more scope - many episodes give scope for stories to develop in an open-ended way (always opening out to new possibilities) without the need to shoehorn everything into two hours.
The sheer longevity of comics series allows characters to develop, supporting casts to be built, attachments to form between reader and character. Perhaps longrunning soaps work in a similar way (albeit bounded by more realistic rules governing aging and dying.) Movies struggle to build the same narrative momentum. For instance, in the comic I wept at the look on Johnny Storm's face when he heard about his sister Sue's miscarriage; this scene had emotional power as by then I had read hundreds of Fantastic Four stories over a period of years. I knew these characters and had grown up with them. If this event occurs in a future FF movie it will be based on characters I have known in total for a couple of hours, and probably seem like a cheap moment of emotional manipulation.
(Spiderman films try and get round this problem by being incredibly long. At the end of #3, I felt like I'd been subletting Peter Parker's apartment, I'd spent so much time looking at it.)

Comics is an art form that punches above its weight. Lines on paper, 4-colour print, rapidfire production within tight genre conventions, an audience that has to include kids - really, none of the stories have much right to be any good at all. Many aren't. But the best have grandeur, power, emotion, wonder... and few of these qualities make it into the big budget movies. The recent Fantastic Four sequel is a case in point - in the original comic, Jack Kirby's drawings of an unshaven Reed Richards, desperately trying to invent gadgets to stave off the apocalypse, have as sense of human urgency - the whole thing has scale. In the slick, megabucks movie it's all too.. overt. A multimillion SFX-fest we've waited two years for owes us a massively impressive experience, and anything less than overwhelming awe leaves us short-changed; some drawings with speech balloons in a monthly kids' comic don't owe us anything, so when they deliver a soul-stirring epic we've been significantly over-rewarded.

The movies stick pretty closely to the source material - heroes in costumes, for instance. TV gives itself more freedom, eg Smallville retelling the Superman story with 'no tights and no cape', or newly-minted stories such as Buffy which have used some of the most effective aspects of comics storytelling and ignored the rest.

So why will I be there next May seeing how Iron Man turns out? Well, superhero movies can deliver brilliant moments - the sculpture-in-motion of Spiderman against beautifully-lit citycapes; Christopher Reeve's first flight; Johnny Storm's bravura skywriting. In-jokes for fanboys embedded in all these films make me feel as if I'm in a big geek family. Before they became the established religion of cinema, the very fact that superhero films were being made with some art and ambition was a big miracle: after queuing to get into Tim Burton's Batman, I found myself weeping (yes, again - crying is my superpower) at the opening credits - just from the a sense of redemption and amazement that we had gone from Bob Kane's crudely-delineated 1939 comic to this event that had the citizens of Wolverhampton waiting excitedly in the rain. But then the actual film started and it all went downhill from there...

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