Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz hates superhero movies:
The comic book film has become a gravy train to nowhere. The genre cranks up directors’ box office averages and keeps offbeat actors fully employed for years at a stretch by dutifully replicating (with precious few exceptions) the least interesting, least exciting elements of its source material; spicing up otherwise rote superhero vs. supervillain storylines with “complications” and “revisions” (scare quotes intentional) that the filmmakers, for reasons of fiduciary duty, cannot properly investigate; and delivering amusing characterizations, dense stories or stunning visuals while typically failing to combine those aspects into a satisfying whole.
Contra Seitz, I disagree about the quality of superhero movies that have been coming out. In fact, I think that one of the reasons they have become such mainstays is that after twenty years they finally figured out how to make these movies. They’ve been catching up ever since. I mean, these movies are not high art. But they’re not throwaway either. For a cartoon analogy, compare He-Man to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Airbender isn’t exactly high art, but it’s obvious that between then and now studios have finally figured out how to make this stuff good. Good for what it is, anyway.
Seitz comes at this from the perspective of a movie critic and movie critics come at movies from a different perspective than the general audience. When you see so many movies, a movie’s originality takes on a whole lot more importance. Formulas become not just a negative, but actively painful. Formulaic-but-good becomes an oxymoron or sorts. I also have an appreciation for the different. It’s one of the reasons that I stopped watching superhero movies as they came out unless it was a character I really wanted to see or it was highly recommended. But that doesn’t make the movies I am not seeing bad. Nor is it, I think, damning of the genre itself.
This is the part where superhero movie fans say “If you don’t like them then don’t watch them.” The problem is that, as Ross Douthat points out, they’re affecting cinema whether you’re watching them or not.
It’s a good question, but of course once you start asking questions like that it’s a pretty short leap to wondering why we couldn’t have a movie about a Tony Stark-like figure — say, a screwball comedy about a billionaire’s romance with his omnicompetent assistant, which is basically the best thing about the “Iron Man” franchise anyway — in which he isn’t a superhero at all. And from there, it’s an even shorter leap to questions like, “what kind of movies would a clean-and-sober Robert Downey, Jr. be making if he wasn’t already signed up for ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Iron Man 3’ and the sequel to last’s year ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (which was basically a superhero flick dressed up in Victoriana)”? Or “what kind of films might Jon Favreau/Bryan Singer/Sam Raimi/Christopher Nolan have directed if they hadn’t been sucked into the superhero vortex”? Or “wouldn’t it have been nice to see a Heath Ledger/Christian Bale confrontation in which they weren’t saddled with the grim conventions of the comic-book blockbuster?” Or … well, you get the idea.
In this sense, I think that superhero movies are a sign of a larger problem. The studios are risk-averse and little without an automatic audience is getting made. Comic books have that audience. So do remakes. Further, they want a little something for everybody. Superhero movies are actually a somewhat flexible genre. They can have great romantic angles, fantasy origins, scientific origins, straight up action origins. You’ll notice that most of those appeal to a particular audience, but that’s another factor in and of itself.
The movie audience has changed. While I am skeptical of TV advertisers claiming that the young and hip demographics are the most important, I believe it when it comes to movies. As home entertainment systems get better and better, educated professionals see take themselves more and more out of the theater-going demographic. You’re left with a larger portion of your audience as young people looking for somewhere to go to, young adults with the movie for moving tickets but not surround-sound in their house, and older people that never became educated professionals. That’s not to say that smart folks over 30 have stopped seeing movies entirely, but they’re not as strong a demographic as they used to be. They are for television, though, which is why television is increasingly becoming the medium for higher art.