On the superhero genre

Right now, I’m listening to a mixtape of themes from some of the greatest superhero films. As this sentence begins, the London Symphony Orchestra crescendos into the trumpeting fanfare of the Superman titles. I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite superhero film – in fact, I happen to find it unmemorable. Not bad in any way, but just unmemorable. The only thing that ever struck me as notable about it is the totally invalid ending, in-which Superman flies around the Earth fast enough to reverse time, despite not having been able to catch two rockets heading in opposite directions. It’s this kind of thing that really gets my goat, because the genre is better than this. This genre’s seen some of the best films ever made, and when Superman contradicts one of his own narrative rules, it makes me wince. Because I care about fiction. Fiction has the power to inspire people to be a better version of who we are. History books tell us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we might become, but the heroes we create tell us who we want to be. Which is why it matters to me that storytelling has credibility, because without it, they’re just stories, with nothing to make the audience care. The superhero genre is perhaps the most humanistic of them all. We’re the only species that strives to be more than what we are. No other animal’s ever imitated another. In nature’s ongoing debate over the existence of free will, I say this genre proves that it does exist. Superman himself was created to be a man who could fly, Batman a crime fighter capable of bringing justice to a microcosmic city, Wonder Woman a noble warrior and defender of not so much a civilisation but a culture. These are all things worth talking about, they’re worth using time to debate and consider. So let’s do that for a minute. Let’s talk about the superhero genre…

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Right now, I’m listening to a mixtape of themes from some of the greatest superhero films. As this sentence begins, the London Symphony Orchestra crescendos into the trumpeting fanfare of the Superman titles. I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite superhero film – in fact, I happen to find it unmemorable. Not bad in any way, but just unmemorable. The only thing that ever struck me as notable about it is the totally invalid ending, in-which Superman flies around the Earth fast enough to reverse time, despite not having been able to catch two rockets heading in opposite directions. It’s this kind of thing that really gets my goat, because the genre is better than this. This genre’s seen some of the best films ever made, and when Superman contradicts one of his own narrative rules, it makes me wince. Because I care about fiction. Fiction has the power to inspire people to be a better version of who we are. History books tell us who we used to be, documentaries tell us who we might become, but the heroes we create tell us who we want to be. Which is why it matters to me that storytelling has credibility, because without it, they’re just stories, with nothing to make the audience care. The superhero genre is perhaps the most humanistic of them all. We’re the only species that strives to be more than what we are. No other animal’s ever imitated another. In nature’s ongoing debate over the existence of free will, I say this genre proves that it does exist. Superman himself was created to be a man who could fly, Batman a crime fighter capable of bringing justice to a microcosmic city, Wonder Woman a noble warrior and defender of not so much a civilisation but a culture. These are all things worth talking about, they’re worth using time to debate and consider. So let’s do that for a minute. Let’s talk about the superhero genre…

If I had to pick one particular superhero film, I wouldn’t even think about it. For me, there’s no superhero film greater than Spider-Man 2. Having already seen Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I’d heard its legends. Discovering it in my college’s library, I seized the moment and borrowed it for the weekend.

My God.

And I mean… my god. It can only be described as a religious experience that never lets down at any point. Even now, I have no idea how it was done. Every scene brought out something new, with the story revealing a new trick at every turn. The greatest dialogue that I’ve frankly heard (ever), special effects more convincing than any film today, and a constant beating of an overarching, underlying theme of humanity, self-belief and confidence. Everything about it seems to have been set-up in such a way as to distract me from the foundations being set for the next great chapter, so that it’s very much like a magic trick that distracts you from itself. The illusion of filmmaking was invisible, and that’s what made it work. Which isn’t to say it triggered the most tangible emotional response from me, but it did so the most consistently. That’s the difference. This isn’t about it being my favourite superhero film, just my favourite film anyway. The fact that it’s in the superhero genre is just testament to its power. And that’s the rule I’d use for my favourites of any genre – those that transcend it to become universal.

Which brings up an interesting point: are superhero films just genre films? Now I’m not going to go ahead and turn this into a “genre essay” – which deconstruct the concept of genres before proceeding to write about them – because nobody really wants to read that. But it’s still a valid question to ask: are superhero films just genre films?

Well… yeah. They couldn’t not be. Because literally every film is a genre film, as genre isn’t an artistic choice, it’s something that’s just there to determine what kind of art it is. And all films are art. Even if it’s universally hated. Superman IV: the Quest for Peace might be considered one of the worst of all time, but it’s still art. And it still has a genre. But then again so does The Dark Knight. It’s just that the phrase “genre film” is used as a criticism, as if acknowledging its status as a piece of media is going to convince anyone to hate it. The main reason it’s used to criticise is because the phrase conjures-up the image of an unoriginal repetition of everything we’ve seen before, with nothing to make it different from those things. But to that I say, does it really matter? Is originality important when watching something?

To, I suppose, an extent, it does. But only so far. The rule of thumb I’ve created is that it only needs to be original enough so as not to remind me of a different film. My initial response to Iron Man Three was that it was essentially the same plot as The Dark Knight Rises, with the details changed to make it an Iron Man film rather than a Batman film. So in that sense, Iron Man Three was, to me, a “genre film”. But then, had I seen that before The Dark Knight Rises, would I have considered it to be the original of the two? They were released a year apart, making it impossible for Disney or Warner Bros. to have known what the other was going to be. It could be a coincidence. But then, thinking about it more, I also preferred The Dark Knight Rises overall. In terms of watching a series of events unfold, in the auditorium of a cinema, I was more impressed by Batman fighting Bane than Iron Man fighting Mandarin. And this is in spite of the plot holes that each film has. Yes, The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t attempt to fill-in important gaps in the story, which would have made it much more cohesive, but it doesn’t have Iron Man Three’s problem of the hero not really thinking about his situation logically. Its ending, in-which every J.A.R.V.I.S. pilots every Iron Man remotely to fight against the Mandarin lead me to ask several questions about the choices Iron Man had made to get to that point: if you could have done that all this time, why didn’t you do that to defend your house when it was attacked? Why did you even give Mandarin your address anyway, knowing his motivations? And if J.A.R.V.I.S. doesn’t need you to operate, what exactly are you contributing? Of course, I only ask these questions because I think about these things. Some would say “over-think”, but it’s hardly my fault if these things are just obvious to me. At least with The Dark Knight Rises, the only problems are things that just aren’t explained, rather than being actively wrong decisions to make for a more interesting story, eg: how did Bane know the location of the Batcave? How did Batman get back to Gotham without communication or any technology? How was “Robin” able to know who Batman was just by a look on his face, when the police commissioner had be told directly? These things might be illogical absurdities, but at least they’re not the result of characters making all the wrong choices just to make for an interesting story. This might cause some to say I’m looking into it too deeply, but again – I care about the power of fiction, because it’s the best thing we’ve ever created. Plus, I can’t help being naturally engaged. I like film! I really do. And that’s because it automatically connects with me. I can watch a film and immediately intertwine myself with it. So the reason I demand good stuff from films I watch is because I know the difference between inspiring storytelling and serviceable pulp.That’s why I thought Man of Steel’s unending, city-destroying battle with Zod was a generic blockbuster, ala Transformers, while Captain America: the Winter Soldier was a loving tribute and recreation of 1970s cinema, while comparing it with contemporary political paranoia. It’s not that I prefer “substance”, because style isn’t always a bad thing, but I know what I like. The simple reason I’m prepared to praise or criticise a superhero film more than others is for one, simple reason: I love the genre that much.

So on that basis, there’s something important that needs to be brought up when talking about the superhero genre: comic books. You might find this a very ballsy statement to make, but you’re not writing this article. So I’m going to make it anyway: all of us know a comic book fanboy. Fangirls and fanboys are different, and aren’t defined by the gender of the subject. Rather, the two terms refer to the two different kinds of fan. A fangirl is someone like me, who gets so excited by something that it can become repellent to other people. A fanboy is someone who’s so self-absorbed by their own knowledge of a subject that they think they have the right to tell other people what to think. Their most common criticism is “it wasn’t like the comic book”, a statement that, for me, is straight out of left field, because I don’t follow comic books in the conventional sense, mainly because it takes a lot of commitment (and money). Online comic book fandom is something that terrifies me. They yell so much! No longer can a person just read comic books. Now, to do so is an act of war. Against whom you ask? Well you know, I wondered that too, but then I discovered: nobody. See, comic book fanboys have this thing where they get very possessive over trivial matters. Half of this I don’t really understand because the terminology they use and things they refer to can only make sense to people who actually follow comic book narrative, but there’s definitely one thing I’ve picked up on: the two major comic book publishers are DC and Marvel. And for some reason they hate each other. Now I only know which characters are from which publisher because of production logos. Without them, I wouldn’t know. When I read a comic book, even then I’m not looking for the publisher’s logo. But then again, I still don’t care anyway. Believe it or not, unlike some idiots on the Internet, I judge a film based on its content and not the production logo that. It seems to me, in fact, that reading comments on trailers for upcoming superhero films has shown me one thing: these people don’t know what they’re talking about. The trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy was praised for looking cool and fun, and yet, had it included the DC Comics logo, those same people would have focused on how it could be hated, not loved.

I imagine a large portion of these people will be reading this article, based on its subject matter, and be surprised to discover that I don’t care whether Ant-Man belongs to DC or Marvel. I only know he’s Marvel because the trailer’s been released and shows the Marvel Studios logo. And the same goes for the Fantastic Four. If you feel personally offended by the remarks I’ve made about comic book readers, take it as a hint. The Internet hates you. I hate you, innocent film fans hate you and the majority of the cinema-going audience that also don’t give a damn about comic books either hates you too. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate, of course. But if you must complain about something unrealistic, go and do it somewhere else. Some of us are trying to enjoy a film, not losing blood over whether the Flash’s TV outfit is a different shade of red than you think it should.

The thing is, this is something that is present in superhero fandom. Which is a problem for me, since I don’t really consider myself to be in it. I like the film genre, but that’s as far as it goes. In the same way that there are some romantic films that I like, despite not being an active pursuer of romantic novels. I exist on the periphery of something larger, and yet I have no desire to go any further. I might be a fan of the superhero film genre, but that’s only because I’m a fan of film overall. In a venn diagram, in-which the two circles are “superhero genre” and “film fan”, I exist on the edge of the overlap. But if I go into the overlap itself, I’ve gone outside the boundaries of being a film fan. And I can’t do that, because it would adulterate my enjoyment of film. I’d no longer be able to judge them on just what they are, and instead would be thinking about their source material. It would be distracting, and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. I take things as they come.

That’s why I only have limited knowledge of the villain Thanos. He first appears in Marvel’s the Avengers in the mid-credits scene, and has an increased role in Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as another mid-credits cameo in Avengers: age of Ultron. I also hear he’s to be the main villain in Avengers: Infinity War — Part 1 and Avengers: Infinity War — Part 2, but so far all I know about him is based on what I’ve seen in film. Do I read comic books? Yes, but I haven’t read them all. And Thanos is just one of those characters I haven’t read. In a way that’s quite exciting, because I don’t know what to expect. The same goes for Ultron, in Avengers: age of Ultron. The trailers revealed that he’s created by Iron Man, but this isn’t something I knew about until that point. I’ve recently acquired Age of Ultron, the graphic novel that inspired it, but this time the process will be reversed for me.

The difficulty here is keeping away from the other parts. The Internet is a big place. Unfortunately, my needs are small. All I want to know is about films coming out, but that requires the avoidance of information about potential plots. Apparently, reviews for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 mentions that most Spider-Man fans knew Gwen Stacy was going to die based on visual similarities with the comic book where that happens. But I’d been able to enjoy that twist completely blind, because I didn’t go into it knowing that. For me, not choosing to read source material means circum-navigating potential plot spoilers. It’s something of a skill I’ve developed. I’m told, for instance, that not even comic book readers knew who the Guardians of the Galaxy were, but it made no difference to me. I was only as knowledgeable in it as with everything else. From that point of view, ignorance is a blissful advantage.

But then there’s another thing online fandom has taught me: that people can be really ideological sometimes. A non-superhero film I enjoyed was The Fault in the Stars (although by the way it’s presented, you’d think terminal illness is a superpower anyway), and the reason for this was that I’d read the novel. Just as I have with Paper Towns. Of these things, I can definitely call myself a fan. I’ve read the source material, and enjoyed their adaptations. But in the case of superhero films, can I call myself a fan? Especially because there are so few examples not adapted from comic books. If I were to call myself a Spider-Man fan, would that be a valid statement? Especially as I don’t read the very thing responsible for his films existing. No, I didn’t sit through The Amazing Spider-Man 2 waiting for Stacy to die – I didn’t know it was going to happen. Am I a “real fan”? Honestly, I don’t care to know, but if I had to determine it, I’d go with a no. Mainly because that single character isn’t the focus of my enthusiasm online. Just as my enjoyment of the superhero genre is a part of my enjoyment of film, my enjoyment of Spider-Man is only a part of my enjoyment of the superhero genre. It’s not the be-all and end-all. Anyone following me online will see that I enthuse about every aspect of the genre, and will only focus on him when he’s relevant at the time, which is mainly when he’s in a new film. For now, I’ll just say he’s my favourite superhero and leave it at that. I’d explain how I read comic books, but that would be diverging from the subject.

At the end of the day, I’m still passionate about it. I still enjoy it more than other films. I’ll still praise and criticise it online, and am therefore still a part of that ongoing discussion. Perhaps I’m doing the fandom a service by refusing to read comic books, maybe I’m some sort of quality control barrier, as if to say “I represent the people that don’t read them, this is how much I understood it…”. For all I know, there are those who try to block-out their knowledge of it to enjoy it like I do. Perhaps there are those that yearn to experience it like me, with no prior knowledge of it. In that sense, I suppose that what they’d call my “sacrifice” is doing them a favour.

Everything I say comes from an understanding of not just a genre of film, but of the Internet and the way it’s used. I’ve used this much time writing my feelings in this way because I know just how easy it is for people online to read it. Were this on tumb1r., it wouldn’t be read, because it’s a massive wall of text. That website’s precious petals might claim it’s a blogging website, but let’s face it: if it isn’t a GIF, they’re not interested. Were I to post this on Facebook, I’d lose any friends I still have, if they even read it. Were this a Twitter rant, I’d lose followers immediately. No. This is the right place for an article like this, because I prefer to express my thoughts in long rambles such as this one. That’s just the way my mind works. That’s why I prefer reading long, thoughtful blog posts over short tweets. And because of that, I tend not to focus too much on Facebook or Twitter. Not because I have something against them, but because it’s just not useful to someone who writes as many words as you’ve just read. So in that way, I’m not too familiar with the fandom that exists there. But I do still use Facebook, and follow the official Avengers page, who more than likely post the same things as they would on Twitter. A lot of these posts are new videos, such as interviews with the cast and the crew or trailers, all of which are available on their YouTube channel anyway. When anticipating a film, the thing I’m really waiting for is previews of it – that’s why I’m subscribed to them. That’s the thing that matters the most. Even then, there’s also sites such as Deadline, Variety and Collider, who are interested in the professional sense. Any reports they make can easily be credited or discredited based on whether it’s been announced in the Movie News section of each film’s official website. Even if half of these things are relaying what’s already been reported. If Disney or Warner Bros. post a set photo or screenshot of an upcoming release, other sites will talk about it. So it really isn’t necessary to join Twitter just to follow a few accounts. Followers, retweets and favourites are only useful for publicity, with statistics and numbers giving credibility to them, even if much more people see their announcements in other ways. Social media just isn’t the right thing for the kind of fan I am, so I let others tell me what’s happening. If they’re not talking about it, it can’t be that notable. And I know how to prove if they’re accurate.

Moviepilot Superheroes

But social media exists as a marketing strategy. Companies wouldn’t invest time and money in posting online if they didn’t think it would contribute to the success of a release. Social media is something that I do use, but not as much as I could. These companies are aware that social media’s only effective to a certain point, and that word of mouth does a lot, as does actual advertising on television. A big flaw in social media is that users have to be actively following specific companies for updates. Even if they only see their posts via shares from others, if they don’t follow themselves, they’re unlikely to be interested. At time of writing, the most recent post about a superhero film in my News Feed is from Moviepilot Superheroes advertising a poster for Hellboy and Sons. It’s fan made, as Hellboy 3 hasn’t yet been confirmed. This is exactly right for a social media post, as it would only appeal to people who are already familiar with the Hellboy character, and this therefore provides something that won’t just be promoting a film follows are probably already anticipating.

But I’ll still be a part of the social media discussion after seeing a new superhero feature release. Generally, I try and see them as soon as I can. Fantastic Four is released on Friday 7th August, and I intend to see it on that day at its earliest showing. First reviews might not be the best, but if I like something, I’ll want it to do well, and will encourage people to see it at the earliest opportunity – especially as distributors only seem to care about how much a release makes on its opening weekend. Equally, if I really didn’t like something, I’ll warn people not to give-in to the hype that will be existing that weekend. Had I seen Spider-Man 3 on its opening weekend, I’d have definitely sounded-off on it within the opening night, and a large part of that will be based on the characters. The superhero genre works for me because it’s like an urban fantasy, with magical characters against a realistic backdrop. And how I rate those characters will influence how I rate the film. With Spider-Man 3, it’s because of the way Spider-Man was turned into a dishonest, overly-emotional whiner that completely contradicted the morality and good nature of the character. And it’s not because Venom was turning him into that – a lot of it was just the way the character was written in general before he put-on the black outfit. It’s the same principle with my thoughts toward Man of Steel – in it, Superman treats people with no respect, even dodging a bus thrown at him instead of, say, catching it. When we see superhero films, what we really care about are the superheroes themselves, even if it means sacrificing plot. Indeed, my Spider-Man 2 review praised director Sam Raimi for accomplishing both indistinguishably.

Which is why it doesn’t matter to me how I see something – it’s irrelevant. There have been times when I had a better time viewing a DVD on my laptop in bed in the early hours of the night – as with Spider-Man 2 – than I did at a cinema, as with Man of Steel. Equally, the reverse of this has sometimes been true – I also saw Spider-Man 3 on my laptop and The Dark Knight Rises at a cinema. If it’s good, how I see it shouldn’t matter. If the quality of something is matched with certain viewing conditions, there’s less chance that I’ll meet them due to the numerous platforms available. There’s nothing specific to the genre about the various outlets that can be used, so all a film needs to be is good. That’s true of any genre. If it’s good and it stimulates me, I honestly don’t give a damn about how I watched it.

And then there’s the importance of just enjoying the genre. It’s easy to analyse modern media and sociology, but at the heart of it is me simply liking one genre more than others. We are the only species that imitates nature. When we created Superman, we became a species aspiring to fly like birds. When we created Spider-Man, we were wondering what it must be like to swing from buildings. When we created Batman, we wanted to know it must be to strike fear at those who prey on the fearful. These characters are people as art, and it’s part of a conversation that’s been happening since we learned how to tell it. From the first Greek myths of old, to modern religions, the superhero genre is an expression of what we want to do, what we want to be. The stories of these characters are our modern myths, that mark the history we’re recording. Generations of centuries and millennia from now will look back on them and decide how we rated ourselves; our hopes and dreams, and fears and worries. Thor: Ragnarok is the ending to a trilogy inspired by the Norse god Thor. Ragnarok is a destruction and recreation myth, of the Earth flooding and becoming remade. The oldest recorded story is also a creation and flood myth, so this is just us recycling an old tale for our own needs. That’s something that no other genre can do.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu recently criticised the genre for being about people killing other people because they think differently, with no integrity of culture or value. This was addressed in his film Birdman, or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), about an actor who used to the star of a superhero franchise and has struggled to land roles. It starred Batman and Batman Returns star Michael Keaton. Even comic book writer Alan Moore said that’s it a cultural catastrophe, by allowing the world to regress to a previous era by indulging itself in by-gone characters rather than creating new stories. These opinions are all valid, because all are artists. They can comment on these things because they’re a part of it. But as someone who’s also a part of it, I’d like to point out that they’re just plain wrong. Some superhero films have the potential to inspire us about what it means to be Human – Superman especially. He’s a great character, he wishes to be. His films only lack the light to show the way. I recommend Inarritu watch Spider-Man 2 in particular, because he’ll see that Doctor Octopus, as an antagonist, is the most Human of them all. Rather than asking the audience to consider him a misguided person, they’re being asked to understand why he’s doing what he is, and then to respond to it themselves. And as for Moore? He’s created V and the Watchmen. I understand why he’s opposed to their film adaptations, but I think his opinion about the current state of the genre present a chance for him to contribute to it and add to the ongoing conversation that is film by making his own entry in the genre, as Inarritu arguably did.

The superhero genre is something that other studios should watch closely: The Dark Knight and Marvel’s the Avengers are the only superhero features to be the highest-grossing of their years, and Marvel Studios are one of the most successful after so few productions. The superhero films coming our way soon are Fantastic Four, Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Half Shell, Suicide Squad, Gambit, Doctor Strange, Nation Awakens, The LEGO Batman Movie, Wolverine 3, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Fantastic Four 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man 6, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League Part One, The Flash, Avengers: Infinity War — Part 1, Black Panther, Fantastic Four vs X-Men, Spider-Man 7, Aquaman, Captain Marvel, Shazam!, Avengers: Infinity War — Part 2, Justice League Part Two, Inhumans, Cyborg, Green Lantern Corps. and The Batman. In the superhero genre, there’s no point in pretending the superheroes aren’t the most interesting element, and they’re really what’s being marketed. The link between films and audiences are important, but it’s those links that advertisers consider. Not every genre has the same links. In a crime film, it’s “what’s the mystery?”, or “what’s scary?” in horror. In the superhero genre, it’s “what superheroes are in it?”. If a character hasn’t been seen before, it’s about introducing them through marketing, whereas, if a character’s already established, it’s about pushing them even further with new villains and new threats that can give them the opportunity to be even more super. To show off their powers, which need to be even more imaginative as we become used to the basics: flight, strength, speed. As a combination of action and fantasy, this genre thrives on the audience feeling a connection to the characters, and if they can be made to believe that what they’re doing matters, they’ll come away better for the experience.

Author: alexsigsworth

Generic true believer Marvelite, etc.

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