The image below is of a McDonald’s fast food joint somewhere in war-torn Afghanistan. Remember it because it will chime later on.
Genre movies have an amazing knack for metaphorically embodying society’s deepest current fears. Godzilla was a cinematic reaction of Japan’s horror in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was America’s filmic response to blind eye McCarthyism and cultural conformity in the post-war Eisenhower era, not to mention the threatening erosion of identity Soviet-bloc communism posed. The British Hammer adaptation of Dracula identified the vampire as a blood sucking aristocrat feeding off the honest goodness of peasants, the kind who had been sent to war in Europe by trickster elitists. Genre films, therefore, are the best signifiers of any tumultuous period in the last hundred years. To know genre cinema is to know history.
For our generation the events of September 11th 2001 were a defining act in global disequilibrium. It was a watershed moment and genuine turning point. America has understandably not fully recovered from what was its greatest single loss of civilian life in a deliberate act of killing. The cycle of grisly torture porn horror films that proliferated in the aftermath of the attacks was perhaps the most obvious genre reaction to the event, notable for limning young American characters in extremely gruesome situations. Torture porn has pretty much run its course, but there is another genre that America can’t quite shake off: we’re talking of superheroes.
Superheroes are almost as old as cinema itself, but their popularity since the Bush administration has been astounding. Superhero movies are about the only guaranteed success one can have today, the genre actually growing in both profitability and uniformity. Whereas back in the 1990s the only superhero character that stood a chance was Batman―aided largely by an auteur filmmaker like Tim Burton helming, not to mention a roster of bona fide movie stars starring―other efforts to adapt superhero characters like The Shadow or The Phantom failed to connect with audiences. Superhero movies were considered phony and not good cinema. In December 1996, Variety ran a report stating that Bryan Singer, a high-minded filmmaker who directed The Usual Suspects, had signed on to make the X-Men movie. The world was largely unexcited as Bryan Singer himself had turned down the project numerous times before on grounds of comic books being “unintelligent literature”. Variety buried Singer’s attachment deep within the publication, refusing to give it headline prominence. Bryan Singer released X-Men in summer 2000 and things were never the same again.
Hollywood has pretty much abandoned sophisticated cinema altogether, preferring to hatch distribution deals for independently funded dramas like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street rather than developing and financing such projects in-house. Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, admitted to Variety last month that Sony will release Spider-Man movies “every year” in order to offset an operating loss of $181 million. After having suffered a disastrous summer with non-branded tentpole features like After Earth and White House Down, Sony has realised that fiscal stability comes from familiar content. The safest option is giving audiences exactly what they want, meaning more of the same. The studios know that hordes of people will watch something they are already used to, much the way we all know what to expect when tucking into a Filet-O-Fish no matter what country we eat it in.
Many will agree that Hollywood hedging its bets on superhero films and branded concepts (movies about Lego® included) is to the detriment of cinema. One refuses to believe that the most interesting filmmakers of our past came about through watching just one type of film. Nay, they watched all sorts and were inspired by everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue. (You can bet that Bryan Singer most certainly was.)
Returning to our opening gambit; Afghanistan, a country in need of real superheroes, is ostensibly developing a strategy of constructing more McDonald’s restaurants in its rebuilding program. The greatest of American exports―burgers, fries and Golden Arches― is a marker of modern civilised society, much in the way men with the ability to fly about and dress in ostentatious costumes has become another signifier of global hegemony. The world is in need of superheroes because the real ones seem totally unfitting. In a post 9/11 world, the superhero movie did something clever: they eschewed traditional camp and played things for real. Bryan Singer, a proper filmmaker, never played X-Men for laughs, choosing instead to play the dynamics between Professor Xavier and Magneto akin to the civil rights power struggle twixt Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Also, Christopher Nolan’s seminal Dark Knight Trilogy unfolded as a pseudo-complex morality play done with all the existentialism of a neo-noir film. Even last year’s Man of Steel was told with the intension of depicting how Superman may deal with things if he was a real entity.
But Superman will never be a real person, and to think otherwise is just plain silly. The notion that civil rights and complex moral themes should be filtered through the prism of superhero movies is not good at all, especially when these are the only few types of films studios are willing to develop nowadays. The idea that in order to engage modern people with the Bay of Pigs Invasion or Kennedy Assassination is through revisionist devices involving X-Men characters is almost offensive, especially when you consider it’s played for spectacle and not honesty. (Both of these plot devices have subsequently been part of past X-Men films.)
The superhero movie trend is too much of a good thing as this year will feature more than six of them; next year upping the quota further. It is indicative of our times that guys in costumes smashing each other into skyscrapers are the derivative tropes of choice. (And CGI, lots and lots of CGI.) Because of the sensitive nature of the world right now, and a parental desire to mollycoddle kids from the slightest element of hard truth both for them and themselves, superhero movies are predominantly sanitised and focus group delineated products, never trying to do anything unexpected.
A comic book fan fifteen years ago would have endured having their head flushed down the school toilets thrice weekly, but now they are oddly enough considered mainstream. It’s crazy that a niche interest has become universally acceptable, perhaps even cool. How long this fad continues is anyone’s guess, but nothing lasts forever and change will likely come when it’s probably least expected.