Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Avenging superhero movies (sort of)

On the Culture Gabfest this week they opened with the impending Avengers movie, which they generally found to be so-so. Film critic Dana found it to be pretty much the same as many recent superhero films, competent but nothing special; editor Julia was disappointed only that as a Joss Whedon devotee it wasn't a better end result with all the talent involved—not that it wasn't worth seeing, but that it should have rendered a superior movie; snob Stephen thought it somewhat "shameful" that as adults they were discussing it, thinking this was the sort of thing he enjoyed at 9 but then grew up.

As one who started reading superhero comics at age 7, and then continued reading and collecting them into my teens and (as I've mentioned before) worked in a comic book store for many years as the job that got me through college (well, mostly), it's impossible for me not to have some response.

I must explain a bit about my experiences with the medium. When I say I kept reading comics, the reality is that when it came to superheroes I was pretty much burnt out on that particular genre by my early teens; it's not there weren't any actual good stories still being done, but overall my take was that a lot of them were pretty much the same month after month; it wasn't worth my time and money to keep reading the same tales as I did as an adolescent. So by my late teens I read series like The Sandman that weren't really taking on superheroes, or Watchmen that were deconstructing the genre, or Cerebus that was essentially a Conan the Barbarian parody that developed into a literary and idiosyncratic story. If it doesn't sound entirely snobbish, I must say: I did feel like I'd outgrown the typical smash-'em-up slugfest superhero story.

And then by my early 20's I was buying very little of what the store sold, even the more nuanced material. I had tuition and rent and bills, and my disposable income I was directing more into music. It wasn't that I was better than the medium of graphic fiction in general; it simply wasn't inspired me to follow it as it used to. I still have some boxes of comics I bought in those waning days that I never actually read, and it's been 18 years since I stopped working there, so it's it been the lifetime of someone who's now old enough to vote since I cracked open a comic book.

Of course, back then there weren't that many big screen adaptations of the Marvel and DC stable of characters. Superman in the late '70s, and Tim Burton's Batman in the late '80s, but by and large sales of the comics were the way fans got their fix. It was a thriving niche market. Now there's few comic shops left (although the one where I worked is still in business). The geek world was kept largely separate. The San Diego Comic Con was for fans and creators. Now all of that clearly has become more of a dominant cultural force, and the non-geek part of the population is exposed to more of that than ultimately may be good for either side. However, that's the same argument against indie rock getting embraced by the mainstream by those who preferred the lack of spotlight; there was a clearly defined "us" and "them" to distinguish who was in-the-know.

But for the non-geek public it's entirely likely superhero movies are still relatively novel. And the main way a lot of people are seeing these characters is on the big screen rather than on page. Is it only a matter of time until the public grows weary of the superhero genre due to run-of-the-mill stories, as I did with the comics back in my adolescence?

Allow me to answer that with this question: Does Hollywood still make Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies?


To be honest I really have no specific interest in seeing Avengers in the theater. I expect it will be a bombastic spectacle with a bit more wit than usual, but that can wait until DVD or Netflix. That's how I saw:

  • Spider-Man I and II
  • X-Men I and II
  • Watchmen 
  • Wolverine 
  • X Men First Class
The movies from the recent decade that I actually saw in the theater:
  • X-Men III
  • Batman Begins
  • The Dark Knight 
  • Iron Man
  • Superman Returns 
Some were good, some were okay, and some were... not.

But here's the thing about the recent spate: I didn't see any of the Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man II, or Thor movies at all, so I'm not really primed for The Avengers anyway.

When (even non-geek) people are excited to see The Avengers, is it perhaps because they're not burned out on them. But for all I know, having not actually seen it, the movie will be great. If it's only mediocre, that's hardly unique to superhero movies; it's merely that these days the genre that was considered for a specific market several decades ago is prevalent enough to have mediocre movies that are still blockbusters, rather than only the exceptional (actually good) ones from the genre hitting on with a mass audience.

Or maybe it just seems that way from my perspective.

In any case, it seems we may be close to reaching a halcyon time for fans of that, where overexposure and diminished overall results may drive it back to being the niche it used to be, and culture commentators won't feel compelled to discuss something mediocre because it's popular, because the movies won't be blockbusters. Only the good ones will be green-lit, and it will be back to where the snobs won't have to be ashamed of a cultural world where such things are the necessary topic, where Comic Con is not dominated by movie studios, and where geeks get to be the under-the-radar masterminds they are more comfortable with being.


We could simply conclude if you don't like superhero movies, don't go see them. Ah, but where's the room for complaining then?


  1. I remember the days when anyone older than ten years old who read and enjoyed comics was a freak. And if you were interested in writing comics as an adult -- weirdo! How times have changed. I've seen two different employees at a local coffeehouse wearing Thor t-shirts, Jack Kirby artwork.

    So I show up early to the party and now everyone else wants in and it gets too damn crowded.

  2. I never read comic books... they weren't allowed in the ward when I was of an age to appreciate them. We've seen them all except Captain America. We hated the Hulk movies the most (too much bad CGI). Thor was visually pretty but stupid. Iron Man 2 wasn't nearly as fun as Iron Man 1. So our expectations of Avengers (on video) are low. But you're right... these movies should cater to the geek subculture, not try to be mass-market. Movie studios can't survive if they're NOT mass-market, though.


So, what do you think?