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A Conversation About Superhero Movies

Wait. Bold type. Is this a new one of those slightly misguided political parody posts where you had to put an afterword to try and mitigate the ridiculous offensiveness of it?

No. That was a phase. I’m so much older and wiser now.

Are you?

No.

So, what is this post then?

It’s a review of Spider-Man: Homecoming. But everyone has reviewed this movie, so I thought a gimmick might be fun.

The gimmick in question being?

Pretending to discuss the movie, only I’m discussing it with myself?

You have become creatively bankrupt. No-one will want to read this.

I’m okay with that. Also, this is a fun way of articulating all the doubts I have about my initial judgements. And I’ve seen other people doing this.

Fine. So, how was Spider-Man: Homecoming?

It was good. I liked it. It’s fun, and satisfying, and justified the reboot of the character. I’ll want to see it again.

This seems like a pretty definitive judgement. Why are you talking to yourself about this, then?

Because this movie made me realise something about Marvel’s movies, and about blockbuster filmmaking as a whole.

Which is?

It’s cool to say that all superhero movies are the same, and that they’ve contributed to a creative stagnation in Hollywood. That noise became especially loud last year with car crashes like Suicide Squad and X-Men: Apocalypse. I’ve always rejected that, and this year has vindicated superhero fans. Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming have been critical and commercial hits. The genre is in better health than ever, just as it expands.

What’s the problem with that?

The problem is that one of those movies exercised genuine storytelling innovation, which was Logan, an elegiac, sombre character study in superhero’s clothing. The other four all felt like they were drawn from the same well – different aesthetics, different intent, but all circling around the same basic themes and philosophy.

What about Wonder Woman? Everyone loved that movie!

They did, and I appreciate that. I saw the movie and thought it was solidly enjoyable but didn’t take the genre anywhere new. I’ve had a learning experience in seeing how impactful it has been in terms of representation as the first female superhero movie in over a decade, and I concede that it is, if not a masterpiece, than at least one of the most important movies the genre has produced so far.

I haven’t completely discarded that judgement – the third act is a CGI gloop face-off against an underdeveloped enemy with an emotional beat that’s effective, but also the climax of Captain America down to the fact that the person sacrificing themselves for their love interest are muscular heroic white men named Steve, played by actors named Chris. And while the themes and ideas raised by the movie revolving around a woman are original, the bedrock of the movie is still a familiar hero’s journey set within a familiar storytelling universe.

Wait, weren’t we talking about Spider-Man? What happened?

I got sidetracked. So much so that I just changed the post’s title from ‘a Spider-Man review’.

This is why no-one reads your blog.

Eh.

Anyway. What was it about Spider-Man that made you think about this, as opposed to say, Guardians Vol 2?

Guardians 2 was a sequel made off the back of rapturous acclaim for the original by the same director. It’s unsurprising that it was enjoyable, but less fresh, because it was always going to give people exactly what they wanted, and wasn’t in a position to take risks. I enjoyed Spider-Man about the same as Vol 2, and I left the movie feeling the same way. That felt surprising, in a way.

Why?

The Spider-Man movies have always been kind of all over the place, the product of a ferocious tug of war between creative and commercial interests. Spider-Man 2, the best movie featuring the character, was a perfect distillation of Sam Raimi’s auteurist instincts into a franchise-friendly mould, a complete and satisfying story. On the other end, Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the two movies before Homecoming, were chopped-up messes with no coherent through-line where the handprints of a nervous studio were visible for all to see. Even the two in the middle feel distinctive – the original 2002 movie is a really fun origin story caught between grounded high-school movie realism and being a story where Willem Dafoe flies around in a plastic suit screaming while Spider-Man bounces around on inflatables, and the 2012 reboot is a Coldplay song gained sentience that reproduces the origin story with 20% extra pouting.

Wow, okay. Did we need all that detail? Nerd.

Yes.

Anyway, Homecoming was the first that felt… normal. It felt confident, sure of itself, striking a precise balance between close-ended storytelling and world-building. The jokes were reliably funny, and the action was basically fine, with one standout sequence. There were lots of characters who weren’t very developed, but were played by overqualified actors who made them interesting anyway. It crafted a moderately compelling but entirely unsurprising hero’s journey with a nice moment of catharsis at the end. There wasn’t much individuality to it, but it had its own sheen of difference anyway. felt… like other Marvel movies.

It is a Marvel movie.

Yes, but it’s the first Spider-Man ever to feel like it was made completely painlessly. The character had been a weird, volatile experimental adjunct to the Marvel universe for over a decade; a microcosm of the highs and lows the genre could strike. And now, the character is in safe hands, starring in a fun but safe movie that’s making a lot of money. And that feels like a microcosm of where the genre’s at too.

Fun but safe movies?

Yeah. Superhero movies feel like they’ve gone from weird, experimental quality lotteries to products of ruthlessly efficient machines. Outliers exist, like Logan. But even when the genre produces a bad movie, it’s just because the studio/creative balance the genre is now built on was wrong.

This is what the critics of the genre are saying – that they’re samey corporate products built to a formula and stifling creativity. Is that what you’re saying?

… Kind of?

Look, I like superhero movies. I always go and see a new one. I even ran to a bus stop so I could be in time to see the Fantastic Four reboot. I’ve also enjoyed all of the movies that have been released this year, which is a relief.

But I do recognise that complaint now. I no longer go in and expect ‘art’ when I go and see a superhero movie; I just kind of want it to be fun and engaging like the ones I’ve seen before. Is it right that these movies keep giving me the same feeling, keep providing the same insights into the world, and feel like they’re the products of the same algorithm?

I’m meant to be asking the questions. I can’t answer this for you.

Rude.

There is an answer between yes, and no, right?

See, you’re answering the questions now. How the tables have turned.

Why are you developing this conversation so elaborately? Don’t you have any real friends that you want to talk to about this?

I’ve been told that telling people that you’d like to discuss the creative state of superhero movies in depth is not a positive social action.

Returning to your (my) question, there is an answer between yes and no to this question, and it’s the only real one that can capture the strange contradiction that the superhero genre is currently in a better state than ever creatively, but are becoming more and more polemical.

I’m sure an eighteen year-old nerd like you could find this elusive answer.

Hurtful. But the best answer I can come up with is that superhero movies have gone with the tide, and that they’ve become more like comfort-food TV. You know what you’re going to get from your favourite shows, because they have a timeslot and a status quo to stick to. Sometimes, there are big twist episodes that surprise people briefly, before the next one clears it all up. It’s reliable and familiar, like the taste of cheap hot chocolate on the disappointingly rainy first day of winter.

I feel like you’re making a lot of ambiguous statements that could be interpreted as praise or criticism.

I am, which I suppose gets to the core problem. Do we want our movies to be like TV? Do we want to feel the same way each time we come out of the cinema if it means we know we’re getting good value? Is consistency in franchise filmmaking good? Every answer begets another question. And I can’t answer them all.

That’s unsatisfying.

So is life, but we get on with that just fine.

So, the superhero genre – is it stagnating, or flourishing? 

Neither. Haven’t you been listening? It’s plateaued at a satisfying level, probably as a result of studios being too scared to rock the boat either way, and because they’ve learned from some particularly egregious mistakes.

What’s the consequence of this?

Superhero fatigue. Fire. Rivers of blood. A plague of locusts. Death of the first born.

I feel like you’re not taking this seriously anymore.

Uh huh.

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