The Q&A Hole: Why Do We Need Any More Superhero Movies?
With Kelly-Sue DeConnick, Alex Robinson, Paul Pope, and more
By Wayne Alan Brenner, 11:55AM, Mon. Feb. 4, 2013
I mean, do we need any more superhero movies?
But nobody wants to get only "yes" or "no" as an answer here, so the question was phrased as "Why?" to encourage respondents to reply at interesting length.
Also, I asked more people than usual to answer this latest question of our weekly Q&A Hole series, so's to provide a deeper soil in which to grow further discussion. I asked people who work in the comics industry – sometimes specifically the superhero comics industry – and I asked non-industry people who enjoy comics (including superhero comics) and movies. I even asked a couple of filmmakers. (This is Austin; filmmakers are thick as cactus in these parts.)
And now here – with the river city's own Graham Reynolds at the end, looking ahead and offering Job-like counsel – are their answers:
Kelly-Sue DeConnick, comics writer: Do we? I suspect, because of my profession, I'm supposed to insist that we do. But, come on. We need a national healthcare solution. We need to rethink the system that supports the polarization of our governing bodies. Do we need more superhero movies? Pffft – no. I mean, I can actually write the price of a ticket to a superhero movie off my taxes and know that it would be entirely defensible in an audit and I'm not all that interested in a lot of them. I think … it's not just superhero movies. A lot of the effects-based and toy-based movies have taken the dramatic rule about upping the stakes to such a degree that I have a hard time caring: I've got global disaster fatigue. Sometimes they make it work – sometimes the person behind the wheel gets it – and the movie is really about the character moments and courage in the face of overwhelming odds, or putting aside individual egos for the good of the whole, or whatever. And then sometimes I find the supposed heroes utterly and completely unrelatable and I feel like I'm watching over somebody's shoulder while they play a video game. That experience doesn't do much for me.
Alex Robinson, comics creator: I want them to keep making superhero movies until we see a Fantastic Four movie done in the style of The Incredibles. The first one would be done in that swingin', groovy Lee/Kirby style. The sequel would be a faithful recreation of John Byrne's '80s FF, maybe climaxing with the Trial of Reed Richards. After that, no more superhero movies need be made. That is all.
Paul Pope, comics creator: I don't know if we need any more superhero movies, really – I myself have only seen a handful of them. People like them and they make a lot of money for the studios, so I don't see them fading away anytime soon. A lot of them seem formulaic to me, as is the case with a lot of the superhero comics. Often, nothing of any great literary or human – or even artistic – interest happens in these films, they're all spectacle and flash. Which is fine, just not my vintage. No iconic character such as Spider-Man can be killed or in any way significantly changed – in effect changing or ending the brand – and so you get recyclable stories of good guys fighting bad guys or the latest alien invasion or the Nazis. I think the reason some superhero films work is because they're actually science fiction films and can deal with larger ideas, such as time travel or dystopianism. I can't stand the Nolan Dark Knight films, they're ruthlessly drab and dour, lacking any light or sex appeal or self-awareness. However, I really love the Iron Man films. Stark is portrayed as a hero/scientist – when was the last time you saw a character in a film dramatically design and build a supercollider as an essential plot point? I thought that was cool. Hugh Jackman in the first twenty minutes of X-Men 1 is super cool, ' cos he's such a sexy and mysterious badass. I am looking forward to Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel, which looks like it has some potential to be more than just another re-hash of a character who should belong to the public domain, just like Mickey Mouse. As for myself, I'm more into auteurs of film, such as Truffault and Murnau and Tarkovsky and Jodorowsky. Same goes for comics – I look at them for the artwork. I admire cartoonists who write and draw their own works, such as Roy Crane, Moebius, Jeff Smith, Los Bros, and Blutch.
Jim Rugg, comics creator: I thought about this for like 13 hours today (not directly, but I was aware of it – I read the question first thing this morning while drinking coffee and going through messages). And after some thought and a few unsuccessful attempts at an answer, I realized that we don't "need" any more superhero movies.
Rafael Antonio Ruiz, filmmaker: We've always needed superheroes. Always will. We just lie to ourselves and call them something else: Titans, bandits with a heart of gold, cowboys, brilliant consulting detectives, knights of an ancient order, hot shot cops, secret agents. Whatever the character, audiences need superhuman ideals to play out the drama of good vs. evil on a grand scale. After this current phase of tragic heroes cursed with power and responsibility, we'll call them something else. They'll be "realer" or "edgier." But they will never change.
Kyle Henry, filmmaker: As Tina Turner sang in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, we don't need another hero ... or, in this case, another superhero. When looking at the American psyche for some of its more crippling and egregious contemporary mythologies/socio-pathologies, the superhero unfortunately ranks right up there on the top of my list with first-person-shooter arcade games. By centering the story of agency on the actions of one special individual (the only one who can "save" us), the superhero story normally does very little to teach anyone how to really get change affected in the world, which for me is far more the result of likeminded people working in groups over the course of decades and adapting to change with various strategies that are time-consuming, personally debilitating, and fraught with failure. Anyone who has done more than cursory reading about the American Civil Rights movements knows there was a lot more to it than Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, two important martyrs but also figureheads who stood on the shoulders of legions of ordinary heroes, both sung and unsung. I often think the biggest brainwashing device yet invented that threatens the foundations of our democracy with quasi-fascist ideology is the superhero myth and archetype; and for the sake of our sanity and agency as citizens, I wish it would die an ignoble box-office death already. So spend your hard-earned money and buy a DVD compilation of Eyes on the Prize, or Harlan County USA, or watch Ways of Seeing on YouTube, or, heck, watch old episodes of Soap or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. But please eject Batman from your psychic passenger seat. Be the change you want to see in the world – with the power of your actions and ideals, not the size of your sidearms or rocket launchers.
Richard Whittaker of The Austin Chronicle: First off, who's 'we'? The creatives behind films who are finding a new outlet, or audiences who are finding something to enjoy? But beyond the 'we', there're two questions wrapped up in this. One, do we need more superhero movies, and two, do we need more superhero comic adaptations? I'd say yes to both, with the coda that they should at least be decent movies. For me, this is the golden age of superhero movies, not least because the technology has finally caught up with the visuals. Are there misfires? Please don't make me watch a Galactus-free Fantastic Four, or the simpering, mewling Peter Parker-lite that Sam Raimi inflicted upon us. But Marvel's phase one (from Iron Man to The Avengers) has never dropped below entertaining. In some cases, the films have enhanced the material - a half-crippled Christian Bale is an enduring image. And then there are the original properties: The Incredibles, All Superheroes Must Die, the underrated The Specials, and Super (shut up, crime!). And Unbreakable, a movie that hides its true nature as a superhero movie until the final reel.
Kristin Hogan, comics creator: Because the rest of the world has only just now realized the brilliance of Joss Whedon. So I expect to see more from him in the superhero department. Don't forget, superhero doesn't necessarily mean Spandex and capes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a superhero. There is so much more that can be done with the genre outside of the confines of what we've already seen. Also, we have yet to get a decent female superhero movie. They dropped the ball on Wonder Woman. I still want to see a well done Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn on the big screen some time in the future when we're ready for Batman again. And of course I hope these films get kids and adults into the comic-book stores. One hopes the films interest people in the source material, or makes them want to try new comics. There is so much more to be done in comics that we haven't even tried yet, but we need people buying them to support the careers of artists and writers.
Lance Myers, animation filmmaker: My relationship with superhero movies is complicated. It usually plays out like this – I think of myself as an adult who's outgrown the genre and would rather take in the latest Woody Allen flick. I scoff at any new teaser/trailers for hero movies with the same two-fold response: 1) looks like the standard overblown blockbuster with a huge SFX budget and no soul, and 2) looks like they don't really get it, and they won't capture the heart of the story I grew up reading. But then the weekend comes and I start looking for things to do with my 10-year-old son, and we wind up going to see, say, The Avengers, and I see the excitement in his eyes as he bounces up and down in his seat, and we look at each other and laugh with approval when The Hulk beats the hell out of Loki, and I realize that we have now arrived at the technological point where if you can write it we can get it onto the screen, and I think about all the stories that meant so much to me as a kid and as an awkward teen and I become giddy at the possibilities. Longshot? ABC Warriors? Marshal Law? Cerebus? That's when I think to myself, "Keep 'em coming!"
Tim Doyle, comics creator: I don't think we need superhero movies any more or less than we need stories with heroes, romance stories, stories about war or peace or having babies or growing old or painting with your left foot. Superheroes movies are a subset of not just one genre of film, but many – action and sci-fi with a bit of romance usually thrown in on top. To say we don't 'need' any more superhero movies is just silly. And when it comes down to it – we don't 'need' any more movies at all – period. There's far more movies in existence right now than one could reasonably watch in a lifetime. But we want them – oh, how we want them. We are always going to need stories about heroes, though, be it a story of Superman – a boy sent to Earth by a powerful father to live among the people with humble beginnings – and inspiring humanity through sacrifice – or about Jesus who, uh … is pretty much the same person, just more beard-y. We want heroes and stories for them to live in, and for better or worse, the market will deliver. With all that said, though, I probably could have lived without Ghost Rider 2.
Justin Davis of Techcitement: In the mid-1950s, science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon created something that far outlasted any of his writings. Sturgeon's Law, or sometimes Sturgeon's Revelation, is defined simply as this: Ninety percent of everything is crap. Sturgeon came about this revelation after repeatedly being asked about the validity of science fiction when offered some of the more heinous examples as representative of the genre as a whole; he boldly claimed that ninety percent of science fiction is crap – before going on to extend this line of thought. "Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap," Sturgeon asserted, "it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms." So if you ask the question of why do we need any more superhero movies, you must ask why we need any type of movie. Why do we need any more political thrillers? Romantic comedies? Supernatural horror? Futuristic science fiction? All-ages animation? Musicals? We need these movies for the ten percent that isn't crap. The ten percent that elevates the artform. The ten percent that best represents these modern mythological characters, archetypes, and ideas. The ten percent that finds inspiration in the original artform it's presented in (usually comic books here) to create something interesting and new. The ten percent that can honor its roots without being a slave to the original medium. The ten percent that delights us in whatever way we interpret that. A good superhero movie can also be a political thriller, romantic comedy, supernatural horror, futuristic science fiction, all-ages animation, or even a musical. It's an overall concept to fit other puzzle pieces into.
Brandon Zuern of Austin Books & Comics: Do we? How about more incredible, thought-provoking movies based on indie comics, like American Splendor or A History of Violence? I'd love to see movies based on the crime-noir graphic novels by Brian Michael Bendis, like A.K.A. Goldfish and Jinx. But those are a box-office gamble, so Hollywood will stick with something safe. But despite my immediate snobby reaction, I love good superhero movies. That first Iron Man and the recent Avengers flick nailed it. They're the movies I dreamed of for my entire childhood. We do need these movies for the same reason we need superhero comics: We crave a mythology and larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things. We live in a world where we need heroes, and the movies are finally getting right (mostly) what comics have been doing well for over half a century. And since movies reach a lot more people than comics, there is a definite need. I just hope they don't ignore the brilliant non-hero comic stories that would look great on the big screen.
Mike D'Alonzo of G4 Media: That's like asking "Why do we need more romantic comedies?" As long as there are superhero stories, we should make movies about them! I do wish that we hadn't wasted some of the better superhero stories on movies that weren't very good (I'm looking at you, X-Men 3, and how you ruined the Phoenix story), but there are such good superhero books and new ways at looking at the genre that are coming out all the time, that I don't think we'll ever run out of good material. Sure, Ghost Rider sucked, but Kick-Ass was great. For every Elektra, there's a Dark Knight.
Chris Nicholas of Staple! The Independent Media Expo: Maybe "need"� is a rather strong word, but maybe not. What does one need? We need air to breathe, food to eat, shelter from the elements, and, arguably, clothing. But we also need art to uplift us. Perhaps it stretches the definition of art to include superhero movies, but, with their elemental tales of good vs. evil, right and wrong, heroes and villains, they create a kind of modern mythology that speaks to our basic human need for stories that capture our imagination and codify our inner struggles, dramatically and cathartically. Not to get all Jungian, but there could very well be some archetypal collective-unconscious thingamajigs at work here. And if we do need them, now is a better time than ever to get them. Filmmaking technology has advanced to the point where the special effects that perforce attend such stories can be done convincingly, and, in the right hands, such films can be compelling, thrilling, even moving, spectacles. I know the last few I saw (Dark Knight, Capt. America, Avengers) were quite well done indeed. I also think they're pretty decent promotion for the comics industry, maybe getting some new folks to pick up the books the films are inspired by, and hopefully becoming fans of the medium as a whole – which is something I have a personal stake in, myself. Lastly, they're just a lot of fun – and everyone needs that. PS: I don't want them to stop making these 'til somebody at least does a good Plastic Man flick. Or a not-abominable Fantastic Four.
Graham Reynolds, composer and bandleader: We need more superhero movies because we haven't quite reached payoff time – the best is yet to come. Actually, these coming superhero films will be so much better that they'll overshadow most of those that have been made so far. Think of the era of Westerns. While the genre was born right along with film with The Great Train Robbery, it didn't come to full big-studio glory until decades later, with classics like High Noon and Rio Bravo. But then, more than sixty years in, the great films really started coming. Works like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and so many more. And decades after those, the rewards have kept being made, from Jarmusch's Dead Man to HBO's Deadwood. None of the great Western films would have been as effective or even possible without the visual, audio, and textual vocabulary developed by creators and learned by the reading, listening, and watching public all those years. The great directors took that mainstream vocabulary and created things that were new and exciting, reaching unforeseen heights that were hard to imagine just a few years earlier. We just need to wait a little longer and superheroes will reach this stage. Superheroes as we know them didn't coming into being until 1938 with Superman's introduction in Action Comics #1. And this new kind of character didn't reach the silver screen until the '40s – putting the genre forty years behind the western. Given that timeline, now that the vocabulary has been established and the movie-going public understands the context, the time is ripe for the greatest superhero films to start being made. We all need just a bit of patience.