We have entered a dark age for film in North America, a dark age made all the more apparent by the golden age that TV is experiencing. As movies move ever more towards superhero pap, television has become a plot and character driven powerhouse that instead of trying to close the gap have opted to focus on the differences in screen size. More action, more sensory overload, more 3fuckingD. Movies have entered the superhero era with gusto – and they are suffering for it.
Now, I am by no means pretending that I don’t enjoy a good action flick – probably more often than is really good for my brain. But when it gets right down to it the recent offerings, whether from Marvel or DC, are pretty much all the same. Tortured hero, afflicted with superhuman abilities (or, in the case of Batman, superhuman ego), sets out to right the wrongs of the world/city/country/whatever. In the course of being superheroic, they have a crisis of conscience. With a little help from a two-dimensional female character, usually a love interest (or in the case of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a sex interest), our hero overcomes his crisis and rises to the occasion to save the day. Wake me up for the after credits bonus scene, please. What never happens is the awakening, the profound discovery of the fundamental nature of humanity that allows a hero to succumb to their nature but save the day anyway.
What also never happens is for a female character to assert herself outside of sexually loaded dialogue and action in order to legitimately reject or accept our hero. She is powerless in the face of his overpowering physicality. Even when she asserts herself on a physical level (looking at you, Scarlett Johannson and The Winter Soldier), kicking the ever living shit out of the bad guys she is never free of her subservience to the overt maleness of our hero. In Johannson’s case, many moviegoers have applauded Marvel’s move towards giving her some snappy and moderately clever dialogue. What they fail to mention that it is almost all in service to finding Captain America a date, and chiding him for not getting out there and being the stallion that he so obviously is. Her commitment to getting Captain America laid is so palpable I was surprised when she didn’t throw him a pity-screw by the end of the movie. Way to empower your female lead, Marvel. You deserve accolades beyond measure.
Clearly, these movies are making money at the box office. However, people are more and more choosing to stay at home and watch TV. And why wouldn’t they? The best offerings on TV are profound, beautiful explorations of humanity. They ooze story. The characters are palpable, recognizable within ourselves. And perhaps most important to the impact they are having on whether one goes to the movies or stays home to watch TV, they have become more visually stunning. Photography is important to TV now than ever before. Constructing an image that forwards plot and character while being breathtakingly gorgeous has become the norm in programs like Mad Men, House of Cards and most recently True Detective. The image serves a purpose other than KABLAMMO! These programs are more than just some CGI expert jerking off. They are carefully thought out works of art that illuminate who we are as a people, and add to the cultural milieu. They have something profound to say, something that Hollywood has completely forgotten in the race to create the biggest spectacle possible.
I know what many are saying. “C’mon, Geisel. Movies are escapism. They are pure entertainment. I don’t always want to think at the movies,” and I would have to agree that this is part of the movie experience. But that doesn’t mean that all movies of a certain genre need to be mindless rolls of superpap toilet paper. In fact, superhero movies are perfectly poised to be the opposite because of the ridiculousness of the notion of superheroes. Going in there is a suspension of disbelief required, opening the door to all sorts of possibilities. I am reminded of Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, almost universally hated by the comic book set. A movie, by the way, that was more like a comic book in its construction than any other I’ve seen recently. A movie that actually had something interesting going on in it. A movie that used Banner’s transformation into the Hulk as an allegory for mental illness and its place in society.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman skated the edge of such social commentary, but fell sadly short. The Xmen movies also make a stab at illuminating the human condition and how the other is marginalized in our world, but they too fall short of the mark. Instead we are left with brooding, whiny, action packed Kpow! Blam! Biff!. After the 500th time, what’s the point? We’ve seen it all before. Where is the new? Or at least the attempt to be more than just another super-charged crap-fest.
What is most frustrating is the unfulfilled potential to be more. To be important in some way. To live on in memory. To be even moderately interesting. Movies used to have an indefinable magic that allowed people to be immersed, challenged, stimulated, entertained. Now, Hollywood has degenerated into a garbage pile of explosions, ass and an indefinable stupidity that makes us all losers.