I haven't seen the film yet, but my boyfriend assures me it is well worth my time. Still, this is a big summer for comic book movies, and I haven't seen this "Amazing" entry yet largely because I saw "The Avengers" twice last month, caught up on my one missing Marvel entry ("Thor") via Netflix three weeks ago, and I'm mentally gearing up for "The Dark Knight Rises," which I pray doesn't disappoint me as a final chapter to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight saga. Simply put, there's a lot of superhero stuff spinning through the multiplex these days, and I need a second to step back and ponder its place in my life and its current importance in tough economic times.
New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Darghis wrote an engaging roundtable about comic book movies last week, highlighting how the films' New Millenium rise is comparable to the high-flying times of escapist movie-musical entertainment during the Great Depression. Cinema itself was once seen as a purveyor of brain rot, just as comics have been stuck with that label since their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. And by comparing one popular art form to another, the two critics gave me a little insight into why I've started feeling odd about these usually stirring, always entertaining films.
First off, it's every company's priority to make money. I understand that, particularly as a consumer of movies and junk books. Marvel Studios has never tried to hide its franchise-building ways (especially since becoming its own boss), and there's no reason to start now, given the giant success of all the films leading into its largest success -- "The Avengers," which proved that building up a fan base across a handful of movies can yield massive results. Hell, Marvel could make a whole movie about Rocket Raccoon, and no one would bat an eye (and it looks likely the company will feature that furry fighter in some film over the next couple years)!
I guess something I'm wondering is ... should Marvel capitalize on all this success? Should DC, with Batman? Should all these superhero movies keep getting made? I mean, I get why the "Man of Steel" has been produced, but do we desperately need a movie about the origins of Ant-Man? (If it's the Iredeemable Ant-Man, then I say yes, but only if it features a key scene where he impregnates a woman on the grave of her dead husband.)
Given the way culture trends, superhero movies will one day fall out of this hectic boom they've been in since the arrival of "X-Men" in 2000. That's inevitable. So, of course the market needs to be as saturated as possible before DC/Warner Brothers and Marvel float away. They need to squeeze blood out of this diamond, to mix metaphors. But I wonder if something isn't being lost with every tragic origin story and "putting on the costume" montage they produce. If superheroes exist as modern-day mythology, at what point do the stories stop speaking to their audience? When do myths lose their power? And do heroes' journeys have an expiration date within a culture? I certainly know I don't look forward to watching Peter Parker lose his uncle all over again, since I know the outcome is, "With great power, comes great responsibility" and a pair of stylish underoos. But I'll watch, because the marketers have been demanding I buy my 3D glasses everytime I walk into Wal-Mart for groceries, and see Spidey fruit snacks everywhere.
So what's the value in that hectoring and selling? Is there any value in a story branded and sold to everyone for profit? Often, what people need in tough times is a distraction, and most superhero movies fit the bill, from the cosmically ridiculous "Fantastic Four" to the bumbling Clark Kent antics of "Superman Returns." And entertainment should be the least that artists provide their audience with ... but for me, comics can go further than sheer entertainment; they can prove themselves useful to their widening audience. Yet I worry that they won't, past "The Dark Knight Rises." Again, I haven't seen "The Amazing Spider-Man." But its repetition of formula (i.e., the origin story) will start having diminishing returns someday, and when that happens, I fear the power of comics' storytelling will be lost to the larger audience that needs it. I'm talking about the power of translation.
What do I mean by translation? I mean, these characters exist as allegories at best and fantasies at least. Superheroes can give us an ideal to live up to: Superman is a symbol of strength and courage, Wonder Woman is a feminist icon, The Flash is a stand-in for the infinite nature of human potential. We can also imagine their adventures -- people might wonder what Batman would do were he in their shoes; we might dream we can vault over rooftops with him, a la the Boy Wonder.
But heroes sustaining and engaging the average citizen is the least of the services they can provide. They don't have to tell stories about our ideals. They can tell stories about us, about human nature. And the best of superhero comics -- the best stories -- do that; they move beyond proving moral superiority or physical might, and make us question our values. In these stories, we are not raised to the level of gods; the gods are on our level, and we weigh the choices they make not on a scale of kick-ass to admirable, but on a scale of whether or not we'd make the same choices. In these stories, we become not just as capable as our heroes, but as culpable as them. And that's dangerous, both to our psyches and to our business sense.
There's a reason amazing books like "Y: The Last Man" and "Astro City" languish in development hell. Sure, TV's done a little better, with the morally ambiguous "Walking Dead" gaining an audience. But projects that embue comic plots with a hint of drama or weirdness are not being shown in thousands of theaters this weekend. Instead we're getting our heroes showing us how to behave (even in "The Avengers," when the soulful Hulk rejoins his teammates because, hey, it's the right thing to do -- on some cutting room floor, there lies the story of chilled-out Mark Ruffalo's emotional journey from that abandoned factory to the alien battle, and I want to see it). And that's fine, but maybe we all need more? Maybe we need to take our pop icons and infuse them with more weight than we thought they had, and then we'll learn something about American society, about ourselves. Then it won't just be the nerds who know all the continuity, and hate that Batman has a twin brother now, having a conversation -- it'll be everyone.
Or can popular entertainment be a useful end in itself? Is accessibility to genre material enough to satisfy all our urges for it? Or should we be using this material to launch more discussions about our modern world? Should we take an essentially archaic format (the funny book) and grind it until it becomes a new archaic format (the comic book movie)? Forgive me, Spidey, but I don't think so. I see more potential there, just like the people in those movie theater seats who keep coming back for more.