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Can superhero movies be works of art?

Short answer: Sure, but has it happened yet?

Matt Zoller Seitz says he's a fan of superhero movies -- but that doesn't mean he thinks they've been particularly good. In a piece at Film Salon called "Superheroes suck!" (just to get fans' attention), published to coincide with this weekend's opening of "Iron Man 2," Matt argues that comic-book movies are "Hollywood's most bankrupt genre." Even the now-ubiquitous zombie movies have produced a notable list of films he considers "more engrossing, uncompromising and consistently imaginative -- and more likely to reward repeat viewings -- than pretty much any superhero film made since 1978." (That would be a reference to "Superman: The Movie," which I still consider to be the most entertaining and resonant of comic-book movies.)

"And in the 32 years since the release of 'Superman: The Movie,' what has the superhero genre given us?" he asks himself. "What's the cream of the crop?" Well, even the best of 'em are not so impressive next to achievements in other genres.

"The Dark Knight" and "Batman Begins" head up the list; whatever one thinks of their approach toward dramaturgy (director Chris Nolan's M.O. is to have his characters deliver freshman psychology and philosophy dissertations while whirling the camera for no good reason and cutting every few seconds), they were true to the dark (at times ugly) essence of their source material. And they were confident enough to disgorge raw data at a stock-ticker pace and expect viewers to keep up. But neither film contains a moment as moving as Brendan Gleeson's fight to keep his sanity after being infected in "28 Days Later," or a cinematic flourish as wickedly clever as the twinned tracking shots in "Shaun of the Dead" that compare life in a pre- and post-zombie world. Where's the heart in Nolan's movies? Where's the poetry? Where's the soul?

He's unenthusiastic about the "Iron Man" movies ("if you think cool competence is synonymous with excellence") and the "X-Men" franchise ("I can't easily recall what events happened in which film") and damns "Spider-Man 2," the best of that series, with faint praise ("Damn near perfect for what it was -- but there's that phrase again.")

Matt takes the opportunity to defend two imperfect and widely disparaged movies -- Ang Lee's "Hulk" and Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" -- as "the most creatively daring large-scale experiments yet attempted in the genre."

I regret I haven't seen either of them. But I have argued in the past that comic-book and superhero movies do deserve to be taken seriously -- and by that I mean they should be subjected to the same standards of critical judgment you'd apply to any other kind of movie. I've also noted that filmmakers themselves haven't done particularly well by the genre -- though comic book movies have, by and large, been more accomplished than those based on video games. Yes, I think it's self-evident that comic books and video games -- and even movies based on comic books and video games -- can aspire to the level of art, even if it hasn't happened very often.

Short-sighted people used to argue about whether genres as disreputable as horror or science-fiction could contain art -- even though F.W. Murnau made "Nosferatu" in 1922 and Fritz Lang made "Metropolis in 1927. I don't believe in ghettoizing movies by genre, in pretending that a summer science-fiction release has to be judged on a different scale than a fall Oscar-bait biopic or a Romanian experimental theater drama. Any of them is capable of being a great film, worthy of active appreciation, or a dull and forgettable few hours of wasted time. It's not my place to speculate about how deep or superficial the filmmakers' "intentions" were and how well they may have met whatever standards I imagine they may have set for themselves. All I care about is what's on the screen -- and it's either exciting and engaging or it isn't.

Both Matt and Tim Robey, in an admiring response at Telegraph.co.uk ("It's risky being rude about superheroes"), address the difficulty of discussing superhero movies seriously -- as movies -- in the context of the online fan/geek culture that is quick to shut down any possibility of an exchange of ideas with ad hominem attacks and imperious pronouncements backed up by... strongly expressed opinions. (I refuse to use the insulting term "fanboys," but you know what I'm talking about.) Writes Matt:

Critics who don't like a particular superhero film -- any superhero film -- are apt to be simultaneously blasted in online comments threads as aesthetic turistas ill-equipped to judge the work's true depth and snooty killjoys who expect too much and need to lighten the hell up. Neat trick.

Or, as Robey puts it, "either we're subjecting the films to too much analysis, or not enough. Many of the comments under Seitz's piece bear out this observation precisely."

No doubt, for example, somebody will take issue with Matt's comments above about Nolan's Batman movies (which are very much in harmony with my own) and, while failing to address any of them, try to dismiss them by attacking his motives (hey, he doesn't like those movies!) -- or mine for citing them (stop picking on Nolan!). So, the criticism itself stands unchallenged, but (in the form of argument perfected by FOX News) the opposition is demonized.

David Bordwell also explored some of this territory, regarding the relatively new category of the "superhero picture," in his essential 2008 essay, "Superheroes for sale." Why have there been so many of these movies in recent years, DB wondered, and why have they been popular, even though most haven't been very good movies? "It's clearly not due to a boom in comic-book reading. Superhero books have not commanded a wide audience for a long time..." he wrote.

And he doesn't buy the zeitgeist argument, either: "Critics tend to think that if a movie is popular, it reflects the populace. But a ticket is not a vote for the movie's values. I may like or dislike it, and I may do either for reasons that have nothing to do with its projection of my hidden anxieties." (And which "fractions of our psyche are solicited by 'Sex and the City' and 'Horton Hears a Who'?")

No one doubted that "Iron Man 2" would do just fine its opening weekend, and it has. Few seem to like it as much as the first film, but critics are receiving it as a serviceable sequel in a category that relies on sequels and prequels -- because audiences usually respond to pre-sold, packaged experiences that remind them of better ones they've had before, which is what the sequel biz is all about. But there's still an overall feeling of diminished returns surrounding the picture. As Kirk Honeycutt wrote in his predominantly negative review in The Hollywood Reporter: "A film series that started out with critical and commercial success will have to settle for only the latter with this sequel..."

I once thought that comic-book adventures -- those involving superheroes, in particular -- seemed to be ideal fodder for the movies. They promised action, drama, humor, spectacular stunts and visuals, malleable metaphors... But now I'm not so sure. It's going to take filmmakers who have the vision to grab the pictures off the page and transform them into cinema, not just illustrated panels; who can expand upon the source juvenilia and make something that also engages richer, deeper adult sensibilities -- something that works as a fully dimensional (not ViewMaster "3-D") film and not just within the limited scope of what has previously been known as the "comic book movie."

According to writer Ben Magid:

A lot of producers and writers now try to convert their scripts to comic books to help sell them to the studios. It's an odd business model. A comic costs about 5 to 10 thousand dollars to make. The studio will then have to option the rights to the comic book, add another producer's (the comic book publisher) salary, and then pay a writer, or writers, to write the script, when all they had to do from the beginning was read the original script, pay the writer, and save a lot of money. Some say that a comic helps the studio exec "see" the movie. I say, if your imagination is that limited, you are in the wrong business.

Maybe that's the more significant problem -- not that comic books are being made into movies, but that scripts of all kinds are being turned into comic books.

I'm sticking to what I (only partly facetiously) wrote in my review of "Iron Man" in 2008:

The world needs another comic book movie like it needs another Bush administration, but if we must have one more (and the Evil Marketing Geniuses at Marvel MegaIndustries will do their utmost to ensure that we always will), "Iron Man" is a swell one to have. Not only is it a good comic book movie (smart and stupid, stirring and silly, intimate and spectacular), it's winning enough to engage even those who've never cared much for comic books or the movies they spawn. Like me.

One of these years, somebody's going to make a great and timeless work of art based on a superhero comic book. It's going to be a genre picture that reveals itself worthy of close scrutiny and in-depth study as well as being a thrilling cinematic experience from moment to moment -- worthy of the same kind of love, admiration and respect as other terrific movies that work genre territory: "Scarface" (1932), "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968), "The Fly" (1986), "The Road Warrior/Mad Max 2" (1981), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), "His Girl Friday" (1940)... (Come to think of it, in some respects any or all of those might be considered superhero movies. Genres get the heroes they deserve, I guess...)

Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing that.

For greater context, please see Roger Ebert's Journal entry, "Video games can never be art."

Also, please see: "Rio Bravo: The superhero movie."

ADDENDUM (05/09/2010): I'm reminded by readers that M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" is indeed a first-rate superhero movie (though not one adapted from a comic book); that Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" adaptation is also top-drawer (though many find it too "faithful" to the graphic novel to take on a life of its own); and that Brad Bird's "The Incredibles," though also an animated film, is one of the most accomplished treatments of superheroes in the movies. (And I still haven't seen it!)

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