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It's not nice to call a superhero a "unitard"

Or: Do comic-book movie blog posts display traffic superpowers?

New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis held a discussion of comic-book movies and that subset known as "superhero movies" in advance of the Marvel re-boot, "The Amazing Spider-Man," which opens Tuesday, July 3. (The article will appear in the paper July 1, but is now online.) This, I think, goes to the heart of the matter:

SCOTT:What the defensive [superhero] fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns: a billion dollars! Who can argue with that? Nobody really does. Superhero movies are taken seriously, reviewed respectfully and enjoyed by plenty of Edmund Wilson types.

I've made some of these arguments many times before, but the one that really stands out for me here is the seriousness with which mainstream critics and intellectuals now approach comic books and comic-book movies. That's unprecedented. Distinctions between popular culture and high culture aren't nearly as rigid as they used to be. Movies that would once have been treated as nothing more than commercial entertainment products are now given serious consideration as artistic achievements. Because they can be both at the same time.

As Scott points out, there's no argument over the commercial viability or popularity of this genre. (Is "comic-book" a genre? I'm not sure if that's the right term, or if it should be considered fantasy or science-fiction or adventure...) That's beyond dispute, because it can be measured in dollars, and media attention (paid or fan-based or astroturfed). The overwhelming power of all our society's corporate economic, mass-appeal institutions are aligned in support of it. Dargis says:

The current superhero glut may have something to do with the human appetite for tales of good and evil, but there's no question that the corporate appetite for bigger returns is insatiable. And one thing we do know is that superhero movies sell not just theater tickets but also generate multiple revenue streams (pay-per-view, toys, video games, international distribution). People were excited to see "The Avengers," but how could they not be? We were bombarded with the movie for years in advance. As a Marvel executive told Forbes, "Every Marvel movie since 2008 was created with the full intention of this super franchise." And then there's the 24/7 advertising and Marvel's corporate "partnerships" with Walmart (which is peddling some 600 "Avengers" products), Acura, Harley-Davidson, Hasbro, Target -- I mean, there was no escaping it.

spiderman-maguire.jpg

Someone once said that "With great power, comes great responsibility." But responsibility to whom? And what are those responsibilities? Asking those kinds of questions in the face of a pop-culture pervasiveness is the responsibility of a handful of relatively powerless critics who choose to acknowledge that movies aren't made or shown in a vacuum (another of my favorite phrases), and that they deserve to be looked at from multiple angles -- as art, craft, entertainment, political and sociological phenomena, corporate consumables, modern myths... you name it. Comic-books were once a juvenile pastime, a lowbrow and more-or-less underground form of pulp publishing. That disreputability has long been a big part of their attraction, and essential to what I've always love about horror and science-fiction. Now, so-called "comic-book movies" are most definitely above-ground, mainstream, big business. They represent the establishment, the status quo. You can argue that has diminished them, or has magnified their influence, but if you're dealing with the place of movies in modern culture, they can't be entirely ignored or dismissed.

In May, I wrote a piece in which I said "any critic who reviews cultural phenomena rather than movies is indeed pushing irrelevancy. There are lots of op-ed pundits, trend-piece purveyors and listicle manufacturers who can and will cash in on the publicity surrounding a pop-culture cash cow. They don't have anything to do with movie criticism, though."

OK, I think I was overstating the case. I should have made it clearer (as I've said many times in the past) that I believe mainstream criticism, whether academic or journalistic, should be free to discuss any and all dimensions and implications of movies, but that true film criticism has to be rooted in close attention to the work itself. I've encountered too many irresponsible speculations about movies as, say, political metaphors, that failed to offer any specific examples to support their readings. (That "No Country for Old Men" is really about the invasion of Iraq, for instance.) Subtexual criticism is swell, but it shouldn't be advanced at the expense of, or without the demonstrable support of, what's actually there on the screen.

Dargis says that "public intellectuals"...

no longer have the forums they once did. There are oppositional voices, yes, yet they can be difficult to hear in the contemporary media context, with everyone always selling the exact same thing at the exact same moment. A recent editorial in The Columbia Journalism Review points to a reason: "Six companies dominate TV news, radio, online, movies, and publishing. Another eight or nine control most of the nation's newspapers." The media consolidation that traces back to the Reagan years has had enormous deleterious consequences on American movies. We're at a paradoxical moment when new digital technologies have created more and more stuff, movies included, even as the consolidation of the media gives us fewer real choices.

And when everyone is selling the same thing -- one week Spider-Man, the next Batman -- who, as you put it, can argue with that, especially when everyone is making so much money? One complicating factor is the corporate appropriation of fan culture. In a March article on how Lionsgate promoted "The Hunger Games," our colleague Brooks Barnes reported that the studio had assigned a publicist to cultivate fan blogs. It also sponsored a sweepstakes to bring five fans to the set, but it didn't invite reporters, because it didn't want fans to think, as Mr. Barnes wrote, that they were being fed something through professional filters. "People used to be O.K. with studios telling them what to like," Danielle DePalma, the company's senior vice president for digital marketing, said. "Not anymore. Now it's 'You don't tell us, we tell you.' " I don't know if she said this with a straight face, but it made me laugh.

It's not just professional critics who become the tools of marketing departments, providing ad blurbs in exchange for access. For the last 15 years or so, Internet fans, too, have been courted and co-opted.

But what's really striking about this is the fact that "public intellectuals" are examining and commenting on commercial movies made from comic books and young adult fiction in the first place. That's an incredibly significant development. Susan Sontag wrote about camp as an aesthetic and sociological phenomenon in the pages of the Partisan Review in 1964, but you didn't see, say, Lionel Trilling writing seriously about "Star Trek." Now, it's not at all unusual to see pieces in the New York Review of Books or Dissent or n + 1 about multiplex movies, from Harry Potter to "Avatar."

On the one hand, as Chris Fujiwara (author of a recent book about Jerry Lewis) wrote in a piece called "To Have Done with the Contemporary Cinema:

The real crisis of cinema, its contemporary crisis, which Godard and Wenders foresaw well, is that the cinema no longer circulates within a common space and time but has withdrawn into that state of inaccessibility that, for Agamben, defines the contemporary and which he likens to a museum. "The museification of the world is today an accomplished fact.... Everything today can become a Museum, because this term simply designates the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing" (Profanations).

The flip side of this museification is the impossibility of ignoring anything. The journalist exemplifies this condition, whose realm is the internet. The journalist is doomed to say yes to things, even in trying to say no, just by acknowledging them. And the internet is a desert of affirmation, where users, turned into private librarians, are almost forced to conserve everything out of fear that something might turn out someday to have value for somebody. (Just as the festival programmer and the critic, knowing they may be wrong, hold on to DVDs of films they didn't like.)

Critics and academics are studying and evaluating works that were formerly considered beneath serious consideration -- not just amongst themselves, in scholarly journals, but in widely accessible outlets, from newspapers to blogs. That may disturb insiders who are used to monopolizing these domains and are unaccustomed to seeing their shared passions discussed by outsiders, whether mainstream critics or intellectuals. So, why don't the interlopers just leave these things to the fans? Well, as Fujiwara says, their pop culture profile is just too ubiquitous to be avoided.

While, as a critic, I feel my fundamental responsibility is to examine individual films (while putting them in larger contexts as I see fit), there's something to be said for stepping back and questioning The System itself, from the economics to the fashioning of the products that keep the machine going. (See Steven Boone's "Blind Fury: Notes on Chaos Cinema," and my "Products of mass distraction (or, Hooray for elitism!).")

Is the profit motive the only conceivable or justifiable driving force behind all moviemaking? (Again, I refer to my friend, the great Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi who, after the fall of the Soviet Empire -- something he did his part to hasten through his support for Solidarity -- said he knew how to get his films financed and past the government censors under the old system, but didn't know if his brand of serious, morally challenging cinema could survive the tyranny of the marketplace.) How are movies made, exhibited and talked about in other countries, cultures, political and economic systems? How did such developments as the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system, the quest for the jackpot-blockbuster, the widespread construction of multiplexes, and the creation of the home video market (and its accompanying product-fetishization of movies) fundamentally change how motion pictures were made, sold, watched and perceived in America? And elsewhere?

RottenTomatoes editor Matt Atchity recently said:

With film journalists, there's a pitfall of getting too indie-focused. When you're seeing three, four movies a week, Hollywood formulas can be boring, and so it's easy to start paying more and more attention to indie and foreign films, because that's what's interesting. But there's not a lot of traffic in covering indie movies, compared to coverage of mainstream movies.

Did you notice the change-ups between those three sentences? First there's a "danger" (in answer to a question about "engaging readers") of critics getting "too indie-focused," whatever that might mean. Then there's the assertion that indie and foreign films are more "interesting" than Hollywood formulas. But it turns out he's not talking about the movies themselves, or whether there's anything of substance to be said about them, but simply that popular movies tend to generate the most traffic. I see no reason to doubt that in the case of RottenTomatoes, an aggregator site, but it's not necessarily true around these parts. My most popular post by far recently was about a 33-year-old movie that was a hit but never made it into more than 757 theaters (compared to 4,349, showing "Marvel's The Avengers" in its opening weekend) and that ranks 677th on BoxOfficeMojo's list of All-Time Domestic Box Office Results, just below "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius." (I will say that Scanners readers tend to have a special affection for horror and science-fiction, but so do I -- and the blog is named after a David Cronenberg picture, after all.)

So, can we reach an understanding that audiences are, in fact, able to see and voice their like or dislike for any movies, or kinds of movies, that they want -- and so are critics? Can we, from this moment on, automatically disqualify arguments based on ad hominem generalizations (comic-book crowds are snobbish cretins; critics are pretentious snobs)? Criticism and box office results are like Grammys and Jesus -- they don't really have much to do with each other, even if some insist that there's a causal connection. So, let's just allow one another to discuss cinemah (see, we critics can poke fun at ourselves) and comic-book mythology on or own terms.

Below: "They put together all these posters and they made that really nice trailer. Who am I to say I don't want to see this movie?"

"... and a 'Green Lantern' sequel is already rumored to be in the works, due to the fact that this franchise has now been created."

Thanks to Steven Boone for the video. Be sure to read his piece, "Video games should aim higher than Michael Bay movies."

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