Superhero films: They've sprung up faster and taken over quicker than any past genre in the relatively short history of film. Five of the top ten highest grossing films this year were in the genre, the highest number since last year's top four, which was also the highest ever for its year.
And as readers of this newsletter may have picked up by now, I'll be processing the genre's dominance with a list of fairly negative, hard-hitting articles. Hey, I like being critical with stuff I like. Tough love, folks.
Captain America: Civil War and the Superhero (In)Security State
Brian Phillips, MTV News
[Civil War and Batman v Superman] have some important themes in common. I don’t just mean the obvious one, i.e., that they both revolve around super friends learning the vital kindergarten-class life lesson that you can’t process angry feelings by hitting your buddies with SUVs. They’re also both windows into the strangely self-conscious politics of the modern comic-book movie. And they’re both unusually lucid examples of a narrative archetype that resonates deeply in American culture right now, even outside the arena of magic shields and formfitting latex pectorals.
And here’s a follow-up that cites a clear-cut tech example of the culture that superhero blockbusters project:
Peter Thiel, Comic Book Hero
Ben Thompson, Stratechery
It could not be more perfect that Thiel made the largest part of his fortune by investing in Facebook, where he still sits on the board. Facebook specifically and the Internet broadly has made it possible for sensationalistic rags like Gawker to exist, even as it has fundamentally weakened journalism by destroying the geographic monopolies that guaranteed the financial freedom to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Thiel as the personification of the tech industry is very much the superhero looking to remedy a problem he created.
Here’s your superhero counterprogramming:
Noah Hawley Is Hearing Voices: Can the Fargo auteur bring superheroes to prestige cable with Legion?
Abraham Riesman, Vulture
"My feeling is there’s a lot of straight drama on television. My goal in life is to try to create something unexpected, and genre is the tool in doing that."
And your counter-counterprogramming:
Legion Isn’t as Good as People Think
Angelica Jade Bastién, The Outline
When a film goes a bit above others in the category, it’s so effusively praised because other comic works are often the primary litmus test. Take 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was hailed as a scintillating spy drama on par with classics such as All the President’s Men (1976). As Alex Pappademas wrote for Grantland, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier books Robert Redford as the heavy and makes a few halfhearted allusions to our own imperiled civil liberties, and everyone calls it a ‘’70s political thriller’ with a straight face, forgetting that actual ’70s political thrillers seldom excused government malfeasance by blaming it on defrosted Nazi agents.’
And a look at one weirdly specific problem inherent to the modern superhero film genre (and was actually included in the new Thor movie quite a while after this article came out):
Dear Supervillains, Please Stop Delivering Exposition Via Fancy PowerPoints
Forrest Wickman, Slate
So overstuffed is the modern blockbuster with action set pieces, gags, and conversations about feelings that the poor scribe has but a tiny sliver of runtime during which he must explain his film’s actual plot. Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that screenwriters turn to a juiced-up version of the same tool used by any modern businessperson who must efficiently convey a lot of complex information to any room full of people.
Which still isn't quite as important a concern as this one:
What the Hell Is Going On With Henry Cavill’s Mustache in Justice League?
Hunter Harris, Vulture
When you’re discussing Justice League, the most important term to know won’t be in any DCEU explainers. That word is “philtrum,” a term I found when I exited the theater Googling, “skin between nose and top lip.” According to my research, the philtrum is that exact vertical groove (Rihanna has a great one). My middle-school English teacher told me to never open any formal piece of writing with a definition, but I’m grown now and no longer beholden to her red pen, and “philtrum” might come in handy when you’re wondering just what the hell is going on above Henry Cavill’s top lip.
The CW Is Stuck in a Superhero Rut
Kaitlin Thomas, TV Guide
The CW is in the superhero business and everything else comes second. And that's a problem, because the network is sacrificing prestige programming and different voices for an aging genre with diminishing returns.
I actually would recommend not reading this next article: The lengthy excerpt here is the most fascinating section of the essay, as the author digs into the problem of adapting a unique medium into film. And lot of this applies to video game films, as well, as I mentioned in the Tor.com essay I wrote this week after this next excerpt inspired me.
Why I Hate Superhero Movies
Scott Bukatman, ProQuest (Paywall)
Superhero films remain something of a provisional genre, still very much in a state of becoming. In a way, I feel like an aficionado of Broadway musicals pontificating on the inadequacy of the film musical in 1930: this was a time of ponderous, static films with lousy sound reproduction, but one of the most dynamic of film forms would emerge a scant three years later. The superhero film genre in the first decade of the twenty-first century yielded a glut of nearly identical films featuring dumbed-down versions of characters that were still appearing, to better effect, in the comics, just as the early musical films out of Hollywood dumbed down Broadway song lyrics for a non-urban and non-urbane audience. So I'm far from certain that superhero movies have discovered their real voice.
By rights, I should be enamored of the superhero film. It tillers a range of phenomena that I’ve long celebrated - kinesis, immersion, weightlessness, bright colors, urban locations, fluidity, kaleidoscopic perception, and masquerade in spades. It centers on the expressiveness of bodies and the eroticism of human movement. In that, it is like the musical. The heightened rhetoric of the musical took the form of exaggerated color, costume, and cinematic and performance style. The musical number became a space of liberation, of masquerade, a place where, as Richard Dyer brilliantly observed, emotional authenticity and theatricality - usually regarded as dichotomously opposed categories - combined. For Dyer, this act of combination is at the heart of queer responses to the musical; the musical becomes a symbol of resistance to a culture that continues to insist, absurdly, on dualistic oppositions. Utopia is thus defined as a place of movement, of border crossings and crane shots, of choreographed transgressions and performances of liberation. So much of this applies to the superhero movie: compare Catherine Deneuve swinging down the street in an extended take in Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort [Les demoiselles de Rochefort: 1967) to Spider-Man swinging above the street in a single take from Raimi's Spider-Man (2002).
And here's the piece I wrote after seeing that sweet 1930s musicals connection. I'm featuring my takedown of Doctor Strange, just because.
How Movie Musicals Paved the Way for Marvel’s Mega-Blockbusters
Doctor Strange is perhaps the best example of the problem—it doubles down on doing everything that a superhero film does well without paying much attention to what makes a good film. It packs in jokes, even when they undercut the tension that should drive the story, as when the magical cape shows up and starts moving by itself while Strange confronts his nemesis—it’s funny and delightful, but ruins the tone of deadly menace that the first hero-villain face-off should carry. The film also features consistently jaw-dropping action scenes even when the story might work better without them, as when the Ancient One hops into a psychedelic mirror dimension three minutes into the film, when the stakes aren’t established and our hero doesn’t even believe in the magic that he’ll use in his own mirror dimension fight scene eighty minutes later. Yet it’s all so fun throughout that no one really minds that the plot is an obvious retread of Iron Man.
Okay, superhero stuff is over. Time for something totally different on an amazing cartoon show:
The Complicated Racial Legacy Of MTV's Cult Classic Clone High
Isha Aran, The AV Club
My brother and I stumbled upon the show five or six episodes in, but were heartbroken to hear of its cancelation, and furious at the nation of India (we’re Sri Lankan, it’s fine) for causing it. Fifteen years later, the almost fittingly bombastic end to the wacky show remains something of an obscure anecdote—just like the show itself.
Saki’s stories could certainly be read by young people, but only by the kind who relish the earlier versions of fairy tales, those in which Red Riding Hood is eaten, and Cinderella’s stepmother decapitated with the lid of a trunk.
Have a good week, everyone. Don't get decapitated with the lid of a trunk.
Next Week, on Maddd Science: BRAAAAAM.
Header image: "untitled" by Daniel Williams
Final note: Sorry this is a day late! It wound up getting caught in TinyLetter' automated spam filter for some reason.