Henry Bevan on superhero movies, snobbery, and liking what you like…
When Marvel released the Captain Marvel trailer, the predictable happened. Most of the internet loved it (we at Flickering Myth were lukewarm) and the rest of the internet questioned why people are excited about a new movie churned out by the blockbuster machine.
The Guardian wrote about how Captain Marvel, as a female superhero, shouldn’t punch old ladies because male superheroes never do. It’s an interesting piece of feminist writing that has been given a reductive headline, but the criticism is symbolic of critics rushing to critique the superhero genre every time a new bit of information arrives. As pop culture’s current king, it isn’t surprising a resistance is forming.
Enter Ethan Hawke who recently stated: “Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is.”
Within the context of the interview, I agree with Hawke’s point. His issue doesn’t seem to be with superhero movies but is with the fact we are too quick to label a movie ‘great’. Hawke believes we should see if a film stands the test of time, and Bergman’s filmography has certain done that. Although, I do wonder how a Knight playing Death in a game of Chess is a less goofy metaphor than spider powers?
Hawke is aware of this, and as someone who has appeared in movies produced by Jason Blum, is willing to be in genre movies (he also recently expressed his desire to appear in a Star Wars movie). Earlier in the interview, he talks about how Joe Dante taught him films like The Howling “if done with art and love, are actually like the Trojan horse. You go see a werewolf movie and secretly it’s a PTSD movie about the Vietnam War.”
This is the quote most online commentators have chosen to ignore, with many, as this article in The Guardian shows, deciding to add another art-vs-entertainment op-ed onto the pile. The writer may be right when he argues a superhero film “might not ever earn a spot on the Sight & Sound Top 50” but we enter dangerous territory when we start deciding believing there is a right type of movie and a wrong type of movie.
In any type of media, there is always conflict — literary fiction vs genre fiction, rock music vs pop music, blockbusters vs art house — and each side is vocal. People who like genre films are called childish. People who like little-seen indies are called snobby. It is cool to go against the man. The actors who choose to wear tights are accused of selling out to the corporations and the inference is that superhero movies lack a soul.
Directors have spoken out against this criticism, most vocally James Gunn, who wrote in a Facebook post: “What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films.”
There are bad, soulless superhero movies, yet it feels ignorant to claim the entire genre doesn’t have heart and cannot be thought provoking. Author Michael Chabon, who has a story credit on Spider-Man 2, has often spoken out against the bias against works of genre, suggesting those who only support literary works i.e. books based in reality and ignore the fantastical, in this case, yellow spandex, live in a “monochromatic” world. Talking to Wired, he argues people dislike genre because of “snobbery and academic laziness”. People can’t be bothered to find the messages hidden behind the explosions.
To use the cliched-film-writer metaphor of comparing movies to food, the argument paints superhero movies as the junkiest of junk food. No one is going to compare eating a McDonald’s to eating Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-star meals. A Big Mac might satisfy you when you eat it, but a couple of hours later you’re hungry again. Superhero movies do the same thing. They razzle-dazzle you, but leave you empty because they fail to use their resources to say anything interesting. I find many to be pretty basic, but it is foolish to write off the entire genre.
As Gordon knows, making a great burger is hard. Yet, it cannot be beat when done right. Logan wasn’t to my taste, but I could see James Mangold was attempting to use Wolverine’s powers to comment on ageing and legacy and as someone who has watched a family member succumb to dementia, Patrick Stewart’s scenes had an emotional sting. The Incredibles, the first superhero movie to have an Oscar-nominated screenplay, and Incredibles 2 use the tropes of the genre to give insightful commentary on how we live. Yet, no one really counts Brad Bird’s fantasia because animation as a medium is also looked down upon.
It is devastating that adult dramas movies have moved to television, that people are no longer watching old movies and that it is rare for an original movie like A Quiet Place to break out. As Stephen Metcalf’s New Yorker essay reinforces, the consumer determines Hollywood’s output. Branded entertainment, cinematic universes, never-ending franchises give people comfort and when visiting the cinema is so expensive, you want to watch something you know will give you a jolt of enjoyment. The idea that superhero movies are infantilising us insults the audience — we know what we want to watch. Art is subjective. If you want to watch some Fassbinder, great. If you want to watch some Fassbender in a new X-Men movie, great as well. Art and entertainment can exist side-by-side. A movie can even be both at the same time.