I’ve mentioned quite often in posts, and in comments to posts, is that I’m quite bored by superhero movies. Somehow though I’ve never been moved to post about exactly why in detail. A few recent conversations about it made me realize it might make a good Sunday Sermons post.
The thing is that it does go beyond being just bored. There is a cultural aspect to it that’s gotten under my skin more and more. It has to do with the massive violence and destruction inherent in these movies and with a fundamental aspect of these comic book superhero stories.
They center on fighting, and I’ve never been a fan of it.
I’ve never much liked war movies, for example, although there are some that rise above it by putting the war in the background and being good stories about people. (The Sand Pebbles is one example; one I’ve blogged about.)
I’ve also never really gone for westerns, although there are many more exceptions than for war movies. The western is such a major part of American life — almost the quintessential American story — and there are many outstanding westerns.
There is also that there isn’t so much killing in westerns as in, or at the least implied by, war movies. (Ironically, westerns do have enough killing that most believe the “wild wild west” really was that way.)
A bigger exception for me is martial arts movies. I went through a phase of being really into them, and I still enjoy them. For one thing, killing isn’t a huge aspect of these, and — as in murder mysteries — it’s usually treated with horror and as a motivation (often revenge in martial arts films; solving the case in mysteries).
The other thing about martial arts movies is that the actors are usually trained martial artists — there is a reality to what they do despite the careful and showy choreography. The camera stands back and watches the dance (and a dance is exactly what it is; martial artists are skilled athletes).
Compare that with fight scenes in western movies featuring actors usually lacking any training and which often aren’t even allowed in the fight scenes, which are done by stunt doubles. To conceal the fraud, the filmmakers use tight closeups and fast edits. Often it’s hard to tell what’s even happening.
(One thing that made the Matrix movies so enjoyable is that Keanu Reeves trained, and trained hard, to learn martial arts.)
A primary criteria here is the extent to which a story revolves around fighting.
A war movie that focuses on battles, or a western that focuses on gun fights, aren’t as interesting to me as those that focus on people. In fact, most do. Good storytellers understand that what engages are the characters. They are the substance; any fights are just a noisy means to an end.
Martial arts films, because of the skills involved, are a little different. They are often more akin to a form of ballet than anything else. The story can be just a framework on which to hang the performances. Even so, the best martial arts films are the ones with good stories.
Contrast these with superhero movies, which do tend to center on the fighting, but which rarely (if ever) involve the actual skills of the actors. They typically involve the skills of the CGI animators — which is the primary attraction.
There are stories, of course, but those stories are usually utterly ridiculous and can’t survive the merest critical analysis or appeal to logic.
What’s even more ridiculous to me is how often these battles boil down to people punching each other. All those super powers, and it’s just fisticuffs. Very boring and utterly uncreative.
A friend compared them to Bugs Bunny cartoons, which I found apt. An even better comparison might be to Road Runner or Tom & Jerry cartoons, which focus on violent conflict between the main characters.
Superhero films have their origins in comic books, which I think is a much better format for them. It keeps them at a distance and helps maintain the level of absurdity.
Modern superhero films are very realistic and immersive. They read like real life. They also take themselves seriously, and I’ve long thought both aspects are part of the problem.
The thing about Road Runner (or other) cartoons is how clearly unreal they are. The violence in them is — literally — cartoonish. No one can have a stick of dynamite blow up in their hand, but it happens in cartoons all the time. We accept it as a silly surreal joke — a gag.
But in superhero films it’s not a gag. (Except in the Deadpool movies, which I rather liked because they don’t take themselves seriously. In those the violence is a gag.)
For me the first inklings of concern go back to the first Star Wars movie in 1977. The climax of that movie, and its sequels, is the blowing up of the Death Star. Many have commented on the lost lives of technicians and their families, but the usual reaction of the audience is to cheer.
One might suggest that anyone who worked on the Death Star was somehow complicit, but that first film also involved the blowing up of an entire planet, Alderaan. Darth Vader does that to try to force Princess Leila to talk.
I admit I cheered that opening night at the Death Star’s destruction, but even back in 1977 I was a bit appalled by the destruction of a completely innocent planet.
Imagine a villain nuking an entire city just to force someone to talk.
As time went on and various observers pointed out the implications of blowing up those Death Stars and audiences cheering about it, and I found myself nodding.
That’s a lot of death for my “entertainment” — too much, way too much, for my taste. There is also that I’ve never cared for space battles, which I see as kind of dumb. They’re an attempt to translate war movie fighter pilot battles to space, and it’s silly and boring. If you’ve seen one such, you’ve seen them all.
My feelings about this crystalized while watching the big CGI battle in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I began to think about all the CGI death laid out for my “entertainment”— all the CGI widows and children implied by all that CGI death.
Ever since I’ve had a hard time with movies that are realistic, immersive, and meant to be taken seriously, but which feature massive amounts of destruction and death.
The saving grace is a good story. That’s why the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V & VI) still work okay(-ish) for me. For one thing, they broke new ground — they hadn’t become the commodity that are now. For another, the stories are engaging and rather sweetly naïve.
In contrast, episodes I, II, and III, are utter junk — silly and the least believable and most annoying romance ever set to film. Most of what’s followed has a cynical commodity feel and the sense of being created by a committee.
The Hobbit trilogy also had that cynical money-grab feel, and it didn’t have the saving graces of originality or a good story. (Stretching that little book into a trilogy was a profound absurdity.)
That commodity feel is another reason I find superhero movies so boring. They have huge budgets and need to pull in a huge box office just to break even. As such, they’re designed for mass appeal, which makes them shallow and untextured.
They are essentially just a framework for CGI-gasms, and an excuse for the big battle finale.
Not too long ago I finally saw the first Avengers (2012) film. I was surprised to notice how much like any of the most recent Marvel films it was. For that matter, it wasn’t that different from the first X-Men film in 2000.
That first X-Men film had a budget of $75 million and it earned almost $300 million. The first Avengers film had a budget of $220 million and brought in $1.5 billion. The most recent, Avengers: Endgame (2019), had a budget of $356 million and brought in almost $2.8 billion.
For that matter, the Lord of the Rings trilogy cost $281 million and brought in almost $3 billion. The Hobbit trilogy cost $745 million and also brought in almost $3 billion.
In comparison, Domino’s Pizza, in 2020, had a revenue of almost $4.2 billion.
In contrast, three movies I’ve posted about recently:
- The Art of Self Defense (2019) — I had a hard time finding a budget figure, but it might be $3 million. It’s brought in $2.4 million, so it hasn’t even broken even.
- Colossal (2016) — budget of $15 million and a return of only $4.5 million. This one didn’t break even in a big way!
- Attack the Block (2011) — budget of £8 million and a return of only £4.1 million. Another “failure.” (Currently, £8 million is just under $11 million USD.)
This offends me on two levels. Firstly, that little gems like this lose money, which makes them rare. Secondly, that good stories like these are disdained by the viewing public. It was never more true that there’s no accounting for taste (and, I’m sorry, but most people don’t have any).
On a third level, I find something distasteful about the sheer sums of money involved, and what that all implies, but that’s a topic for another day.
So far I’ve mentioned the focus on fighting (and damned silly fighting at that) and the violence and destruction involved. There is another aspect that condemns superhero movies in my eyes: the fantasy aspect.
The problem isn’t the fantasy (or the violence or the fighting or the destruction), itself. The problem comes when we get lost in it, when we lose our grounding in reality. Once again, that great 10-word summary of modern culture by Leon Wieseltier:
“Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”
The problem is that we’ve gotten lost in our own fantasies. We’ve lost our balance in the real world, and I see the consequences of that all around us. From the relatively benign Flat Earthers to the far worse anti-vaxxers to the downright dangerous far right mental cases, it’s all a spectrum of people having lost touch with reality.
It makes me feel the human race is sliding backwards into the dark ages.
Are superhero movies to blame? No, of course not. But I see them as a reflection of our lost minds and infantile childishness. Comic books brought to highly detailed realistic life and treated as something serious.
On some level the implications disgust me a little, but overall I just don’t find them interesting (a Big Sin in my book). They wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so huge and if fantasy bullshit wasn’t such a major part of everyone’s diet.
Junk food is fine in moderation, but living on it will kill you. Likewise, living on junk food for the mind will kill your mind.
Stay grounded in reality, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.