Sunday, July 31, 2011

The movie version

Today's Sunday NYT Magazine has a pretty good rant by Alex Pappademas, "The Prescription to Save Ailing Superheroes," about why comic book movies almost universally suck. Pappademas contends the problem is the way the narrative orthodoxy of fan culture constrains any auteur factor that might otherwise rejuvenate the material:

As a fan of comics, I understand why fans want comic-book-movie directors to act like respectful stewards, but as a fan of movies, I want to see these movies directed by megalomaniac geniuses who’d rather fly to Cannes in coach than crowd-source one iota of their vision. Maybe then we’d get superhero movies that honor comics’ tradition of inventiveness, instead of D.O.A. brand-extensions like “Green Lantern,” a glorified video-game cut-scene of a movie in which Ryan Reynolds once again plays a jerk who learns to be less jerky.

I’m not suggesting that Marvel give “Thor 2” to somebody like Lars von Trier, much as I’d love to see what that guy would do with Norse mythology and a nine-figure budget. But since the whole reason Hollywood keeps making superhero movies is that they (theoretically) come presold to an audience that buys opening-weekend tickets no matter what, why not turn over these huge canvases to filmmakers who want to splatter them with similarly huge ideas?

Pappademas is right to cite fan culture as culprit, but I doubt that liberating the filmmakers from the fans would really do the trick (not to suggest I wouldn't dig Tarantino's Luke Cage, or Cronenberg's Dr. Strange, or Godard's The Watcher). I remember walking out of the theater after screening the Favreau/Downey Iron Man, baffled by how the experience of finally getting a perfect cinematic realization of a comic I always enjoyed left me feeling completely empty, the film unable to imprint any real lasting impact on my brain.

I grew up reading comics, and enduring the persistent adolescent disappointment of live action versions that failed through technological insufficiencies that rendered all SFX as juvenile self-parody. The 1970s Spider Man "scaling" walls in the style of Adam West's Laugh-In, Bill Bixby's ennui-drunk bus stop drifter Bruce Banner, J.D. Salinger's son as a low-budget Captain America, Alec Baldwin's post-pulp Shadow, Roger Corman's Fantastic Four, Billy Zane's Ghost Who Walks.

All of that accumulated frustration, when finally met by perfect realizations of the comic fantasy as real world, only resulted in a deeper sort of frustration. Part of the cause may be the brain numb from visually processing all of that CGI—the mind sees the wires even if sub-cognitively. But I think the bigger, root reason is that successful cinematic depictions of superheroes obliterate the narrative negative space of the original comic form, and thereby deprive the mind of the imaginative lebensraum that is the real source of wonder.

Comic book superheroes are not meant to be real. They are meant to exist in pen-and-ink, occupying panels, sometimes straddling the white void between the panels. The semiotic vernacular of superheroes is an indigenous product of the form, one which works best operating within the form's inherent abstractions and opportunities for the mind to do the work of closure between the page and the things it doesn't show. Considering comic book movies of any sort through the analytical prism articulated so definitively by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, this conclusion seems compelled.

In his NYT riff, Pappademas is on to something when, after considering all the failures of crowd-bound superhero movies to generate a satisfying experience, he looks in the margins of fandom and finds the far more interesting way that Network Culture deals with film versions of our favorite comics—it *imagines* them:

If that’s too much of a risk, why not give them to craftsmen who understand that not every movie based on a superhero comic needs to operate in a genre called “superhero”? A few years ago, the film-geek Web site posted a hoax review of a lost masterpiece from Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah: a stripped-down and brutal take on Batman that abandoned every aspect of the mythos except the vigilantism and the car. Only the fact that this movie never existed keeps it from being my favorite superhero film of all time.

Surely an atemporal invention of an imaginary Peckinpah Batman is the right angle of attack for carrying on these narratives in the age of Gothic High Tech? (Not that having Mickey Rourke as a loco Russian with a nuclear bullwhip is a bad thing.) Coming soon: Terrence Malick's 1973 High Evolutionary, John Woo's 1983 Cantonese Nick Fury and J.D. Salinger's Bucky Barnes, AWOL in 'Nam with Alice Cooper and the Beav.

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