Recently I read this post, Marvel Movies: In a Class by Themselves by J.J. Adamson, and that forced me to get off my lazy ass and write something I had meant to write for a long time.
Summing up, Adamson’s main points are that superhero movies cannot be considered proper art (I won’t get into that, though) and that there’s something inherently silly about the effort invested in making these movies, which he describes as fake. His example is Black Panther, which is, no matter how great the actors and director may be, still “fundamentally about a cool guy in a catsuit.“
That’s the kernel here, that there is a fundamental silliness to this entire genre, and that means that the superhero genre will never manage to reach that full potential some people expect it to achieve, and for the simple reason that superheroes (and I include here masked vigilantes like Batman) dumb up everything they touch. Whatever qualities these movies may have are not because of superheroes, but despite them. And no, I didn’t mistype, they don’t dumb down culture, they dump it up.
I have not come up with that term; I am, in fact, brazenly stealing it from this article in The Telegraph by Rhymer Rigby, where he described (in 2016) these movies as:
Films which are too dark for kids the comics were originally written for, yet too dumb for any thinking adult.
But the genius (edit: as of now, behind paywall) of the article shows up here:
The trouble is the source material. In the case of Batman and Superman, this was originally written for ten-year-old boys. A man who can fly with lasers in his eyes. A man who dresses as a bat dispensing justice to bad guys.
In the 80s and 90s, people used to worry about “dumbing down”, where complex ideas in spheres like politics and literature were simplified in order to make them accessible to people who were unwilling or unable to deal with sophisticated thought (tellingly, the term originated in the film industry). These days, I’m more worried about dumbing up, where you take something that’s pretty stupid to begin with and then throw money and talent at it until it has a semblance of intelligence and sophistication.
Something like that is, I presume, what Adamson was trying to get at in his post. You have all these great actors in Black Panther, apparently a great story (I haven’t watched it, so I will have to take his word for it,) yet, at the end of the day, it’s still about people dressed in weird customes fighting over a city powered by magical crystals or minerals or somesuch. Basically, in an attempt to make the source material more sophisticated, they have manhandled the great themes it could potentially have, and dumbed them up by mixing them with what is an inherently silly concept.
Take, for example, the last Joker movie. I haven’t watched it, but I’m sure it’s a good movie. Some people claim it’s amazing, that it’s inspired by Taxi Driver or The Comedian, or that the actor playing the titular character should get an Oscar… Sure, all that is fine, but when all is said and done, it’s still a movie set in the same universe as Batman, the Penguin, Superman, and other weirdos in tights with improbable names and even less probable personal dramas or conflicts. In fact, I’d bet that if the movie is so good is also because it has barely anything related to the superhero genre and because barely anything from its original fictional universe (save the required minimum) is mentioned, almost as if those references were tacked on later to trick moviegoers.
So, the original source material is dumbed up, until it almost seems to become sophisticated. Still, because of that, the rest of the movie must necessarily suffer or be dragged down because if the film had nothing to do with the superhero genre but was instead completely based on our accepted reality (with, give or take, a few fantastic elements here and there—fantasy can occasionally enhance a good story,) it would obviously be much better and less constrained by artificial nonsense. You could make a movie about a nihilistc clow who inadvertely starts a revolution, and you (the writer) would have a lot more freedom, not to mention the greater significance and meaning of your work, if it were set on the real world, with real implications.
Many of these movies that have come up these past years, even (or especially) the good ones with “deep” messages and artistic pretensions, would clearly be much better if no superhero or masked vigilantes were involved. I don’t care what Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies say about surveillance or terrorism, or what would happen if masked (super)heroes were real, the point is that, fundamentally, they are movies about a playboy billionaire who dresses up as a bat and singlehandedly takes down criminals with ridiculous names like The Joker, The Penguin, and Scarecrow, who all live in a crazy city with a redundant asylum known as Arkham, where everything from psychotic serial killers to demi-god-like beings are kept. And remember, within driving distance, there’s another city, Metropolis, with Clark “God Mode Always On” Kent flying around. I don’t think I need to explain why that alone drags down whatever depth or merits the movie may otherwise have.
Think I’m wrong? Ok, make this experiment: Think about any of the great books or movies considered cultural classics, and then throw superheroes in there, for example, by replacing, I don’t know, Michael Corleone from The Godfather by, let’s say, Crocman, who learned to dress as a crocodile during the Second World War to instill terror in his enemies, and Vito Corleone by Anaconda-Man, the Boss of a powerful criminal family at war with three other families, the Ratmen, the Penguins, and the Black Dogs (who all dress as their eponymous animals.) Don’t change more than is necessary; just make the protagonist superheroes doing superhero stuff in superhero clothing in a world where superheroes are a thing. The themes are the same, the dialogue might be the same or similar… but you just ruined a perfectly good story for no discernable narrative, stylistic, or thematic gain. I’m trying to think of one, but aside from (perhaps?) cooler fighting scenes (and assuming coolness is a virtue in itself) there’s not a single thing I can think of that your story may gain by adding superhero elements on top of it.
And no, no superhero movie (entertaining or fun as it may be) says anything about anything of value or, at the very least, whatever they could say is distorted by being forced to pass through the dumbifying prism of the superhero genre and its wacky tropes. And Hollywood has thrown billions to make these movies. Some of the best actors and directors alive have given their best to try to make this genre almost artful (and it’s to their credit that apparently they have occasionally come close to that) but… at the end of the day, it’s still a story with weirdos in tights, flying around the world punching space aliens in the face, or personally fighting criminal masterminds dressed like lunatics. No amount of grittiness or brown filters will change that. It may be fun, it may even make a good movie, but it is what it is, a very restricted genre that barely makes any sense the moment you think a bit about it.
Don’t take this the wrong way. I do not begrudge these movies’ existence, but I find it hard to believe that there is something so fundamentally great about the genre that it requires constant remakes, deconstructions, and Depp Commentary™ as if the future of our culture depended on them. I can’t even count the number of analyses of The Joker Youtube keps recommending me, and I doubt there’s so much to say about it— although I’m sure there would be a bit more if the movie had nothing to do with Batmam or Gotham. It’s almost as if it is impossible for a certain generation or demographic to think about some issues or feel certain emotions if these have not been sifted through the sieve of superhero characters and tropes first, as if, from craddle to grave, these archetypical characters they first enjoyed as kids should be the mold through which any subsequent story at any stage of their lives should be told. I wonder if when these same moviegoers reach retirement age, they’ll be asking for movies about retired superheros too. I’m sure some will be great, but still…
Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m sure you can tackle a lot of issues without having to stuff your movie with superfreaks.
8 thoughts on “Superheroes and dumbing-up culture”
Good Day Emperor, I’m glad you found something of value in my article. Your argument about replacing Michael Corleone with Crocman certainly applies to most of what I was talking about. You might disagree, but I would say it is possible to make an artful movie about superheroes. I thought Tim Burton’s Batman (and even the sequel) was artfully done because although they included a guy in a batsuit, they weren’t fundamentally about a cool guy in a batsuit, they were about the problems of being a guy in a batsuit and the problems of Gotham City. My problem with Marvel Movies is that they make pretensions to artworthiness or depth, when they are still, fundamentally, at their core, about people in silly suits. This comes down to their creators not knowing the difference in most cases.
And by the way, I don’t get all the rage about The Dark Knight. I’ve seen it twice and Heath Ledger is great and everything, but I didn’t really get the point of them. The Dark Knight was just not quite there, whereas I enjoy most everything else Christopher Nolan does.
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I didn’t get into the art side of the argument because ‘art’ is a very contentious word, but I believe Tim Burton’s Batman is a good movie, and probably because it knew the limits of the genre. And I’m sure there are many other good superhero movies, but if what the director or writer wants is to say something about something (or to have “pretentions of artworthiness,” as you put it,) I’m sure there are better genres out there for that.
That was, I beleive, the gist of my post.
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You are, of course, quite right as far as you go. To superimpose extravagant fantasy tropes on a story that doesn’t need them, just because you think it will sell better if its protagonist is familiar from old-time comic books, is a breathtakingly meretricious thing to do, and Hollywood deserves a full mead of contempt for letting it become its default course of action.
However, since you did say “*any* of the great books or movies considered cultural classics”… how about the Irish epics? Call me crazy, but I don’t think the Ulster cycle would have lost much if Cuchulainn had had a dog’s-head helmet to match his name, or if Maeve had worn one of those slinky outfits that Jack Kirby’s villainesses were so fond of. And as for the Fenians… well, let’s just say that Caoilte was talking to fish long before Aquaman got in on the act. (And if you want to tell me that that may have been all right for a bunch of wild heathen Irishmen, but no modern litterateur could do anything with these stories, I have three words for you: “William Butler Yeats”.)
Or how about this one? A bunch of heroes are having a Christmas-Eve party in their citadel when some guy with green skin bursts in and challenges any comer to slice off his head as a test of bravery, promising to return the compliment at the same time next year. Admit it: that could easily be the setup for a “Justice League” episode, rather than (as it is) for one of the standard classics of medieval English literature.
I could go on this way. Skanderbeg, Ilya Muromets, Orlando Furioso – heck, even Beowulf wouldn’t lose much if you slapped a mask on him. If Bruce Wayne and T’Challa of Wakanda don’t live up to their standard, it’s not the fault of the wild-and-crazy-magical-heroism genre as such, but of the inability of the authors involved to attain the degree of un-self-conscious magnificence that the genre requires in order to achieve its proper greatness. (And, just as an aside to Mr. Adamson: yes, they *are* still better than “The Last Temptation of Christ”.)
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Ha! Cuchulain crossed my mind when I was writing this but I told to myself “Nah, who would even know about that”
I think there’s a difference between fantasy and superheroes. It’s hard for me to put it into words, but I don’t believe superheroes are just the modern equivalent of ancient superpowered heroes.
It’s not just that someone happens to be able to wield strange powers, otherwise it would just be fantasy, the superhero genre adds on top of that much more. For once, silly names and dresses, and “teams” of superheroes, and “power levels,” and much more. Let me put it this way, if in a story set in a contemporary world, there’s a guy who shots lightning from his fingertips, the story is urban fantasy or science fiction or something like that.. If he has the exact same ability but calls himself The Spark and dresses in a silly stereotyped way, it’s a story from the superhero genre.
That’s why I mentioned in the text that the superhero version of The Godfather would exist in a universe where superheroes “are a thing.”
I don’t know if I managed to explain my point but the idea is that I don’t believe superheroes are related to ancient myths and their heroes and themes.
I don’t think what you’re describing is a genre; it’s more like a literary tradition, a set of agreed-upon stylistic quirks. It’s like saying that you can’t take the Greek myths seriously because Greek dramas have those ridiculous choruses; in the first place, the myths are separable from the formal conventions, and, in the second place, the conventions in no way vitiate the form’s capacity for greatness. (And no, I’m not trying to liken Stan Lee to Aristophanes; I’m just saying that, insofar as he *isn’t* on that level, the deficiency is his and/or his civilization’s, not the Avengers’.)
The real advantage of superhero stories is that you can philosophize in them.
The reason why the Joker is Batman’s iconic supervillain is that he is pure, random chaos. Disorder in human form. (This is why an origin story is generally a mistake.)
I’m not convinced by that but I see the logic (still, I think the Joker is really at the lower end of the superhero spectrum, he could actually appear as a character in other, unrelated genres.)
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