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July 28 2010

Are Comic Book Movies Prime for a Downfall or Have We Only Seen the Beginning? Pretty interesting article on about whether comic book movies can withstand audience fatigue at the cinema. Article contains references to Serenity and Buffy/Angel too.

I like how the author compared the superhero genre to westerns considering how much of the tropes of those genres were incorporated into Buffy and Firefly.

I think this article is interesting and ripe for discussion.

The comparison between Superheroes and Westerns is valid. Both involve larger than life characters and generally involve a quest which will test the mettle of the protagonist. And there are often underlying themes of vigilantism and man at odds with his environment.

However, I honestly believe that Superheroes were kept off the big screen for budgetary and practical reasons before the more recent innovations in special effects and CGI. By comparison Westerns were relatively cheap to produce. The 1940's did have it's own Silver Screen Superman, albeit a serialised version, which was immensely popular. But it was cheaply produced and offered as little more than entertainment for undiscerning kids.

It's not hard to attribute the relatively fast expansion of cities and modern life within the 20th century as also contributing to the death of the Western. As we all became more and more used to our creature comforts, the convenience of owning our own vehicles, the technology of the modern age, the lure and simplicity of the Old West began to seem less and less attractive. We have literally grown away from being able to identify with the source material.

And that is where I feel that Superheroes have an advantage in terms of longevity. Westerns are trapped by their own location and history. Superheroes can adapt more easily. Witness the progression of the Batman character over the years. From campy '60's movies, via Tim Burton's dark but overtly unreal movies, and the latest screen realisation from Christopher Nolan. Westerns can travel, "Outland" with Sean Connery springs to mind, but they still tend to operate within a rigid framework.

Not everyone can be a cowboy, you have to learn skills and endure a hard life. And whilst that is true of some Superheroes, there is also another cliche which bodes well for Superheroes, anyone can become one. Really. The X-Men just happen to be born that way, for many it's a lucky accident or the result of experimentation. It's easier for audiences to identify with characters that themselves could be, no matter how fantastic that may sound.

Anyhoo, just my general musings.

(Edited to correct spelling.)

[ edited by viewingfigures on 2010-07-29 00:10 ]
viewingfigures, you (along with this article) nailed my feelings on the superhero movie genre. Not only do I seeing it having a depth of success and excitement similar to westerns, but I also imagine it going through a series of genre cycles similar to what westerns experienced.

What's really condescending is when talking heads discuss the growing popularity of "kids stories" as a sign of cultural degradation. I've always felt the western example would shed a light on the history of moviemakers creaing quality entertainment and even art from the pulpiest of pulp stories.
I don't understand the article because I don't understand the "fatigue" the author describes. I don't see them as comic book movies -- I just see them as movies.
One criticism: Comic books are a medium while westerns and superhero tales (what I assume the author really mean when using the word "comics") are specific story genres. I can understand the concept of fatigue regarding the superhero-as-seen-in-your-nearest-comic-shop genre but there is no reason to think that the public will ever tire of stories because they are rooted in comic books (that would be like suggesting people get tired of movies based on books because they're based on books.) Redundant subject matter causes viewer fatigue - not common source mediums.

ETA: Re-wording

[ edited by brinderwalt on 2010-07-29 00:24 ]
I would be very uninterested in a cinematic landscape that contained a majority of 'superhero' movies. Yes, there are some 'universal' themes that can be explored but at the heart to me they are a negative message - pure 'humans' can't be heroes - that doesn't resonate with me.
That's a good point, baxter, although I'm not sure it can be limited to superhero movies. All of storytelling, from the ancient myths to modern non-superhero films, are filled with heroes who are a touch above ordinary mortals -- explicitly, in the old demigod myths, and more subtly in more recent days.
Maybe true, ManEnoughToAdmitIt, but that is not true for other art forms, at least if one construes 'heroes' to be broad enough that it doesn't require leaping tall buildings with a single bound. That's why I found Unforgiven to be such an exceptional 'western' and The Thin Red Line to be a remarkable 'war' movie - they transcend the tropes of their genres (which I wouldn't watch otherwise). I'm sure I shall survive the decades of the spandex-clad-superhero if that is what cinema turns to for the short term.
Every genre has its cycle: besides Westerns, look at other genres that were extremely popular in the past: film noir, musicals, screwball comdies, etc. viewingfigures, I don't think it's so much the sociological changes of the American populace that has doomed the Western so much as the changing tastes of the audience. There's a heyday for genre, usually when the best movies are being made, and then a fall-off, when the movies start seeming tired, played out or passe. Then comes the rejuvenation, when modern versions (Unforgiven) take the conventions of the genre and give them a twist.

I'm thinking superhero movies are extremely popular now, but eventually the audience will tire of them and they'll stop making such extraordinary amounts of money at the box office. Probably because the movies themselves will seem tired, played out or passe... and then we'll take a little break and the movies will come back smaller -- they'll be less of them and they might be more interesting than we're used to. It'll be cool!
As others have said, the terminology is wrong pretty much throughout. The author admits to only having "read maybe three comic books before" and it shows at a fundamental level - super-heroes are NOT the whole of comic books. Movies based on comics will no more run out of steam than movies based on books will when the current vampire craze hits a wall. I think movies based on super-hero comics likely will though because Hollywood will run out of existing super-heroes to licence and since the films are expensive by their nature it's a big risk to make one based on an original character (though there'll still be outliers like e.g. 'Hancock' that are super-hero films with a twist and also parodies as with 'Blazing Saddles' at the tail end of the Western). And as dottikin (among others) mentions, people will get bored of them.

Like Westerns, comic book movies establish the code of a hero or anti-hero and pit him/her against the odds. Essentially these movies are the western of a new age...

Man that's thin. ALL heroic fiction pits the hero against the odds, if they're not against the odds then why are they a hero ? Same with viewingfigures description of:

"Both involve larger than life characters and generally involve a quest which will test the mettle of the protagonist. And there are often underlying themes of vigilantism and man at odds with his environment."

Firstly I don't think Westerns necessarily do feature larger than life characters a lot of the time - in the genre's heyday I don't think they were consciously mythologising in the way super-hero stories do, it's only afterwards that people looked back and realised that they weren't more or less fictionalising reality but presenting an entirely made-up, one sided version of it (which is when the revisionist Western popped up of which 'Unforgiven' is one of the best and last examples), secondly the quest thing is in all heroic fiction (it's a big part of the Campbell arc for instance) and lastly, do super-hero stories feature "man at odds with his environment" any more than any other sort of story ?

(I agree about the vigilantism though I think that's a function of being a largely American genre - the individual being responsible and able to do things the apparatus of the state can't is a staple of both Westerns and super-hero stories because it's a "big idea" in the American psyche IMO)

[ edited by Saje on 2010-07-29 07:34 ]
If anyone wants to see a good comic superhero movie, check out Kick-Ass. It subversively twists some of those tropes without being a parody.
Which tropes baxter ? I really liked "Kick-Ass" but it seems to me it pretty much just took the tropes and moved them to a version of reality closer to ours. Most of the beats are actually fairly close to a standard super-hero origin story (Kick-Ass hears the call to action, initiates a quest, suffers a setback, hardens his resolve etc. Even the old chestnut about the girl of his dreams fancying his alter-ego crops up), just with a more realistic R rated flavour and some underlying ideas about the differences between fantasy and reality.

It examines the tropes, definitely, but i'm not sure it actually subverts them.
Saje, by subverting (probably wrong word) the tropes, I meant that it neither blindly honors them nor gratingly mocks them. So, perhaps examines is the right word.
Ah OK, cool (thought I might've missed some stuff in there, only seen it once). Totally agree BTW until the very end where it seems to buy into the whole super-hero thing pretty much completely, felt slightly off tone to me. But before that (which I guess it kinda-sorta earned) it felt pretty fresh.
Kick-Ass would've been more subversive if they stuck to the comic storyline and had the girl shoot him down.(Hmm, where have we seen that before? oh yeah, Buffy and Xander.)
Ugh. double post demon.

[ edited by eddy on 2010-07-29 13:03 ]
As others have pointed out there's a big difference between comic book the medium and super-hero movies. I don't think we will ever see the end of comic book movies any more than we will see the end of movies based off of novels. Hollywood likes using material that already has some sort of fanbase, giving them some initial audience to work off of, rather than starting from scratch.

Now the article comes to the conclusion that super-hero movies are here to stay for now, but there's been plenty of other articles in the last 10 years saying that super-hero movies are on their way out. Yet despite some flops, they keep making lots of money at the box office. With the recent success of Iron Man and Batman Begins/Dark Knight, it doesn't look like audiences are getting superhero fatigue. As long as good and interesting movies keep being made, I don't think audiences will get tied of the genre. Also one big difference between westerns and the super-heroes genre, is that the super-hero genre can adapt to modern times, or any time frame for that matter. Plus there's still so much good material out there to use, that we have a long way to go until just secondary material is being used.
A quality movie is a quality movie. The Dark Knight is a crime epic which just happens to have a man which dresses up as a bat as it's protagonist. For years the fantasy genre had been basically dead in film but all it took was the one-two punch of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to kick start fantasy in films once again.

A genre in film does not typically go dead because the audience grows tired of it, the problem is when studios try to glom onto the success of the genre by churning out mounds of crap to strike while the iron is hot. Like overfishing, eventually they burn enough of the viewing public with crap that there is no longer a sustained population of moviegoers who will take the bait to plunk down $10 to see that genre.

I have no doubt that if a quality, entertaining blockbuster-style Western came out, people would go see it. Most westerns I've seen in the last 10-15 years either have been not very good or are mostly pure character-study which don't typically have large box office appeal in any genre.

As long as there is enough quality super-hero/comic book-based films among the chaff then the genre will persist. If there are too few diamonds in the rough, then interest will collapse under the weight of crap.
Well, my viewpoint has been expanded by this discussion, and that's always a good thing.

Maybe relating the demise of the Western to the rapid rise of our technological society was too sweeping. Perhaps it is as simple as a reflection of our current tastes. As Arsenal pointed out, pulp fiction of the Western sort was hugely popular during the genres heyday. Nowadays, we also have television and computer games from which filmakers can draw inspiration and a great deal of that is genre and fantasy based.

I see your point Saje, about retrospectively giving Westerns more credit than they may be due by attributing mythic qualities they lacked. And would agree in many cases. However, John Ford, one of the greatest Directors within the field often spoke conciously of striving for exactly that.

I also do believe that some genres of film do not particularly make great play of the man set against his environment trope. And that Superhero and Western films can and often do. Consider War movies, yes, in many of them the environment is challenging, but more often than not it is the situation that creates the conflict (not, under the circumstances, the best choice of word, perhaps friction/tension is better). I would certainly amplify baxter's love of The Thin Red Line and argue that does demonstrate this theme. Again, for want of a better example, most Film Noir are situationally rather than enviromentally sited.

I agree with everyone who has pointed out that Superheroes do not equal comics but I was merely taking the author's comments as read, as it were.

I guess films are pretty much like chart songs, once a style comes to prominence it gets re-appropriated and regurgiatated ad naseum, until it's influence wanes. Sometimes when one looks back at the music of one's youth it can appear dated and anachronistic whereas at the time it made sense. But once a style has existed it tends not to get forgotten and surfaces randomly ever after, sometimes sounding fresher than before. But often it never goes away it simply fits in alongside the previous and up and coming styles.

Film has only existed for around 100 years and compared to other Art forms is in it's infancy. Where it is headed and what genres will survive is still pretty open.
However, John Ford, one of the greatest Directors within the field often spoke conciously of striving for exactly that.

Absolutely. When I mentioned revisionist Westerns I was also thinking about (and almost mentioned) 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance', arguably the other bookend to 'Unforgiven' but there were definitely writers and directors examining the mythologising of the old west even back in the 50s (contrary to the impression I may have given above I actually think it's a much deeper, more self-aware genre than it's often given credit for). I don't think it was the majority position though and i'm also sceptical as to how much the audience saw it in those terms.

You mention "man at odds with his environment" in super-hero movies but personally i'm drawing a blank viewingfigures, can you give an example or two of what you mean ? Apart from anything else most super-hero movies tend to have urban settings and i'd go as far as saying that super-heroes often show a mastery of that environment that sets them apart. Far from being at odds with it they often use their environment almost as an ally in their quest (Daredevil and Spider-man with their acrobatic building hopping, Batman similarly and also for hiding in the shadows. Or on Earth, under our sun, Superman is god-like, he's only at odds with the scattered remnants of his own planet). Or do you mean 'environment' more broadly, to include the people they're against (that seems too broad though since almost all heroes are against someone) ? Or more metaphorically maybe ?
@Saje. No I definitely mean physical environment. Although there is a case for stating environs as in upbringing and world view. Or social environment if you like.

I agree, Superheroes tend to show mastery of Urban settings and their skill sets often give them advantages, but the same is true of the old cowboys and the old frontier lands. John Wayne very rarely portrayed any characters that did not demonstrate some form of dominion over the inhospitable land and the laws of civilisation. I never meant being at odds with to infer a losing battle.

One core element of Westerns was of man departing civilisation both physically and spiritually and Superheroes (IMHO) share this theme. I guess that's what I mean by environment.

Superman is literally an Alien. Batman is alienated from his own social world and uses the urban landscape to his advantage by manipulating the darkness and shadows in a way that sets him apart from law enforcement. Daredevil's blindness and moral journey also enable him to see things mere mortals cannot. Their abilites and their inner core both isolate them and compell them to take action. And they utilise and are affected by their own physical surroundings in ways which require unique and solitary perspectives. And they strive to control that environment or master it.

I certainly can see similar journeys in other more pedestrian stories or different genres. But generally I think those stories show people striving to control their situation or standing, not attempting to actually operate within their physical environment in a completely different manner from conventional folk.
One core element of Westerns was of man departing civilisation both physically and spiritually and Superheroes (IMHO) share this theme.

Ah OK, think I have a better idea what you mean. I was confused because though as you say Western heroes often have mastery over their environment I do still think it's true that those films often feature the hero struggling with his environment i.e. he (or all too occasionally she) may master it but the environment as "antagonist" is often present (which is what I thought you meant). Whereas mastery of the environment is usually a given in super-hero stories (or at most something we see them develop during their "origin period"). I broadly agree about "departing civilisation both physically and spiritually" though, that's well put (I think it's true to say everyone departs civilisation in your typical Western - they're about frontiers after all - BUT what often sets the hero apart is that he's not seeking civilisation, may in fact not even be very happy or functional there. Where normal folk depart civilisation to create their own elsewhere the hero departs to get away from it. As you say, it's also a spiritual departure).

But I would say that dominion over the environment is far from unique to the heroes of Westerns i.e. that that mastery is seldom what sets them apart from the bad-guys (or most other people). So where you say

"... not attempting to actually operate within their physical environment in a completely different manner from conventional folk."

I kind of take issue because I don't think that's really true of Westerns where the hero may be better than conventional folk (know more about his environment, be tougher etc. since greater skill/strength/toughness is usually a property of the hero) but not significantly different from (in that respect).

So I guess I still kind of agree and disagree ;).
Yes I do appear to be flailing about trying to pinpoint what I mean exactly. So I guess I am pleased that you have managed to discern at least some of what I intended. You have at least helped me shape my random musings into something a little more precise. And for that many thanks. :-)

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