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July 09 2012

The Modern Comic Book Movie. NY Times critics A.O Scott and Manohla Dargis have a lengthy discussion about how the superhero genre has dominated American cinema and the positive and negative effects of it.

Dargis: They’re certainly avatars of reaction in how they justify and perpetuate the industry’s entrenched sexism. You just have to scan the spandex bulges in “The Avengers” to see that superhero movies remain a big boys’ club, with few women and girls allowed. Yes, there are female superheroes on screen, like Jean Grey from the “X-Men” series, but they tend not to drive the stories, while female superheroes with their own movies never dominate the box office. Most women in superhero movies exist to smile indulgently at the super-hunk, to be rescued and to flaunt their assets, like Scarlett Johansson’s character in “The Avengers,” whose biggest superpower, to judge by the on- and off-screen attention lavished on it, was her super-rump.

*grumble grumble, did she even watch the same movie as I did, grumble grumle*

Seriously, lots of interesting analysis and thinking in the opinions expressed in this article, but I really could not let this comment slide. As others pointed out during teh kerfuffle with George R. R. Martin's opinions on Black Widow, many seem to have confounded the expectation that Black Widow would be window dressing, with the soundness of an argument of whether that's actually what she was.
What did GRRM say about Widow? I've somehow missed this.
eddy: This article at fempop was where I learned of it.
Yeah, the quoted comment about Black Widow seems to me a serious case of picking your narrative and ignoring conflicting evidence (e.g. the scene where she manipulates and outwits the brilliant villain of the piece, or the fact that BW at no point in the film needs saving from one of the men, that I can recall).
The closest anyone came to saving the Black Widow was when Captain America shielded her from falling debris. I didn't interpret it that she needed saving, just Cap's old fashioned notion of protecting people.
Yeah, she only saved Hawkeye from himself, confronted Banner when she got to reclute him convincing the man who could become Hulk to come along, got herself out of an interrogation she was strong enough to be controlling from the beginning, tricked a god into telling her his plan, fought alongside superguys killing aliens on her own while only being a spy, and she was actually the one that closed the portal and actually had the idea to go up there to try it.

Yep. Just there to show her beautifull body. No personality, or effect on the narrative, nope.

[ edited by Darkness on 2012-07-09 21:23 ]

[ edited by Darkness on 2012-07-09 21:24 ]
dargis doesn't seem to give a shit about anyone elses view point at least thats the way i read it
Did she actually watch the movie at all?
She drove the plot, more so than any of the other characters. Less so in terms of the character interaction scenes, I guess. But the important choices that were made? She made almost all of them.
damn right
I've written a few responses and each time I erase and start over. There's just something about this discussion that bothers me and I can't put my finger on it.

Its not that they made the mistake of characterizing the Black Widow as the stereotypical female in superhero books (i.e. "there for her looks").

Its not the condescending tone that comes from lowering ones self from the lofty heights of discussing Bergman and Fellini down to the depths of Iron Man and a cadre of spandex clad superheroes.

It's not the little bits of "almost correct" information, from an obvious lack of knowledge on the topic of comics.

Its not even the attempts to avoid the "tired" explanations of why people love the genre. Actually, maybe that is the issue. It seems they were trying to give a fresh new take on why we love the superhero (movies) and forgot to mention the generally accepted ideas that have been around for along time. In the 1930s and 40's, comic books provided a necessary outlet; an escape from the world of the depression (and oppression). That same escapist power these stories held over the zeitgeist of America at the birth of the comic book medium, have returned to reclaim their power in bright digital and 3D films. Dargis comes close with, "Every age has the superhero it wants, needs or deserves." but that is, IMO, shortchanging the entire genre.
alexreager, I agree with everything you've just said so much that I now have nothing to say.
As far as Black Widow needing saving, she WAS about to be smashed by the Hulk until Thor made a timely intervention - so she was indeed saved by one of the male characters. HOWEVER, I don't think that makes her, in any way, weak. If that had been Hawkeye or Cap in her place, they would have needed saving just as much as she did. To me, she certainly had plenty of standout, heroic moments in other parts of the film. In fact, one of the actual nits that I picked was during the hand-to-hand fighting on the ground with the Chitauri - BW seems to not only be fighting them more effectively than Cap, but also doesn't seem to be getting nearly as tired as him. Considering that his super-soldier metabolism is supposed to give him the best possible recuperative powers, that doesn't make sense to me.
steverogers, I've read that in the comics Widow took a version of the super soldier serum so I'm currently choosing to fanwank away her resilience during the battle.
eddy - Thanks. I didn't know that, but it would explain the difference. Also, Cap had just woken up from being frozen for 70 years, so he probably wasn't in top form.
Do we really need to defend another genre from serious critics??

alexreager, I would agree 100% with your argument and also add: in the '30s and '40s, film as a medium was not a "serious" art, because Hollywood was making movies like Westerns, musicals, romantic comedies, film noirs... in other words, genre movies. These were all considered escapist entertainment, or mindless fluff, like superhero movies are today.

It took years and years and the work of New Wave French critics to point out that those movies were the ones to stand the test of time -- in film class, we study the Westerns of John Ford, the romantic comedies and noirs of Hawks, Sturges and Capra, the thrillers of Hitchcock, not the "serious" movies that won Oscars and critics swooned over.
What a remarkable display of ignorance, especially from Dargis. The cultural elitism and uninformed attempt at feminist critique left a particularly bad taste in my mouth.
17 comments, all critical, and all using defense of Black Widow as a means to dismiss all of the arguments offered by 2 top-tier critics? I suppose this is predictable. There is a wealth of spot-on commentary in what they say- we are led to believe that we drive the engine, when in fact we do not come close. And superhero movies are as reactionary as they come.

This is the key statement in the argument: "What the defensive fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism." And in our case, we make it all about Joss Whedon, who is now not the scrappy underdog we cared about but a big player with huge cachet in Hollywood. Avengers is not even about the movie; it is about the tie-ins- they will make more off products than the movie will. And we are used- like politics, movie studios seed fanboards, blogs, reviews, and all else with their own text, from their own writers posing as "real fans."

And they go, and as we see here in the above posts, saying: "But comic book fans need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised, marginalized by phantom elites who want to confiscate their hard-won pleasures. And this resentment — which I have a feeling I’m provoking more of here..."

I think they are correct.
I can't speak for any of the other 16 commentators, but my comment was not a defense of Black Widow as a means to dismiss all of the arguments offered by 2 top-tier critics. My comment was a criticism of 1 critics assessment of the role of Black Widow, which was so far removed from the characters treatment in the movie as to make me wonder if the critic had actually watched it.

And speaking as someone who has been a lifetime comic book reader, but is not a big fan of comic book movies, I thought the rest of their discussion was pretty boring, and didn't have anything particularly insightful to say. But then I know something of comic book history, so the fact that they can throw around names like Fredric Wertham and the "Seduction of the Innocent" isn't especially impressive.
Dana5140, that's an interesting point, however, I think Scott's comment is less a commentary about superhero or genre fandom and more a statement about Scott's personal experience in dealing with the most rambunctious 1 or 2% of online fans. Aas an example, he complained of likely being called out, "for snobbery or priggishness, to be accused of clinging to snobbish, irrelevant standards and trying to spoil everyone else’s fun."

The paragraph that precedes the one you've quoted says it all. Clearly Scott has been critical of comic book movies in the past and he's been lambasted by online fans. And IMO that is the key to his error in thinking. That's the only way he could arrive at the conclusion that, "comic book fans need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised, marginalized by phantom elites who want to confiscate their hard-won pleasures." I mean honestly, does Scott know anyone that reads comics? What an incredibly insulting comment to make.

“Fanboys” being protective of the objects of their/our affection does not equal being led around by our noses and the comments posted above are not proof of his hypothesis, rather, they are a response to being called easily-manipulated sheep.

Is it so outlandish for these critics to accept that we might actually just like this stuff, which they refer to as shit with a few exceptions? While AO Scott and the Hollywood machine might feel it’s all about money and cross over marketing, for me it’s about the fun of seeing my childhood heroes come to life. It’s a shame they can’t let us enjoy our moment in the sun. Then again, maybe a critical article like this, by respected critics, proves that it truly is our moment in the sun! Excelsior!
I am not sure why you feel that they cannot let you enjoy your moment in the sun. They are just critics. They offer their thoughts. You can agree or not. Critics hate- HATE- my favorite band, Magma, but that hardly affects whether or not I continue to like them.

I think the point they really make- it is all about the money- is valid. It really is all about the money. If comic book movies all did poorly, that would be the end of it. But we get played, all the time. We are manipulated. And now Joss is a part of it as well. You don;'t think they played up his cred in marketing this film? I always feel, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
If that is in fact their point, it's a bit silly. You could apply that argument to nearly ANYTHING, entertainment-based or otherwise. It's art versus commerce. Sometimes, they work in harmony and we get The Avengers, meaning something that is not only widely applauded critically for its artistic merits, be they social commentary, making a statement about us as people, whatever, but also something that is commercially successful and applauded by general audiences who had a good time at the movies.

Most of the time, though, the two are at odds due to the simple fact that what is profound, insightful or important is not necessarily financially viable as a high selling product. Fried foods tend to sell better than garden fresh mushrooms. You can tell people all day long how much better for their health those mushrooms are, they're still more likely to reach for the deep fried indulgences. Now, fried mushrooms? Oh man, I could eat those all day. I don't, though. I believe the key to happiness is moderation. So, for every deep, moving and thoughtful episode of a Whedonverse show I love (The Body, for example), I also love the light and fun episodes just as much (like Smile Time).

Regardless, it IS a business. It's important to understand, THAT'S OK. I'm not big on those Transformers movies (I enjoyed the first one well enough, but that was it), but I would never turn my nose up at them, or scold someone for loving them. They have their place and just as much of a right to exist as the things I love that tend to be more sophisticated. Besides, the "mindless" popcorn that the masses tend to pay for the most, makes the smaller things possible. We can't have one without the other. To do so would become boring and kind of fascist, I think. I'm reminded of this exchange from one of my absolute favorite episodes of Eureka:

STARK: Something funny, Henry?
HENRY: I'm just appreciating the irony of our situation.
STARK: Which would be what?
HENRY: Well, I'm leaving Eureka because I'm tired of watching noble ideas being turned into weapons and here we are... (laughs) Here we are at the mercy of a weapon that had been turned into a noble idea!
STARK: Well, that's the way the system works. One doesn't exists without the other.
HENRY: Spoken like a true bureaucrat.
STARK: You know, I'm getting really tired of the remarks, Henry.
HENRY: Well... You won't have to put up with them much longer, will you.
STARK: No, no, that's true. 'Cos you're bailing out on me.
HENRY: Hmm... Of all my students... You- were the one, that had the potential to do anything. But you chose to do the administrative shuffle. Management. Defense contracts. Political glad-handling. You could have furthered SCIENCE! In, in, in so many ways. But you chose to further your career.
STARK: How can someone with such a high IQ... be so clueless?

[Henry just shakes his head]

STARK: Henry, you don't get to do what you do unless someone like me does what I do. You think it's easy, shielding you from the politics so you can work the way you wanna work? You think I was popular bringing you to Eureka in the first place?
HENRY: I didn't ask to be brought here.
STARK: (shaking head) No. Now you're giving up. You were persona-non-grata, Henry, because you didn't work well within the system. Well I ignored that... because of my respect for you. As a scientist, and as a mentor, and as a friend. Idealists don't get much done without a few pragmatists running interference for them so get off your moral high-horse.

[Henry has obviously been affected by Stark's lecture]

STARK: Is the system perfect? No. It's political, and ugly, and compromising. But in spite of that, I feel we still do more good than harm. And you, of all people, should appreciate that. You leave now, Henry, and you're part of the problem. (shakes head) Not the solution.
Suddenly, we comic book fans have become "the man." Weird, seems like only yesterday we were just another marginalized group. And now the stories we love have suddenly become a monolithic force for race and gender oppression? What evidence do they have for this inflammatory tripe? I saw none.

Also, I'm untroubled by the fact that these stories are now reaching an enormous audience and generating a boatload of money. To the contrary, it's been far too long in coming.

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