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Can Comic Book Movies Be Saved?


After only 27% of Rotten Tomatoes’ critics — ratings are culled from their reviews  — gave favorable nods to Suicide Squad, hardcore fans rose up in protest, thinking that (like Donald Trump) things were rigged against DC’s roster of heroes. After all, DC’s characters are the old school gang, classic figures like Superman, Batman and the Justice League of America

Though it had a 135-million dollar opening weekend (the largest ever in August), the critical pack declared that it was, to quote one review, “terrible with a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing.” Salon’s writer called it “profoundly second-rate at every level of conception and execution.” 

But what was so second rate, the film or its critics? 

Between the two huge companies who own the characters that are the basis for these films, Disney-owned Marvel’s heroes (the ones in the comic books — remember?) has been favored by fans and critics alike. Its heroes, particularly Daredevil, Fantastic Four, the Hulk and even Spider-Man were written as outliers and misfits to American society. They are foreigners to humanity, created by atomic energy, a threat to the body politic. The X-Men are the ultimate outsiders, given that, as mutants, they’re next step in evolution, and depending on the writer, have been stand-ins for racial, religious, and sexual minorities. But hell, In Hollywood, this cast of characters has won the mega-audience lottery. Or so it has seemed.  

While DC is the older company, Marvel entered the cinematic race with a more robust effort; but DC has enjoyed more success on television. That may partially explain why Marvel seems to do it better. Their earlier mistakes have been lost to the past. So is the problem with critical expectations or with the lack of a discriminating fan base? 

For the most part, recent superhero pictures have been based on ensembles since the first X-Men on. Ensembles are great for building franchises but not necessarily for building character profiles. And some of these films have squandered opportunities to craft credible profiles by ladening on too many characters needed to set up future features.

Both Suicide Squad and Guardians of The Galaxy featured less well known characters which, of course, liberated the filmmakers from having the weight of the original stories and hugely familiar characters hanging over their heads. Though the hard core fan base may howl when these films diverge from the print/panel characterizations, it also gave the creators a chance to craft distinct variations — something much harder when that figure is Batman or Spider-Man. However this can backfire with a character like The Joker. In an effort to hype up the film, it seem like Jared Leto was the ultimate Clown Prince of Crime, when, to viewers, he came off like a desperate teen trying to shock his parents — thrown in as an add-on to an already huge cast.

These movies come closer to big-bruiser action films — where heroes shoots their way to victory — rather than to Hamlet. But they can’t just exist to be set pieces built on the presence of a super villain who offers an excuse to create elaborate fight scenes and destructive acts rather than effective plot development. Then it’s “time's up” and a way is found to end the movie.

Recent superhero films demand countless action scenes laden with ultra-violence because of a combination of forces: the needs of the studio’s bottom line; overseas sales to audiences uninterested in complicated characters or dialogue (with de-sexualizing alterations to appease Chinese censors), and appealing to kids (especially post - millennials with the attention span of a gnat) who have enough other media distractions. 

Superhero films are a source for new strategies to sell toys and t-shirts so they don’t have to offer complex personalities and narratives. Who needs originator John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad when all it takes is flashy colors and sexy marketing to sell an action figure?  No need for conventional development if core audiences don't require it. The whole genre has become more visually grandiose while becoming shabbier plot-wise. 

From this vantage point, neither Suicide Squad nor Batman v Superman were as mediocre as critics decreed. Captain America and The Avengers really weren’t that much better but Marvel gets more props because its heroes’ universe is better integrated on screen. The raft of films on both sides of the aisle full bombast with chaotic story lines have too many characters and subplots. 

Besides an occasional flip remark in Suicide Squad or Captain America: Civil War, what do we know about who these characters are other than through scant outlines? In both Deadpool and Antman, humor counter balances endless battles and acts of destruction. But that doesn’t necessarily make for real characterization. When Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool breaks the 4th wall between audience and scenario, critics and fans cheered but were the filmmakers bamboozling audiences to appear smart and clever rather than offer insight into this sociopathic killer? At least the raunchy sex scenes were a nod to Deadpool’s humanity — however perverse that it is.

These films have become more reductionist than ever. Let's rethink the assumption rather serve either fans’ expectations or a millennial’s need for speed. Maybe it’s time we see superhero films where characters fight evil but also worry about bills and affordable healthcare.The assumption is that there's no need to explain what superheroes do in a normal day or what challenges they face when not fending off super villains. When do they go to the bathroom or deal with flatulence?

Is counter programming possible in the age of 200 million dollar budgets? Can we do with less — less characters flying in and out everywhere — and more effort to show who these people are. 

So I suggest a few points of rescue:

  • Turn down the endless character barrage. Let the audience actually get to know the characters they're watching.

  • Alternate world-destroying super - villains with more ordinary but equally vexing criminals. The end of the world loses it's impact when it's the only objective villains have. 

  • Figure out how to make story lines more logical beforehand rather than makes fixes in the editing. Re-shoots only go so far.

Why can’t a superhero film have a plot as engaging as Sicario, or offer a human story like Josh Trank’s Chronicle — a much better superhero film before he made 2015’s Fantastic Four

When will a film give real life to the character and an emotionally rich backstory — not just apply expected superhero tropes?

Maybe it’s up to DC’s Suicide Squad sequel since it has so many rich personalities to really reveal what makes them all so crazy  in the next edition — especially Amanda Waller — and show how to do it better.

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