Has the Comic Book Movie Plateaued?


Comic book movies continue to be a juggernaut at the box office, but are they struggling artistically? Our dynamic duo discusses. Andrew Johnson: Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com (who especially in the last few months has really begun to live up to his site's namesake) penned a piece this week decrying the dull CGI sameness of so many comic book movies these days. MZS sums up his issue with the comic book genre thusly:

Despite their fleeting moments of specialness, "The Avengers," the "Iron Man" and "Thor" and "Captain America" films, the new "Spider-Man" series and "Man of Steel" treat viewers not to variations of the same situations (which is fine and dandy; every zombie film has zombies, and ninety percent of all westerns end in gunfights) but to variations of the same situations that feel as though they were designed, choreographed, shot, edited and composited by the same second units and special effects houses, using the same software, under the same conditions. As long as people are talking, there's a chance the movies will be good. When the action starts, the films become less special.

There's much more to his piece, and I do recommend reading the entire thing, but it did further bring home a lingering sensation I've been having. I've chuckled at Marvel's almost creepy ability to produce an above-average product every. single. time., but maybe my discomfort comes from the fact that, as MZS puts it, I'm so blatantly being fed a "product" -- a movie not a film.

Perhaps that holds the comic book movie to an unfair standard. This is mostly popcorn fare, after all, but Christopher Nolan casts a long shadow. We've seen that the comic book movie can be something more than it currently is, and so maybe that's why for the first time since comic book movies became big business -- more than a decade now -- the arrival of a new one doesn't generate the same gotta-go-see-it excitement. With that in mind, I ask you, partner, if the comic book movie has plateaued creatively. Is this a genre that needs a little bit of saving -- not so much financially, but artistically?

Steve Cimino: I think the obvious disclaimer is needed: Comic book movies aren't meant to achieve much artistically. Especially with what Marvel is going for here, which is an assembly line of solid films that build toward (at least with Avengers) a large, satisfying conclusion. In addition, I'm a little bit tired of the rampant praise heaped upon Christopher Nolan. I am maybe the biggest Batman Begins fan in the world, and the first hour or so of The Dark Knight is beyond transcendent. But after the Joker lights the big pile of money on fire, it falls off a cliff in a big way. And The Dark Knight Rises is ... bad. Really bad. Watch it again, I dare you. Try to get through it all. Nolan's not a god; he just created 1.5 good comic book movies. So did Sam Raimi (perhaps more, if you really liked the original Spider-Man).

My point being, these movies are inherently flawed. Because comics themselves are highly cliched and stereotypical, and adapting anything into a movie has a way of streamlining it even further. So what you get is a very watered-down, basic version of an already simplistic story, designed to be read in a half hour and cast aside until next week's issue. But I think the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy may scratch you right where you're itch. I think, once we get all the big Spider-Man and X-Men and Superman stories out of the way, executives will turn to the Guardians of the world (pun not intended). Or Ant-Man, or Dr. Strange. Unexpected titles with very little baggage associated with them, and a lot more leeway for creativity. And if we support those, perhaps more will come.

Maybe the action is a little homogenized, but the casting and the commitment to quality (or at least, avoidance of mediocrity) is something I still feel warrants praise. If you want original-looking action scenes, go see The Raid 2. Literally. Please go see it, it's quite good.

AJ: Nolan might not be a God, but, to bring it back to the discussion at hand, he did show what a comic book movie could be. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight stand as examples of the genre at its very best -- as comic book films that are, to use your word, "transcendent" experiences. I can't un-know them now unfortunately. Nor can I un-know Kick-Ass or Watchmen or Hell Boy, the other examples MZS selects as exceptions to the rule and comic book films that also happen to be among my favorites.

Generally speaking, comic book movies might not achieve much artistically. But that doesn't mean they can't every once in awhile. I'm OK with the idea that it's going to be rare. But, surveying the current cinematic landscape, all I see are franchises -- "product" -- everywhere. Where's the next Raimi or Nolan coming from?

Sorry, I'm not sure I can buy Guardians as the next comic book movie that's a little something more, not so long as Marvel is behind it. If it isn't, well then doesn't the landscape look even more bleak for the genre? And isn't that different than it's been since comic book movies became a whole big irrepressible force at the box office?

SC: I'm not sure we hold comic book movies to the same standards. I don't go into Captain America 2, or even the original Captain America (if the propagation of franchises is one of your issues) expecting an experience in any way similar to, say, Under the Skin. The only similarities are that they were both filmed on a camera and projected onto a screen. Beyond that, they're apples and oranges. I do want comic book movies to be good; I want every movie I see to be good ($12 is a lot of money to waste on something that sucks). But I think "good" is a very subjective term that comes with a sliding scale.

I know you like to review your movies on a grander scale (10 is the The Godfather, 1 is Joe Dirt, everything else is in between) but I can give Thor 2 and In a World both 7 out of 10 and feel comfortable with that. I think I'm just the realist of our dynamic duo. Ever since Jaws/Star Wars burst onto the scene, cinema choices have been, in large part, ruled by our irrepressible corporate overlords. There's just too much money in the movie business. And I feel like every few years, maybe every few months, there's an article about how independent cinema is being destroyed, how movie theaters will cease to exist, how no smaller companies can survive when trillionaires are forcefully dictating what's jammed into our eyeballs. Yet here we are.

And I just saw a totally fucked up, brilliant art film about aliens turning human beings into meatless goo on Monday night. To a surprisingly large extent, the market still dictates what is created. And the market has chosen Marvel, and I think it's a damn fine choice, compared to other franchises we've suffered through over the last 25 years. I'm not worried about comic book movies because there will always be a little guy chasing the big guy. When DC's gritty Nolan-verse falls apart, someone will step in to fill the void. And I bet whoever that is will create something very unlike what Marvel is putting together, because there's a hole to be filled and cash to be made.

AJ: Aspersions about my idealism aside, this seems like a mostly optimistic note to end on, so allow me to wholeheartedly agree with you that we could do a lot worse than having Marvel as our corporate overlords. I wish I could see the little guy chasing the big guy better in this particular subgenre right now, and I do think there's a rather gaping void aching to be filled.

But if your point is that it's a void that will eventually, inevitably be filled -- that time is just a flat circle, man -- then that's one I subscribe to as well. Viewing comic book movies as monolithic -- as even being capable of plateauing -- seems silly. It's art, after all. If a particular style of it is ebbing rather than flowing, well, it's probably a state that is temporary.