If you read last week’s column, you know that I recently attended the second annual Nashville Comic Con. This week, I’d like to talk about one of the panels that made a particular impression on me. It was called “Marvel vs. DC: The Battle for Super Cinema & TV,” and the lineup was pretty impressive. Aaron Sagers, whom you might’ve seen on CNN or the Travel Channel, served as moderator, and the panel featured the legendary artist, Kevin Maguire, as well as a comic book retailer, Jonathan Richardson. Honestly, the only weak link was the third member of the panel who was one of those pretentious, academic-types.
Okay, so it was me.
I have been on panels before, both at academic conferences and theater festivals, but this was my first time to be part of something that was actually “cool.” The tone was supposed to be informal and perhaps even a little raucous. Which company is winning the movie and TV war? Offhand, I can’t think of a more inflammatory question to ask of the geek community.
It’s strange that comic book movies have become such an online obsession. I can’t remember the last time I had a heated discussion about an actual comic book, but the mere mention of a superhero movie is often like asking a group of Red Sox fans if they have any opinions about the New York Yankees. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy writing about these movies. It’s almost impossible to keep the tone civil when everyone launches into sweeping pronouncements with little room for analysis, consensus building, or understanding.
It’s obvious why so many of us are interested in these movies, but the intensity of the discussions baffles me. It’s one thing to feel passionate about Citizen Kane vs. Vertigo, Sgt. Pepper vs. Pet Sounds, or Watchmen vs. The Dark Knight Returns, but how does a movie like Iron Man 2 or Green Lantern summon up such visceral, strident reactions?
Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy most of the comics-related films. In fact, I think the vast majority of the ones produced during the past 15 years have been … pretty good. That’s faint praise, perhaps, but genuine. Whenever I see fans becoming apoplectic over even the worst of them—movies like Spider-Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World—I’m reminded of films like Popeye, Flash Gordon, Supergirl, and that Captain America movie with J.D. Salinger’s son. Clearly, things have improved.
But the genre still seems to hit an artistic glass ceiling. Besides The Dark Knight, The Incredibles, and Unbreakable, most of these movies capture our attention because of what they are not because of what they do. We’ve even altered our critical vocabulary to accommodate our lower expectations. Think about how many times you’ve used or heard the word “fun” to describe the latest comic book movie. I like fun as much as the next person, but I used to toss around words like “great” to describe my favorite genre films. It’s hard to imagine anyone describing Kenneth Branagh’s Thor as “great.” It’s pleasant enough and it incorporates some of the mythos from the comics, but ultimately it’s emblematic of almost all the movies in the current cycle—it’s stuck in the 2½ to 3-star category. So why do we have so many online arguments about these films? Would you end a friendship over whether someone preferred a Big Mac to a Whopper?
Ah, but here I am tamping down passions when the panel I was on was supposed to raise a ruckus. Aaron even kicked things off as if it were a prizefight, giving each movie studio one of those “And in this corner …” introductions. Unfortunately, both Kevin and Jonathan began by making very reasonable, intelligent, and thoughtful opening statements. Clearly, if someone was going to stink up the joint, it was going to have to be me. That could only mean one thing—it was time to play the Zack Snyder card.
Unlike most of the people I know, I really admired Man of Steel, so I did what anyone wanting to start a rumble among the geek set would do—I started talking about the raw, emotional power of that movie. I tried to explain that, when we go to see these movies, we approach them badly. Most of us think we want a movie that perfectly duplicates our favorite version of a character, but I don’t think that’s right. As Heath Ledger’s Joker demonstrated, we don’t want what we think we want; we want what we can’t even imagine. In my case, I want to feel the way I felt when I first encountered a particular character. The goal isn’t a nostalgia trip—simply remembering the charm of the past—but rather to enjoy a brand new encounter, complete with the strangeness of those stories that first hooked us when we were always a little off-balance, delighted by every twist and revelation. Man of Steel made me feel like I was experiencing Superman’s story for the first time.
So I babbled along incoherently about Zack Snyder’s Superman for a few minutes until that inner voice finally convinced me to stop before I embarrassed myself even more. But a funny thing happened. Aaron decided to poll the audience and surprisingly, about half of them were also Man of Steel fans. That’s when Kevin, who really disliked the movie, said simply, “Some people like spaghetti; some like lasagna.” And that effectively put an end to any potential brawling.
All of which was just as well. Because when we stop shouting and copping attitudes, we actually get to analyze things. And that’s when we learn stuff. In my case, I think I figured out why I have tended to prefer DC to Marvel.
In a lot of ways, the companies have been handling their film franchises much like they used to handle their comic books. I always saw Marvel as the more consistent company, maintaining a better sense of quality control from top to bottom. That same approach has been true of their films as well. The nice part of that strategy is that you can usually rely on them for competent storytelling and entertainment value.
DC, on the other hand, used to be known for publishing both higher highs and lower lows. They didn’t have Marvel’s consistency, but Marvel also didn’t have marquee titles like Swamp Thing, Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Animal Man, and Sandman. DC’s movie production has been somewhat similar. They may have stumbled with Green Lantern, but they also produced the first two Nolan Batman films. Perhaps Kevin Maguire, who likes Marvel’s approach better, said it best: “Marvel wants to make movies and DC wants to make films.
However, both companies are showing signs of changing. Based on the press releases, the upcoming Superman/Batman film sounds like a corporate-driven movie with every story decision carefully calibrated through the marketing department. The same is largely true of their comics line ever since the launch of the New 52. It’s certainly hard to imagine the ‘80s-era DC sacrificing an artist like J.H. Williams, III just to make sure that none of their superheroes got married.
As a corollary, Marvel has shown signs of disrupting their homogenous movie line with Guardians of the Galaxy. Whereas their other films are all action movies punctuated with humor, Guardians is more of a broad comedy that really lives and dies on the strength of its jokes. It’s basically a Marx Brothers movie with Star-Lord supplying Groucho’s irreverence and one-liners, Drax and Gamora filling in for Chico with their verbal misunderstandings, and Groot providing the same combination of innocence and chaos as the similarly mute Harpo. The end result is a movie that only works if you find it funny. I wasn’t a fan, but the change in the formula suggests a potential for some greater variety and experimentation.
But this helps explain why I’ve sometimes had more trouble connecting with Marvel. Personally, I’d rather read two great comics than ten that are “pretty good,” and the same goes for movies. Perhaps that also explains why, when our Comic Con panel turned to television, I fumbled the opening so badly: “Well, except for the upcoming Netflix shows like Daredevil, I guess Marvel hasn’t really done anything for television lately.”
Aaron broke the awkward silence. “Um … well there’s Marvel’s Agents of—”
“S.H.I.E.L.D.!” I shouted, “Oh, yeah …” The funny thing is that I’ve actually watched every episode of that show, and it isn’t bad. But it’s also not special—the ultimate B-minus show. I watch it because of what it is not what it does.
Maybe that’s why our online discussions of all these films and shows become so hostile and defensive. It’s like that idea Scott McCloud discusses in Understanding Comics where we extend our concept of self to include objects around us. Thus, when we have a car wreck we don’t say, “Hey, he hit my car!” we say, “Hey, he hit me!” Because we’re choosing to watch these films and TV shows because of what they are, our choice is like a vote—it’s a form of self-expression. So when a critic trashes one, we don’t feel, “That critic trashed my movie,” we feel, “That critic trashed me!”
This is why I think panels like this one, where everyone has to mingle face-to-face and listen to other people’s ideas are helpful. Despite the myriad of voices and perspectives on the Internet, it’s all too easy to control who and what we interact with so that we wind up creating our own personal echo chambers. Then when we encounter someone with a different opinion, we’re outraged.
When I first got interested in movies, I devoured the library’s archives for reviews by writers like Pauline Kael, John Simon, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, and Roger Ebert. What I learned fairly quickly is that no matter how acclaimed the movie, there is always a thoughtful and insightful critic somewhere who hates it and can even make a good case for why. Once you get over the shock of seeing someone eviscerate a classic like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, or Schindler’s List, you no longer get angry over bad reviews—just badly reasoned ones.