Comic Book Movies are not ‘Fine’

We have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is.

So it came to be that, with just six short sentences, Ethan Hawke opened the floodgates of fandom and let himself be soaked in a deluge of self-righteous scorn. As the manchildren shrieked and shrilled across social, the publications that quietly pride themselves on knowing who Bresson was stepped in to gingerly validate their anger for the sake of holy clickbait. Was Ethan Hawke, the versatile actor, right to condemn a medium (not a genre – see below) in such a way? A medium that has recently managed to shoulder in a whole new category at the Oscars? A medium that he himself has recently benefited from (monetarily at least) in the form of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets?

Of course he was right.

And a big part of that, for me, lies in the confusion between ‘genre’ and ‘medium’ when talking about comic book movies – especially the current ‘cinematic universe’ affairs we can’t seem to escape. At one time these films did exist as genre fare; singular visions told within a specific framework. Most of these were dross, but for every three poor Superman movies we still had Richard Donner’s original vision. For every credit-card wielding day-glo Batman, we had Tim Burton’s awkward weirdo. There were – for a time – comic book movies that attempted to say something. Anything.

They had a message.

For Richard Donner’s Superman, that message is one of hope in true, honest good. For Tim Burton’s Batman – particularly the one of Batman Returns – it’s an exaggerated look at the role of outsiders in society, and what it means to have a sense of selves rather than self.

What, my friends, do the Marvel movies have to say?

That might be an unfair statement. For the disgraced James Gunn, GOTG was clearly about what defines a family. That product, at least, had something to say.

But what about the other nineteen films?

What do they have to say beyond a promise of something to come? What do they have to offer except a canny transmogrification of late-stage consumer-led capitalism into a series of two hour units?

These are not films in the conventional sense; they do not play to the conceits of narrative or message. They have instead taken inspiration from the world of advertising, PR and marketing, turning the means of communication into an end themselves. Instead of watching an advert, feeling dissatisfied with our state, and paying for the product that promises comfort, we now watch the advert, feel dissatisfied with our state, and pay for the product that promises comfort down the line. The promise never actually gets the pay-off, but that’s fine, because the consumer keeps being suckered in anyway. It’s the iPhone obsolescence model applied to film. These visual products are Spectacles in a very different sense of the term. They are distilled consumerism.

When we accept that these films have been consciously divorced from the traditional approach toward cinematic storytelling, we start to see them as offering a very different function in the market. This also allows me to neatly side-step the whole ‘artistic merit’ debate that’s come coupled with Mr. Hawke’s argument, as we’re now very clearly talking about a different kind of marketable product (because of course the Russos and Bergman do actually stand toe-to-toe from a purely creative perspective. Ahem).

This is why Ethan Hawke was right, and why comic book movies are currently a very damaging trend in Hollywood. Depressingly, this is something I wrote about four years ago, but at that time I too was trapped in the world of the fanboys – whilst I didn’t agree with them, I still believed that the product we were watching was of an analogue with a separate medium: ‘cinema before Kevin Feige’. Whether narrative, documentary or something else entirely, the considered notion of a film is that it has something to say. It might not be smart, it might not be original, but it’s saying something.

So yes, Logan was a ‘fine’ comic book movie. Because at least it tried to be a movie, even as it railed against its own defined role in the new medium we’ve all come to love and pour billions into. Hurrah.

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