Sunday, November 3, 2013

Give Super Hero Movies Their Due

Blue Is the Warmest Color, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, is a great example of a critically acclaimed film derived from comic book origins. A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, and Persepolis are critical darlings based on comic book dramas.

But "super hero" comic books are a different matter all together.

Super hero movies, like comedies and animated work, are not considered elite films the way dramas are. They are generally viewed as childish. I'm not saying that every movie based on a comic book super hero is high art. Or art. Or even good. For every The Dark Knight there is a Daredevil not far behind. But super hero movies are, for my money, the hardest kind of movie to get right. Because as hard as making a good dramatic film might be, though, super hero movies based on super hero comic books are trickier business.

First of all, even though all super hero movies tend to be lumped together and compared against each other, "super hero" is not so much a genre but really a motif that plays out within a genre. There are super hero comedies (Iron Man), super hero dramas (Spiderman 2), super hero ensemble movies (X2: X-Men United), super hero period pieces (Captain America), and so on. So a super hero movie has to nail the genre and the super hero motif.

Second, super hero movies have to contend with legions of passionate fans who have spent decades fantasizing about seeing a beloved character brought to the big screen but who bring mountains of expectations--and potential disappointment--along the way. Did anyone care what Ender looked like in the new Ender's Game movie? Or what Llewelyn Moss looked like in No Country for Old Men? Super hero fans have in their mind a "canonical" look for their hero that the movie incarnation has to contend with. Just ask who ever tried to don Superman's S.


Third, while translating media from one format to film is notoriously hard, the comic book to movie translation might be the hardest. Because comic are cinematic, they often depict still cinematic images that are profoundly difficult to believably represent as moving cinematic images. Marvel's Celestial charactersspace battles between the entire Green Latern Corp, and Image's Hell are all wildly complex ideas to visualize in a moving medium in a way that does not appear false. Elizabeth Bennett's emotions are, in my opinion, simple in comparison. A competent actress can individually express a fictional characters emotions in a way that the audience experiences as authentic. To do the same with something like Guardians of the Galaxy vs. Thanos or the Avengers vs. the Chitauri? Yeesh. That's hard.

So remember: it's neither childish nor child's play to make a super hero movie. It's a profoundly difficult film to pull off that, when done right, represents the best of what cinema can be.

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