The superheroes have won, people.
With the Marvel and – in a distant second place – DC Comics cinematic universes Hulk-smashing their way through local multiplexes, the current state of the blockbuster movie landscape is a comics fan’s dream come true. Right?
Well, as one of those comics geeks, the seemingly unending parade of spandex, capes and well-toned abs is a mixed blessing.
The stereotype of the sarcastic, complaining comics nerd (think “The Simpsons” Comic Book Guy) exists for a reason: We are a nit-picky, sometimes insufferable lot. But there’s virtue in caring about fictional characters. And superheroes – usually adopted as our heroes when we’re young – hold their appeal better than most. So, once we geeks learn how to register our complaints on the Internet about how our favorite characters are being ruined beyond repair, well, you get articles like this one, in which I – cue heroic fanfare – Fix Superhero Movies Forever!:
1. Put the right comics geeks in charge.
Look, by the time a comic book hero has made the journey to big-screen blockbuster, he or she (usually he, sadly) is going to pass through a lot of hands. And most of those hands are not used to carefully bagging and boarding beloved comics. They’re movie executives, screenwriters-for-hire, lawyers, toy manufacturers – they’re businesspeople, out to reap the not inconsiderable windfall of a successful superhero film franchise.
Expecting a $200 million movie to be faithful to the subtle nuances of a comic book character’s decades-long history is like getting mad that your Silly Putty transfer of said character goes all stretchy. The best comic book movies are made by people who have an understanding and affection for the characters – and who are good enough filmmakers to stretch their heroes to fit the medium without losing sight of what made the characters beloved in the first place. Examples: Joss Whedon (The Avengers movies), Joe Johnston and the Russo brothers (the Captain America movies), Sam Raimi (The original Spider-man series – yes, even the third one) and Jon Favreau (the first two Iron Man movies).
2. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
You might notice a lack of DC Comics properties in the previous list. That because DC has entrusted its cinematic legacy to one Zack Snyder, who seems to think his mission is to drain all the colorful life from superheroics in pursuit of a “gritty,” joyless treatise on the angst of being so super. (Christopher Nolan went gritty with the “Dark Knight” trilogy, but much more successfully.) His worldview might have fit in his adaptation of Alan Moore’s anti-superhero tale “Watchmen” (although Snyder botched that, too), but Superman? Call him dull if you want (he’s not), but Supes is all about hope. In “Man of Steel,” Snyder made him a mope who had to be convinced we were worth saving at all. Then in the lumbering travesty “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Snyder turned the inevitable clash of arguably the two most beloved heroes in comics into an anguished growl-and-glower fest between equally bitter jerks.
It’s nonsense to think there’s only one Batman or Superman. In 80 years, they’ve changed according to the times, and the people writing them. But they’ve endured because they are, at heart, themselves. DC has turned Bats and Supes over to someone more interested in grafting them onto his own jaded conception of what they should be. In doing so, Snyder made them nothing much at all.
3. Don’t be afraid to reimagine.
This isn’t a contradiction. Superhero characters all change over time. If a writer or director has a great new idea that suits the character, use it. I think Donald Glover would have made a perfect Spider-Man. Sam Raimi knew it stretched credibility too far to have high-schooler Peter Parker invent high-tech web shooters, so he made Spider-Man’s webs part of his physical transformation from that spider bite. It really doesn’t make sense that Captain America would charge into battle against Nazis with a pre-teen sidekick. All changed for the better.
4. Find a way around the origin stories.
Especially since Hollywood isn’t shy about rebooting franchises (The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man), the necessity of explaining just how a character got invisible or green or on fire makes for some rote storytelling. We know by now that “with great power comes great responsibility,” etc., so be creative in incorporating the origin story into the narrative, so I don’t feel like I can nap through the first third of your movie.
5. Head for the fringes.
I have no idea if “Suicide Squad” (opening Friday) is going to be any good. After all, it’s set in the same universe as Snyder’s “Batman v Superman” bummer. But the premise — that the government recruits super-criminals and C-list antiheroes to take on sketchy secret missions — finds a unique parallel world to play around in. While the big guns are slugging it out to save the earth, there are a lot of expendable, lesser super-types running around, not all of whom are guaranteed to survive. Like Marvel’s “Deadpool,” “Suicide Squad” draws its appeal from filling in the edges of the superhero universe. In a genre where superhero stories follow the same path, striking out for the fringes promises at least some entertaining unpredictability.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Friday: “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.” In this musical documentary, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma brings together musicians from around the world in his Silk Road Ensemble, dedicated to showing how music can bridge all cultural differences.
Tuesday: “Pelé: Birth of a Legend.” The life and career of fùtbol superstar Edson Arantes do Nascimento — better known around the world as Pelé — is the subject of this sports documentary, narrated by Vincent D’Onofrio.