September 27, 2019 | Arts and Culture
the necessary death of the superhero genre
a fan’s perspective
Joker is coming out next weekend. Aren’t you excited to see the Clown Prince of Crime’s origin story as directed by the guy who made the The Hangover movies? I am. Not because of the praise, the acting, or what I’ve heard about the story. No—when I go into that theater on October 3, only one question will matter: Is this the bullet in the head that will finally put superhero movies out of their misery? Or will the genre go to new and substantial places? I’m hoping for the latter.
I’m in my elementary school library, flipping through the glossy, laminated pages of a comic book; specifically, the fourth volume in Garth Ennis’s historic Punisher MAX series Up is Down as Black is White. My eight-year-old legs kick around excitedly, missing the ground as a grin spreads across my face. Suddenly, I feel a tap on my left shoulder. Turning around, I’m faced with our librarian, the towering Ms. Tucker. She peels off her glasses and peers at my reading material. I try to play it cool, but the open page happens to show some nudity. Okay, a lot of nudity. Alas, I’m not yet the smooth operator I’ll become in my teens, and I’m sent home for two days. As I lay grounded in my bedroom, my parents rummage through my literature for more abhorrent material, but it’s too late. I already love comics. I already love superheroes.
Little did anyone suspect, these stories of heroism would help me grow into the person I am today. They were my own, personal mythologies; I took the tall tales and applied them to real life. Today, I’m a film student, which means I should hate mainstream cinema, love A24 indie movies sight unseen, and analyze the Marvel Cinematic Universe for its political centrism if I have to engage with it at all. But I can’t help myself. Being a nerd is simply in my blood. When the projector turns on and shows someone donning a cape, cowl, or uniform, I’m not AJ Davis, a 22 year old senior. I am eight years old, hoping to find community with cheering strangers.
Even so, as a true comic book nerd, I’ve always been a ruthless critic of their silver-screen adaptations. Michael Keaton was too stiff to be my Batman. Tobey Maguire was too old to be my Spiderman. Heck, growing up, many of my favorite characters simply didn’t make it to the screen at all. Everything changed with director Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight trilogy. Finally, someone nailed Batman. Finally, someone understood his madness, his addiction to violence, and that the PTSD brought on by his parents’ death is foundational to these qualities. Put simply, Nolan knew that Bruce Wayne was the mask that Batman wore, not the other way around. Batman Begins was the first superhero movie that dealt with themes I could apply to my own life: overcoming fear, understanding legacy, and embracing responsibility.
Three years later saw the arrival of an opposite force: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. People forget that Iron Man was a true sleeper hit; based on a little known character, it starred one of Hollywood’s most infamous junkie and was directed by the guy who made Elf. Much to everyone’s surprise, it turned out to be a solid movie that had a lot to say about personal redemption, greed, and accountability, while also managing to be quite funny. That said, its storytelling pushed no boundaries, challenged no expectations. It was the beginning of a marketing machine that used the superhero genre to appeal to an audience wider than comic book nerds. But it came at a time in my life when I could have fun without thinking, when I was as innocent and giddy as the masses these films were made for. I didn’t recognize the significance of the shift.
That summer also brought the undisputed climax of cinematic superhero storytelling: Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight. Upon release, talk of the film’s grit and violence was so widespread that my parents initially forbade me from seeing it. Following much protest, I went on my laptop and torrented a shaky bootleg. After two and a half hours under my covers, I knew nothing would be the same again. But I didn’t know it was the beginning of the end. Yes, for all the good The Dark Knight did, it also set some pretty terrible standards. After, in order to gross a billion, everything had to be DARK, MANLY, SERIOUS. Heroes were no longer required to, y’know, be heroes.
Gone were the days of my mythology, of heroes representing ideals applicable to the real world, and Batman wasn’t the only one. The X-Men didn’t really showcase racial and immigration politics on screen anymore. Spiderman was more emo than nerd. My high school years were defined by that same sort of emptiness, as I fell into a mindless spiral of drugs and alcohol. Their lack of meaning seemed to engulf my home, friends, and movies. Netflix boomed, theaters got better chairs to entice people to show up, and my childhood idols became as vapid and numb as I had. I remember getting drunk to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron by myself in a packed theater. The crowd around me laughed, but I didn’t get it. In many ways, I still don’t. What was loved by everyone else seemed to me like hollow captures of the stories I’d read on the page. The machine was in full effect, and it might have been the drugs, but I was tired.
Then something happened. I got clean and my perspective changed. A year later, a shift in the superhero genre was released: the Oscar-Nominated Logan. With sober eyes, I gazed at a film that represented my struggle and satisfied my desire for mature storytelling. This was a movie that used its small scale to zone in on big issues—alcoholism, suicidal ideation, immigration politics, and so much more. It had something to say about violence, questioning our need to escape through superheroes instead of seeing the death their actions promote. It directly confronted the genre. I sat stunned, weaping throughout the movie. When it was over, I turned to a friend and told him, “I can die happy now.” As I sat in that theater my eight-year-old and present-day selves merged. He could enjoy a faithful adaptation and I could appreciate the political and personal messaging. In an ideal world, Logan would have concluded the superhero genre in a perfect way. It took comic-book ideas and characters but brought them down to our world. But despite the impact of what I consider to be James Mangold’s masterpiece, nothing really changed over the last two and a half years. Over twenty films were released, and none of them meant anything. There is seemingly no end in sight.
Now, we have Joker. A $50 million, understated character study focusing on the mentally ill and authoritarian politics. It might suck. It might be amazing. No matter what, I’ll be there. The boy who was suspended for reading Punisher and the college film student will be sitting side by side, hoping to agree on this one. Both of us want—and need—these stories to matter.