Matt Zoller Seitz and Simon Abrams had a great chat over at Indiewire’s Press Play about the problems with the superhero genre on film. What the piece comes down to is Matt making the claim that superhero films are rote, boring and rarely inventive within the genre. Simon, however, argues that while this is mostly true, there are still examples of filmmakers bringing creativity to the form, and that looking to the future there is still hope for better superhero films.
The major comparison Matt makes is to the Western. That all-American genre of cowboys and duels was similarly plagued by the trappings of genre, yet classics were still produced. Where are the superhero classics? I guess the first thing to point out is that Matt doesn’t really care for Batman Begins or The Dark Knight. That’s perfectly fine, but I’d say that at the very least The Dark Knight is a tested modern classic of the genre, both in terms of critical response and commercial appeal. Matt saying he doesn’t care for The Dark Knight is not unlike somebody saying they don’t really enjoy Stagecoach or The Searchers. I’ve spoken to people who don’t like either of those classic Westerns, but they’re still classics of the genre and of the wider world of American film.
There have been other great superhero films, but it’s true that they’re a rarity. This will not change. As much as I may defend the certain films in the genre against Matt’s attacks, I do think he’s right, though his premise is a little too narrow. Dismissing The Dark Knight and raising up The Incredibles does nothing more than illustrate the way superhero films don’t work for him personally. The argument becomes a matter of taste. In truth, the problems with the genre are much more core and because of this, superhero movies will never be, and can never be, the next great American genre.
The proof is in the most creatively successful examples. The Dark Knight is barely a superhero film, drawing instead on elements of the crime drama and, to a lesser degree, the Western. The Incredibles has the superhero premise, but it’s more of a family drama mixed with a spy team adventure. These films, and others such as Hellboy and Watchmen, are notable in the way they are completely unlike conventional superhero films. Where the very best Westerns were usually exemplary models of conventional elements done up with great vision and new insight, the greatest superhero films are those which effectively eschew the common superhero tropes, or at best deconstruct them.
When we talk about the superhero genre it’s practically with eye-rolling built in. The reason for this is that the tropes have already been wrung out and become well-worn. Even those of us who aren’t avid comic book readers have a firm understanding of the genre tropes. Superhero stories generally fall into either the classical mythic hero’s journey or the procedural “stop the villain” model. Furthermore, the only seriously interesting twist on these is that the hero has a power or special ability/inclination to vigilantism. Quite frankly, the superhero genre is barely a genre at all. It’s a twist on earlier models and it’s a twist that adds very little on its own. The genre is predicated on inherently adolescent wish-fulfillment attached to very simple story arcs.
Of course, these limitations can be transcended, as evidenced by the examples I gave earlier. In these cases, the level of artistic success is directly related to the creative vision being brought to the forefront, and how little concern the filmmakers have for the genre they’re playing with. Nolan and del Toro are not all that interested in the standard elements of the superhero genre, instead choosing to place “super” characters within their own favourite genre constructs, whether they be crime films or fairy tales.
Now, clearly I am not arguing against the possibility for great superhero films. There have already been a few and there will be more in the future, I’m sure. What I’m pointing to is a different issue altogether. It’s a question of potential. The potential for the genre to stimulate creative product and add to the culture at large is limited, as far as I’m concerned. 90% of all films are bad (let’s just take this as fact for the sake of argument), which means that only 10% of films are good, and maybe half a percent are classics. This holds true for film as a whole, but also for the more specific genres. There are many great Westerns, but that number is tiny compared to the number of truly bad, boring, or conventional Westerns made. And yet even the bad ones helped to define the genre. They were conventional, but they helped to reinforce and cement the conventions that could later be used and altered.
Superhero movies also fall into conventions. The difference is that the conventions of superhero movies were already conventional way before anybody started making superhero films. They were conventions of comics before films, and conventions of Greek plays way before that. They have no inherent identity other than the super abilities, which are a direct lift from classical myths anyway. There are no non-Superhero films where people can point out identifiable elements and say “this is essentially a superhero film without the superheroes.” The best you can say is that Unbreakable was a mysterious film that turned out to be a superhero story. For a genre to become “the next great genre” it needs to also be new. It needs to offer new elements to the culture of storytelling that can then be used and adopted and made original even outside the boundaries of the genre itself. The superhero genre offers none of this.
Superhero films, in terms of genre potential, were dead on arrival. Within the boundaries of the genre, sure, you can find greatness. This is true of all genres and stories. Any story can be great so long as it’s told well. But for a genre to truly be great the importance of its form must be established. Superhero films have not only been unable to do this, they have actually proven the their form is practically non-existent and unoriginal. Superhero films are doomed to the realm of pablum, and they won’t escape until they are simply no longer made. The superhero genre will never get to sit alongside Southern gothic or the Western as a great American genre. In the future, people will look back at the great superhero films and hold them up simply as anomalies in a genre that went nowhere and offered very little to our growing cultural lexicon.