The 21st century has been far kinder to the geekdom than when I was 10. I recall a time when I was the only kid at my school who read comics. Sure, it wasn’t treated as a deviant act, as it might have been in the early 50s, or contemptible, as it would have been in the 90’s (that being the impression I get from my loose grasp of the comedies of the time, where nerds are essentially bespectacled punching bags). I didn’t grow up ridiculed for it, but it would have been nice to have had somebody to swap comics with.
Flash forward to now, and comic-ana is everywhere, and seems to have safely installed itself as the regnant genre hegemon of pop culture. The most expensive movies being made are superhero movies and every studio (television or film) is looking to mine the wellspring of creativity in the industry. What a time to be alive. Except, there’s something wrong.
As fanboys, nerds, geeks or whichever moniker you prefer, we’ve assumed we won the cultural marathon like some Borg hive, absorbing and repurposing all the lesser pop-cultural ephemera. In reality, we’re the ones that have been assimilated. The truth is that the format of the tent-pole movie disregards everything that made certain comic characters special for a somewhat muted pallet. In trying to please everyone they’ve fallen into the trap of talking down to the audience.
I mean, who decided all superhero movies have to be action movies? The action movie format is what killed every incarnation of the Fantastic Four, which I believe would have fared better as a family drama movie merged with an old open sea adventure vibe like ‘treasure island’, but with a high tech back-drop. The Incredibles is the only good Fantastic Four movie in my book.
The face of the superhero is a shiny coat of paint plastered onto the tired blockbuster format, and this multi-coloured enamel is only hiding the fact that we’re all driving a Mazda Miata: dependable and efficient but boring and clearly designed by a committee on some perfunctory autopilot. And to further drive my car metaphor off a cliff, I have to say I’m looking for more of a Lamborghini Countach: dangerous, beaming with childish glee; impractical but timelessly cool.
Don’t get me wrong: I love a Marvel movie. However, they are, by design, incapable of throwing us a curveball when they’re busy announcing sequels before resolving the arc of the movie they’re about to premier. So instead, they opt for genre switch-ups like making Ant-Man a heist movie or making the first Captain America movie an Indiana Jones send-up crossed with a World War 2 flick. I just wish they would go all the way. I want there to be as big a difference between one movie and the next as there is when I switch from reading Moon Knight to reading The Hulk.
Which brings us to Dr. Strange. The entire impetus for this article is rooted in the feeling I got while leaving the theater from seeing Marvel’s first foray into the world of magic and the mystic arts. Oddly enough, Doctor Strange got in its own way by being “too Marvel”. I enjoyed the movie overall. I wouldn’t have watched it twice if I hadn’t.
However, I felt it was hampered by blockbuster conventions. That same copy-paste three-act structure. It never got “strange” enough. The dark dimension they’d been hyping up turned out to be quite bland, as was Dormammu’s design. I was hoping Scott Derrickson’s horror expertise would play a more prominent role in these two elements. The man is capable of some intense imagery. Alas, it all felt a bit by-the-book, tethered firmly to the standard Marvel movie template.
For those of you feeling like I’m picking on Marvel, I’m not. They are by far the best at making superhero movies. Don’t even get me started on Warner Bros. and their morose, psychopathic, pseudo-Michael Bay reinterpretations of the Justice League. They doubled down on the blockbuster format even worse. From the start, Zack Snyder and the producers of Man of Steel displayed a complete disregard for what Superman is, too busy destroying cities in some strangely disturbing 9/11 tribute act. Aside from sucking all the joy out of the man of steel, they reinforced all the stereotypes people who don’t read Superman have about the character. The movies made him a boring, omnipotent meathead with an added air of 21st century ennui a la Batman. But I digress.
I feel like the Captain America movies provide the strongest blueprint of how varied the genre can be. All three films are completely different, and they shaking up the format and the genre (threatening to become genres). The series goes from adventure war movie to spy thriller to a family drama that happens to have superheroes. The climaxes tend to be more intimate as well. Perhaps it’s because Captain America is a more grounded character, so the filmmakers have to limit the explosions and spectacle. There’s nothing wrong with explosions and spectacle, but it gets repetitive if every superhero movie ends with a big blue light going up into the sky. I’m hoping for more trilogies that disregard the staler genre tropes entirely.