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On Comic Book and Super-hero Movies

A few weeks back, Dana Stevens, film critic at and co-host of the excellent Slate Culture Gabfest, recorded one of her trademark Spoiler Special podcasts about Captain America: TWS. I recommend both of these podcasts series, in particular the Spoiler Specials, as they allow an intelligent, insightful film critic to chew over a recent movie without having to worry about giving anything away, since that's the whole idea. Anyway, on the CA:TWS podcast, Dana (we're friendly on Twitter, so I'll use her first name) discusses the movie with Forrest Whickman and admits that she is begrudgingly starting to accept that comic book and super-hero movies are here to stay and that her role isn't merely to dismiss them all out of hand (not that she did that, though I think she sometimes wished she could) but rather to separate the good from the bad. In my opinion, she's exactly right, but I don't think she goes quite far enough.

First, because I was a philosophy major, let's make sure we define some terms. Comic books movies are movies adapted from comic books, taking either their characters or storylines from comics or their more grown-up cousin, graphic novels. Super-hero movies are just that: movies featuring super-heroes. The former encompasses films as diverse as Persepolis and The Avengers, as well as Kick-Ass and 300. Super-hero movies are narrower in focus, as they share not a source, but a topic: namely, super-powered individuals. People who dismiss "comic book movies" out of hand are doing themselves and, if they are critics, the public, a serious disservice. Just as it would be absurd to pooh-pooh all literary adaptations, or movies based on plays or biographies, comic book movies must not be treated as a whole, for they do not cohere as a genre any more than those other categories do. So, let's stop talking about "comic book movies" as if they were all the same genre, okay?

Many comic book adaptations, of course, do center on super-heroes. Super-hero movies, on the whole, do tend to share certain structural, character, and thematic elements and can be considered, I would say, as a loosely defined genre. However, like all major genres: noir, comedy, horror, science fiction, etc., there are good and bad examples. Also, many films that fall largely within one genre or another will have elements of others. The Incredibles, for example, is most certainly a super-hero movie, but it has many comedic elements, and belongs to that nebulous genre known as "family films." The Dark Knight, which has about as much in common with The Incredibles as a fish does with a gibbon, takes in large crime thriller and noir elements. The first Captain America film, meanwhile, was largely a World War II film, while the second borrowed heavily from conspiracy thrillers.

All this is to say that, like super-hero comic books, super-hero movies embrace a wide variety of tones and storytelling techniques. People who never read comic books may think that all super-hero comics are the same, which is just ridiculous. True, there can be trends in super-hero comics--the silliness of the 50s or the dark, more "realistic" treatments of recent years--but no matter what the prevailing trend is, no-one could mistake a Punisher comic for one featuring Spider-Man or the X-Men, let alone the differences between Marvel and DC that have led to countless nerd-on-nerd battles. (Marvel's better, btw.) There are differences in tone, story structure, character, and even moral and thematic elements that delineate all the characters and their respective books. Even though I have no doubt that The Dark Knight was a very good movie, I didn't really like it that much, because it just wasn't my groove, whereas Thor, while certainly a sillier film, was fun and over-all lighter in tone, and I therefore enjoyed it more, as that's what I want from my super-hero stories.

So, in conclusion: 1) "comic book movie" is so broad a term as to be almost meaningless, so use it carefully, and 2) understand that "super-hero movie" is a genre, and just as with any other genre, there will be examples of it that are good, bad, and indifferent, but just as one bad horror movie shouldn't be used to condemn all horror, one duff super-hero flick isn't proof that the genre is empty.

Post-script: Dana also mentioned that she was growing tired of the various Marvel universe films linking together so tightly as not to stand alone entirely. While I think she overstates the case--indeed, my boyfriend saw CA:TWS without having seen the first Cap flick or many of the other Marvel films and enjoyed it tremendously--she is getting at something real. Marvel Studios is doing something almost unheard of in cinema: building a shared universe where all their films and characters co-exist. Indeed, they are recreating the Marvel comic universe (or at least the part of it they have the rights to) on-screen. To do this, they are taking a technique from comics themselves, whereby the last pages, or a few random panels here and there are, instead of pushing forward the main story of that issue, building toward a larger overall narrative or foreshadowing events that may not pay off for quite some time. While this is obviously a way of building excitement, and thereby guaranteeing that people buy the next issue or see the next movie, it also creates a richer overall environment, allowing the reader and viewer to place these disparate adventures into an overall context, adding, oddly enough, to the sense of reality for all of them.

Post-post-script: You should follow Dana on Twitter: @thehighsign. Just sayin'.


  1. Thanks for clarifying and making this distinction. I'm with Dana in recognizing that these movies are here to stay and, at least in the Marvel universes, part of a larger whole. Not being a comic fan this "shared world" idea was a bit odd but makes sense, as you explain, in that it is mirroring its original form. The trick, and one I think Marvel has done pretty well so far, is making each movie enjoyable on is own merit while still offering a deeper resonance for comic and/or shared world fans.

    Now I'm pondering structure as well as content. Damn you! ;-)

  2. The Marvel movies encourage that. It's too soon to say they're redefining what we think movies should be, but by making them more like a TV serial or a comic, they're certainly starting that conversation. Why does a movie's story have to end when the credits roll?


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