Friday, June 12, 2015

The American Superhero Saturation

At the time of writing this article, 56 movies based on comic book heroes have been released since the turn of the millennium. But what spawned this surge of the Superhero phenomenon?

The screen is just a rectangle of flame, with
periodic glimpses of Scarlett Johansson’s cleavage.
Superhero films are essentially gilded explosions, with oodles of complicated ‘story’ padding and tedious character development before anything actually blows up. Potential heroes are exposed to gamma rays, bitten by radioactive arachnids, or just soaked in chemicals and electrocuted repeatedly. And in a long-term initiative to move urban policing into the private sector, billionaire couples are shot dead in front of their children.

These epics have prompted intense debate from critics searching for socio-political meaning behind the images of a person in a costume hitting people and running away from explosions.

What I find so annoying and cringe worthy about this entire genre, is how bloody over-the-top everything is: wham-bam fast cutting (so edgy), eye-popping high-jinks, overblown musical scores, relentless, in-your-face sound effects, obligatory CGI 'wow shots' and so on. I find it all so mind-numbingly tedious and patronizing beyond words. The very basis of these epics is to simply ram visual spectacle down the viewer’s throats at every given opportunity. This infantalisation of mainstream cinema is symptomatic of the dumbing down of popular culture.

Every superhero movie is ostensibly a formula: the invincible hero, the villain clouded with self-vindication, and about $200 million worth of special effects; they are also almost always confined to the PG-13 rating, which makes for, what would otherwise be heavy content matter, made clean. When an entire genre exists and is reiterated so often, it becomes hard to justify continuing to go to theatres to watch the same story recreated over and over again. There are no more surprises to be had. The viewers have been conditioned to learn that no matter how brutally beaten up they get, they’ll just get right back up.

As long as this formula makes money, it will continue to be churned out by studios. This low-risk, high-reward, business strategy sets a dangerous precedent, threatening the use of film as an artistic medium and making it more and more difficult for smaller films to get the attention that they deserve. The population are beginning to reject film making as an art form but rather as a business.

The criteria that must be met to deem a superhero movie as “good” in the eyes of studios, is no longer embodied by creativity, acting finesse or narrative power, but rather by box-office strength. There are 30 superhero movies coming out in the next 5 years, but because of this greedy outlook on film making seeping into other films, it seems like a much more gratuitous number.

Globalisation and fear of backlash have prevented these
Oriental comic book villains appearing on the big screen.
Basing movies on comics provides a known fan base, plenty of sequel material, with a format of pictures dominating and a minimum of dialogue which is essential for overseas markets. Globalisation has had a huge role- they can sell these big CGI moves with the thin plots overseas to people who English is not their first language, they can become big hits in China and other nations. Now that it's all about the international market, one can't have Chinese bad guys, or dialogue-driven scripts, or plots beyond the reach of the most basic comic-book reader.

The film studios are unenterprising to make anything big budget that involves your audience having to think for themselves in the least. It's all about a series of fantastic eye-candy images strung together now, instead of a gripping story along with as many explosions on the way. It's completely disposable, completely a by-product of popular culture, and certainly nothing to stand the test of time. Piss-poor generic drivel that pander to the trends of the era look dated in retrospect. Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man... who bothers? And who's going to remember any of them in a matter of months? They've turned into a indistinguishable blur of flying, fighting CGI.

Gravity defying breasts the size of one’s own head are
not part of a 'perfect physique'. They would be back breaking,
skin splitting, and activity limiting result of major surgery.
On a tangential note, when it comes to accurate depictions of the human body, comic book heroes are hardly realistic. The male superheroes tend to have idealised male bodies from men's perspectives- enormous, buff, and strong. Even the male super heroes whose special ability may not be physical at all are still steroid ripped; whereas, the female superheroes tend to have idealised female bodies from men's perspectives- colossal gravity-defying bosoms, pert bubble-bums and biologically improbable teeny waists. It doesn't end there- they tend to be drawn in a way that's more sexualised than the men - like the infamous "Brokeback” pose, where they're twisted in a way that shows off the bum and the boobs all at once. The most telling sign that a female character's been drawn as a sexual object is when her armour covers her chest (just) but not her abdomen- where her vital organs are. 

Now, if there is a desire to give the growing number of female readers of comics more realistic body images for women super heroes, then shouldn't the match-stick thin boys who read them also be given a less idealised image? Captain America in a baggy outfit to hide his beer gut? Thor with biceps honed by hours of mouse-click work and messaging on his cell phone?

American Superheroes aren't here to save the world.
They're here to stop people from thinking too much about it.
Over the years, Hollywood has constantly regurgitated American Nationalism and its military endeavours through its films- USA loses its real wars, but then Hollywood comes out with a consoling fable about how one superhero (Rambo, whoever) wins it on the silver screen so reality doesn't matter. The lethal cocktail of nauseating patriotism, righteousness, moral rectitude and use of force to address the problems are the features of a dying empire. Glorifications of these caped crusaders are the philosophy that scaffolds the crumbling house from outside. Not surprisingly, Superhero films have proliferated in a consciously post-9/11 world. Thereby, they are restricted to deal with fighting terrorism, and exploring what it means to be a hero.

After so many films about good guys overcoming baddies trying to destroy the city or the universe, the genre begins to lose steam. This also leads to movies trying to top each other with interminable special effects shots of buildings and cities being destroyed, containing the daftest, indulgent, headache-inducing third act of a movie this side of Michael Bay.
The film industry has always churned out a steady stream of
faeces, and by its nature it gets flushed away and forgotten.

Comic book film adaptations are this era's Western, and have similar characteristics. For instance, both often deal in archetypal good/bad-types represented by the classic white and black hat, in westerns. One navigated and romanticised the great American pastoral landscapes whereas superhero films navigate the post-modern American landscapes of high-rises and billboards: instead of an audience riding with John Wayne 'tween the smokestacks of Monument Valley, they are with Spiderman, gliding down Broadway. In their heyday, and including B-movies, Westerns were being cranked out at a far greater rate than the modern super hero film.

Tastes will eventually change, although arguably, with the endless comics upon comics of alternative realities/timelines for each established hero, one would have to argue that there is more source material for the super hero film. However, one big flop will abruptly halt the gravy train. Hopefully the genre slips into a tasteful coma of its own making and never rises again from its proverbial grave.

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