Comic Books, Superheroes, and Movies

The Avengers came out this Friday, May 4th, 2012. I haven’t seen it as of this posting, but I plan to soon. I’ve heard rave reviews and it’s a Joss flick, so I’m pumped about it (speaking of awesome Joss flicks, The Cabin in the Woods is amazing. Go see it now).

This is where the magic will happen.

Naturally, everyone else who doesn’t work weekends saw the movie already. Status updates assembled, and one in particular caught my eye.

Well.. after an entire decade of superhero movies.. one finally takes down X2 as the greatest.[…]

This took me by surprise. While I do like X2 as the best of the X-Men series, I hardly thought of it as the best superhero movie of the past ten years or so. That still rested with The Dark Knight.

When I asked this friend why X2 was his favorite, he explained that The Dark Knight doesn’t count as a superhero movie. His claim was that Christopher Nolan’s Batman is not a superhero, but rather a theatrical detective who is featured in crime dramas that aspire to be like Heat as opposed to a gateway into the DC Universe.

I can’t refute that claim. Technically, Batman has never been a superhero in the strictest terms. No super powers. Unless you count limitless money, physical perfection, and a genius-level intellect.

“Also, I never age. Death’s afraid of me.”

He also said that you never feel the graphic novel or comic book in Nolan’s films. If feeling like a comic book is what makes a movie a superhero movie, then I don’t like superhero movies. HULK was jammed full of comic book frames and it was awful.

But this got me thinking about all the other superhero movies I’ve watched over the years; whether they could be classified as superhero movies, or if they should be classified as something else.

In order to prepare for Assembly, I went back and watched what I’ll refer to as The Precursors:

Not a bad weekend.

As I’m watching, I realize that these and other films could be considered any number of things besides superhero movies. So I start running down the list:

  • Spawn
  • Blade
  • X-Men
  • Spider-Man
  • Punisher
  • Hellboy
  • Fantastic Four
  • Batman Begins
  • Superman Returns
  • Iron Man
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Watchmen
  • Green Lantern
  • Thor
  • Captain America

Those are the big movies that are superhero-centric. They’re all named after the superheroes that are featured in them, which qualifies them as superhero movies. But like I said, they can all be thought of in different genres based on their content.

  • Spawn – Faustian tragedy in which a man sells his soul to the Devil in order to be with his wife again.
  • Blade – Action Horror involving vampires.
  • X-Men – Mutants serve as a metaphor for societal outcasts dealing with prejudice.
  • Spider-Man – Morality tale summarized by the tagline “with great power comes great responsibility.”
  • Punisher – Revenge thriller.
  • Hellboy – Supernatural action flick about choosing your own fate, despite your nature.
  • Fantastic Four – Fable about family and teamwork.
  • Batman (covering Nolan’s films) – Crime drama with a hard-boiled detective.
  • Superman Returns – Tale of real estate, heavy lifting, relying entirely on nostalgia, and destroying a franchise.
  • Iron Man – Redemption story that comments on accountability.
  • The Incredible Hulk – Modern-day Jekyll and Hyde dealing with the struggle against our primal urges and emotions.
  • Watchmen – Murder mystery/global conspiracy/anti-establishment tale warning about the dangers of escalating nuclear armament.
  • Green Lantern – Space Opera about discovering one’s purpose; impresses the importance of good casting choices by making poor ones (sorry Ryan Reynolds, I love you, but Nathan Fillion should have been GL and you should still get your own Flash movie).
  • Thor – Shakespearean political power struggle involving family betrayal and a love story.
  • Captain America – War movie that defines heroism with one little guy and a grenade.

So even though these can all be thought of as movies falling into different categories, the fact that they have superheroes in them and are, in fact, constructed around those superheroes makes them… superhero movies. At the very least, they’re comic book movies because they’re based on comic books.

There are certainly comic book movies that have no superheroes.

  • Road to Perdition
  • 300
  • Sin City
  • Constantine
  • Wanted
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

These fall squarely in the “not superhero” category. Except if you’re thinking of the book for Wanted. But I would still say that’s a supervillain story.

So we’ve covered superhero comic book movies and non-superhero comic book movies. The only thing left is the non-comic book superhero movies.

I could bring up The Incredibles, but let’s be honest, that’s Pixar’s version of Fantastic Four. Or Hancock, but *spoiler alert* it was terrible. Or Darkman, but I haven’t seen it.

The one I will bring up is the one I feel stands out from the others, not only in the non-comic book superhero category, but also from the filmmaker’s other efforts:

The same could not be said for M. Night Shyamalan’s career

If you like superheroes, comic books, and the “what-a-twist” endings of Shyamalan’s movies, this one is for you. Seriously, it’s a spectacular movie, and Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are excellently cast. Add it to your Watch list.

You can disagree with me on any of the conclusions I draw about the  superhero/comic book/other genre categorization of these films, and I want to encourage discussion. Trying to figure this out was what inspired writing this post.

What do you think makes something a “superhero” movie, a “comic book” movie, or any genre of movie? Do you even care? Am I boring you to tears?

“This guy is such a dork.”

Dishonorable Mentions:

  • Daredevil
  • Ghost Rider
  • Spider-Man 3
  • Wolverine
  • Joel Schumacher

The One About Music

I’m about to fail miserably.

Let me explain.

In the introduction to Scott Miller’s book Strike Up the Band, he writes:

 “[…] Words alone can never have the dramatic power or intensity of emotion that music possesses. The great director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski said that the abstract language of music is the only direct way to the human heart. And in this modern world where emotions – particularly big emotions – are often considered inappropriate, inconvenient, even impolite, where the expression of full-bodied emotion has been “civilized” out of most of us, the extreme, unapologetic emotionalism of musical theatre offers audiences a much needed release.”

Music has an innate emotional connection to us. That connection speaks to us on a level we are incapable of reaching with words. That’s why we have music. When we can’t explain how we feel, when we can’t deal with how we feel, when we want to feel something specific, or when we just want to feel something… there’s music.

Every film that’s ever made you wipe your eyes on your hands/sleeve/tissues had help. The story, characters, and dialogue undoubtedly had their part in reducing you to a heap of failed attempts at controlled breathing and unstemmable ocular leaking, but the music dealt the killing blow.

“I would use my katana, but my violin solo already killed you.”

That’s why scenes like the possession/friendship-is-awesome scene from the end of Order of the Phoenix…

“Voldemort I can deal with, but these strings…”

…or the dancing bag scene from American Beauty…

The piano might as well be kicking you in the sensitives.

…or The Iron Giant’s “Superman” scene…

Oh, you didn’t cry during this scene? Then you’re a lying robot.

…are all emotional knockouts.

While the above examples are accentuated by their music, there are two examples of films that depend completely upon it.

The first is John Carpenter’s Halloween.

This knife is messed up, and it’s always bothered me.

John Carpenter provided a cut of Halloween to executives before he composed the music. They were unimpressed, didn’t think the film was scary, and were considering not releasing it.

After composing and recording the score, he applied it to the exact same cut of the film. Suddenly, it was the most terrifying thing they had ever seen.

The second film that comes to mind depends entirely on music for a short interlude. That is Disney/Pixar’s UP.

Beautiful, buoyant, sweet, and sad.

If you haven’t seen UP, or if it’s been a while, this sequence alone is worth more than most movies. There is no dialogue. The music is playful, touching, and tragic. It narrates the story of Carl and Ellie’s life with subtlety and grace; I daresay better than any spoken narration could.

Of course these examples are all loaded with angst, terror, and sadness, but if you took the music out, we’d all have much better odds of maintaining our composure.

But that wouldn’t be the point.

These film scores are designed to elicit an emotional response that we might not give willingly because, like the quote at the beginning states, “emotion has been ‘civilized’ out of most of us…”

It’s not just movies that use music to push us beyond our comfort zones, either. We do it to ourselves. When my wife and I work out, we make sure to load up a playlist full of hard-hitting music. It helps us concentrate to push ourselves further than we could listening to the motor of the treadmill and our own quick, shallow breaths. Even if there are only moderate physiological effects from the music, there is still a psychological effect: inspiration.

But you wouldn’t see it because of the shaky-cam.

Think about when you need to listen to specific kinds of music. For me, the list would go something like:

  1. Angry – Metal, Rap, Techno
  2. Happy – Rock, Pop Punk, Showtunes
  3. Sad – Emo (duh), Folk, Alternative
  4. Sexy – Barry White.

Granted, that’s a small example of both emotions and styles, but you get the idea. I may need to listen to something from the Happy section because I’m feeling Sad. Or, in order to achieve a catharsis, I’ll “go around the horn” by hulking out to Tool or Rage Against the Machine. Either way, I’m still using music to manipulate my mental and emotional states.

Music can make us fly or bring us to our knees. It can speak to a part of us we thought was long dead, take us back to an afternoon in high school when we were driving with a car full of friends and the windows down, or simply be something to cut the deafening silence. Some of my experiences with live music vie for the top spots in my life.

Like I said when we started this, I have failed at articulating exactly what I felt when I got the inspiration for this post, but that’s because it was inspired by watching a group of students singing an a capella version of Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek. It reminded me of performing music in high school and college, how much I miss it, and what kind of power music holds over us all.

It’s enchanting.

It’s disarming.

It’s subliminal.

It’s universal.

One of my favorite things is when I hear a song that was overplayed in its day, but that I haven’t heard in years. Because now it’s like this old friend that I’ve photoshopped (autotuned?) all the imperfections out of, and I’m just happy to be bombarded by all the memories that are attached to that annoyingly catchy “toothpaste commercial” of a song.

Maybe that’s what this post is really about. Remembering how great music is and how much we take it for granted. Maybe it’s nothing you don’t already know, but it’s something we let slip under the radar and we need to be reminded from time to time.

Be affected.

Be emotional.

Be uncivilized.