As Whiplash, the hateful Slavic super-genius who challenges armor-plated industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in "Iron Man 2," Mickey Rourke has a Boris Badenov accent, greasy hair, a pencil mustache and a predatory stare that would give Mike Tyson pause. The man doesn't look at people, he looks through them. It's the stare of a stone thug -- a gangsta badass who came up from nothing and would be content to make do with nothing for the rest of his life, as long as he had the freedom to roam and the ability to create. Whiplash is surrounded by technology, by money, by the most spectacular comic book vistas that Hollywood can buy, and he can barely muster the energy to sneer.
Whiplash has the right idea.
The comic book film has become a gravy train to nowhere. The genre cranks up directors' box office averages and keeps offbeat actors fully employed for years at a stretch by dutifully replicating (with precious few exceptions) the least interesting, least exciting elements of its source material; spicing up otherwise rote superhero vs. supervillain storylines with "complications" and "revisions" (scare quotes intentional) that the filmmakers, for reasons of fiduciary duty, cannot properly investigate; and delivering amusing characterizations, dense stories or stunning visuals while typically failing to combine those aspects into a satisfying whole.
I don't relish saying any of this. I grew up on superheroes and superhero films. And as a critic who made a point of clinging to my sense of wonder long past childhood, I've tried (too hard at times) to find signs of life in formula. I will always treasure that iconic shot of the Joker hanging his head out of a car window in "The Dark Knight" like a family dog on a road trip, and the poster-ready wide shot of Superman in "Superman Returns" hoisting the Daily Planet's globe on his shoulders, and that slow-motion image of Peter Parker in "Spider-Man 2" -- an ex-superhero playing hooky from his obligations -- stumbling down a Manhattan street to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."
But for God's sake, enough is enough.
The aforementioned moments are just that: moments. Dazzling fragments of films that tend to be visually adept and dramatically inert or vice versa. Even at the peak of their creative powers, big-budget comic book films are usually more alike than different. And over time, they seem to blur into one endless, roiling mass of cackling villains, stalwart knights, tough/sexy dames, and pyrotechnic showdowns that invariably feature armored vehicles (or armor-encased men) bashing into each other. When such movies accumulate praise, it's encrusted with implied asterisks: "The best superhero film ever made," say, or "The best Batman film since Tim Burton's original." If the Hollywood studio assembly line is high school in a John Hughes movie, superhero films are the jocks -- benighted beneficiaries of grade inflation and reflexive fan boosterism. (Critics who don't like a particular superhero film -- any superhero film -- are apt to be simultaneously blasted in online comments threads as aesthetic turistas ill-equipped to judge the work's true depth and snooty killjoys who expect too much and need to lighten the hell up. Neat trick.)
Meanwhile, the assembly line keeps rolling along, siphoning $100 million to $200 million per film from Hollywood's economy to fund all that CGI, spurring the creation of ancillary merchandise that's ultimately the real reason for any superhero film's existence, and generating advance publicity that's instantly transformed into free advertising by buffs, who parse each new superhero casting announcement as if there were, in fact, a character to play. (Is Chris Hemsworth the right choice to play Thor? Let's check the requirements: 1. Be blond. 2. Swing a hammer.)
By virtue of its basis in familiar, oft-beloved source material, the superhero film has the audience in the palm of its gloved hand from frame one. But it too often squanders that advantage by coddling the viewer. The death of Rachel Dawes in "The Dark Knight" -- a visually sloppy, exposition-choked saga that at least had the courage of its source material's grim convictions -- is a rare example of a superhero film daring to make its audience hurt. The norm is closer to the opportunism of Sam Raimi and company cherry-picking elements from the newsprint back story of Gwen Stacy -- superimposing the circumstances of her shocking death in "The Amazing Spider-Man #121" onto a routine cable car set piece involving Mary Jane in 2002's "Spider-Man"; then shoehorning her into 2007's "Spider-Man 3," hinting at a different, perhaps equally upsetting demise, then letting her live. (That's like ending a remake of "Old Yeller" with a freeze-frame of the title pooch frolicking in a meadow, surrounded by pups.)
The superhero movie too often avoids opportunities to summon tangled feelings, lacerating trauma and complex characterizations -- qualities that make genre films worth watching and remembering for reasons beyond their capacity to kill two hours and change.
Which genres? Glad you asked. Conceding upfront that this is an apples-and-oranges comparison -- then countering that any comparison seems like apples and oranges if you nitpick enough -- let's set the most notable modern superhero movies alongside titles from another durable genre: the zombie film.
The zombie movie as we've come to know it (live humans vs. snacky fiends) has been around for slightly longer than the superhero picture (provided we date the modern superhero picture to 1978's "Superman: The Movie," and the modern zombie picture to George A. Romero's 1968 shocker "Night of the Living Dead" – which I'm doing here because, hey, it's my piece). The zombie film -- and what I call the zombie-by-proxy film, a sister category that includes "28 Days Later," "28 Weeks Later" and both versions of "The Crazies" -- has a list of familiar core elements: the collapse of civilization; the forging of expedient alliances based on the need to survive; the debate over whether to kill a loved one who's morphing into a ravenous Other, etc. But in spite of such ironclad narrative mandates, the zombie genre has produced the following short list of notable works, any of which I consider more engrossing, uncompromising and consistently imaginative -- and more likely to reward repeat viewings -- than pretty much any superhero film made since 1978.
My list includes six examples of zombie-fied social satire, all directed by Romero -- films that are inconsistent in quality but all strikingly different and worth seeing and having an opinion on: Danny Boyle's beguiling "28 Days Later," with its unexpectedly life-affirming conviction that no matter how grim things get, love and beauty can still be found; the domestic nightmare of "28 Weeks Later," with its scalding primal image of a deranged patriarch blinding his wife; both versions of "The Crazies," with their staunch anti-authoritarian plotlines; Zack Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" remake, with its arena-rock strut and knack for finding droll humor in unlikely alliances; Peter Jackson's Freud-joke-riddled comedy of social repression "Dead Alive"; the anything-for-a-laugh nihilism of "Zombieland"; and the Mel Brooks-style silliness of "Return of the Living Dead" and "Shaun of the Dead."
That's a rainbow spectrum of modes and moods. Not bad for a genre that's as ritualized as the western or the romantic comedy (genres I could have invoked if I wanted to make this an even less-fair fight).
And in the 32 years since the release of "Superman: The Movie," what has the superhero genre given us? What's the cream of the crop?
"The Dark Knight" and "Batman Begins" head up the list; whatever one thinks of their approach toward dramaturgy (director Chris Nolan's M.O. is to have his characters deliver freshman psychology and philosophy dissertations while whirling the camera for no good reason and cutting every few seconds), they were true to the dark (at times ugly) essence of their source material. And they were confident enough to disgorge raw data at a stock-ticker pace and expect viewers to keep up. But neither film contains a moment as moving as Brendan Gleeson's fight to keep his sanity after being infected in "28 Days Later," or a cinematic flourish as wickedly clever as the twinned tracking shots in "Shaun of the Dead" that compare life in a pre- and post-zombie world. Where's the heart in Nolan's movies? Where's the poetry? Where's the soul?
The Joel Schumacher "Batman" movies are regrettable in almost every way (1997's epically terribly "Batman and Robin" was a disco camp goof, minus the laughs: "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Nippled Batsuit"). But Tim Burton's two predecessors weren't that much better. Despite characteristically detailed panoramas, smart visual puns and memorably screwed-up bad guys, 1989's "Batman" and its 1992 sequel "Batman Returns" feel less like pop art than pop art-flavored product. They're disorganized, sometimes dull movies, lousy with dead-end subplots, inconsistent performances, and network TV-quality fight scenes. And as is the case with all "Batman" pictures -- even the comparatively ballsier Nolan efforts -- the title character is a yin-yang cardboard cutout, a recessive, numb, raspy-voiced bore. It doesn't matter who plays Batman; the suit always swallows him up. Watch Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" or Dieter Dengler in "Rescue Dawn" and you'd think he was the second coming of Gary Oldman. In Nolan's Batman films, he just seems smug and cranky. (As Commissioner Gordon, a grayer, subtler Oldman acts circles around Bale -- which, given Bruce Wayne/Batman's connect-the-dots psychology, is admittedly no great victory for anyone, including extras playing riot cops and waiters.)
"Spider-Man 2"? Damn near perfect for what it was -- but there's that phrase again. Raimi's second entry in the series maintained a soufflé-delicate adventure-comedy tone throughout, while still finding time for Catholic schoolboy flourishes (the exhausted Spidey borne Christ-like over the heads and shoulders of fellow citizens). But I wouldn't prize it over a mid-level zombie film (or mid-level western, or a truly terrible musical -- like, say, this). The other "Spider-Man" films were largely unmemorable. The original was more noisy than clever, the third overstuffed, unfocused and full of strangely misjudged moments. In about seven hours' worth of web-slinging spectacle, three are worth watching -- and that's being generous.
The third "X-Men" is a stinker, the second propulsive and stylish, the original awkward but also funny and sincere. And yet when I look back over the series, I can't easily recall what events happened in which film (except for the second film's "coming out" scene -- a great example of how to turn subtext into text without killing a good movie). "Hancock" is filled with promising moments, delivers on none, and cravenly introduces an origin story built on interracial love and racist violence only to drop it without further comment. "Kick-Ass" serves up a punk-rock tough first act, then regresses into a meaner, filthier gloss on the usual mayhem. Snyder's "Watchmen" seems a milestone in the genre until you revisit the source and grasp how Snyder, in his determination to keep the story flowing and earn back his budget, amps up the fights, cranks up the music and ends up endorsing some of the same superficial genre traits that the graphic novel's writer, Alan Moore, pushed against.
The first two "Superman" movies are fondly remembered, but for what, exactly? Mostly for Christopher Reeve's ability to make indestructible decency charming. Despite a handful of resonant moments (the creation of the Fortress of Solitude; Superman and Lois Lane's first flight), they're big, glitzy, often tackily produced white elephants. And the third and fourth "Superman" films are mind-bendingly awful.
You may have noticed I didn't mention Ang Lee's 2003 "Hulk," and that I managed to discuss the first four "Superman" films without mentioning the fifth, 2006's "Superman Returns," directed by Bryan Singer. That's because I consider these films to be the most creatively daring large-scale experiments yet attempted in the genre.
Granted, they were not remotely close to perfect. "Hulk" was an intriguing failure, combining Eisenhower-era pop-Freud melodrama and 1970s-style split-screen mosaics. "Superman Returns" is one of the most visually splendid and emotionally complex popcorn films made in the last decade -- a fantasy blockbuster distinguished by its mature characters, depressive atmosphere, slow pace, brazenly mythic tableaus (likening Kal-El to Atlas, Jesus, Prometheus and Icarus) and last but not least, its moments of mundane psychological realism (Superman using his X-ray vision to spy on Lois; ex-jailbird Lex Luthor stabbing the hero with a Kryptonite shiv). Nearly everyone I know considers both movies pretentious and dull. I cite them here as evidence of nothing but my own odd tendency to have more fun at films that try something different and fail than at films that do the same old thing for the 10 zillionth time and succeed. (Marvel Comics' ongoing attempt to enfold all Marvel properties into a single movie universe is underwhelming from every standpoint save that of marketing. Remember when Dunkin Donuts and Baskin-Robbins joined forces? Like that, but with tights.)
And yet: Perhaps the mix of indifference and hostility that greeted "Hulk" and "Superman Returns" confirms the limits of this still-young genre -- limitations imposed by studios and marketers, and endorsed by viewers who desire slight variations on a familiar recipe and cannot abide a film that has the stones to take their money, try something new, and choke.
Audiences and studios alike are conditioned to view superhero films as more product than art. Art is allowed to fail; product isn't. There's a reason why positive reviews of superhero films often use the phrase "delivers the goods," as if the movie were UPS or Fresh Direct. The tonal equivalent of "28 Weeks Later," "Land of the Dead" or "Zombieland" would never get financed in the superhero genre, much less distributed or seen.
Are there any other superhero films worth seeing -- much less discussing? Well, "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2," I guess -- if you think cool competence is synonymous with excellence, and you're willing to prize director Jon Favreau's ease with improvisational comedy over his apparent lack of interest in cinematic values, by which I mean imaginative editing, drastic and daring tonal shifts, and shots that do more than "cover" action and record the actors' performances.
Think of those eerily beautiful helicopter shots of the mall in the original "Dawn of the Dead," or that shot of Jeremy Renner's surrogate good dad in "28 Weeks Later" comforting the two parentless kids in close-up, then exiting the frame to reveal Robert Carlyle's rage-crazed bad daddy in the background. Now name me one image in either "Iron Man" that's as functional, startling and expressive as the two I just mentioned. Hint: You can't.
And what of Downey Jr.? Yes, of course, he is Tony Stark. And his metrosexual wiseass routine (and off-screen bad-boy reputation) spiced up the franchise and gave Favreau license to get loose and funky and foreground the banter. (Franchise!) But even a pinch of spice stands out when it's added to vanilla pudding, and what does it say about the genre that Downey would receive near-unanimous acclaim for showing us a fraction of his range and power?
Rourke's lizard-skinned, beady-eyed, I-will-knock-you-down-and-take-your-woman realness in "Iron Man 2" reveals the genre grade curve that emboldened fans to describe Downey's PG-13 swagger as "edgy." Robert Downey Jr. in "Two Girls and a Guy" -- that's edgy. The "Iron Man" films are not edgy. For all their repartee and self-awareness, they're showcases for boxing robots. And the series' great triumph is its ability to persuade audiences to sit still for 15 or 20 minutes at a time without wondering when the boxing robots will return.
Rourke's personal triumph in the second film is more mysterious. His ferociously committed performance -- so weird and overwhelming that Favreau uses him sparingly, the way Ishirô Honda used Godzilla -- reminds us that there's a world beyond the edges of this movie's Dave & Buster's-meets-Disneyworld panoramas, a world of silence, hunger and rage. It's a world that has nothing to do with billionaire playboys and boxing robots and everything to do with deprivation, ambition and revenge. Whiplash won't show you that world because you're pampered and weak, and because he's not done eating his goulash. But he will be happy to knock you down, take your woman and show her.
The next superhero film should star Mickey Rourke. As himself.