On June 27th in The New York Times the paper’s two top film critics, Ms. Manohla Dargis and Mr. A. O. Scott, co-penned an article on superhero movies entitled, “Super-Dreams of an Alternate World Order: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ and the Modern Comic Book Movies’.” If you didn’t read it, here’s the link:
It’s certainly worth a read, but if you absolutely don’t want to click over to the Times, for reasons political or anything else, let me sum it up thusly: it’ll piss you off.
It’s condescending. I had hoped it wouldn’t be, but it is. It’s not so much condescending to comic book fans, though. It’s condescending, I think, to America at large, or perhaps to the world. (I’m not exactly sure how vast Ms. Dargis and Mr. Scott presume their readership to be.)
Truthfully, and to be fair, the two-page article starts off as a very interesting piece, tracing in an abbreviated fashion the origins of the costumed hero through the ascendancy of the genre, touching briefly upon the appeal such characters hold for society en masse, referencing lightly the downward turned noses of the ‘elite’ towards pulp adventure stories (of course name-dropping Fredric Wartham), and then reminding us that comics are now legitimate, no longer the red-headed stepchildren of entertainment, that the geeks have inherited the Earth, so to speak, and comics are even studied in places of academia!
All of this, of course, is not new information to the comic book fan, the student of the form, but it is certainly information that is elegant in its presentation. A Wikipedia entry this is not; Ms. Dargis and Mr. Scott write for the Times for a reason – they’re goddamn good writers.
You know, the ellipses were probably the first warning sign of rocky waters ahead.
He goes on, just before the jump to the next page:
“I have to say that the hegemony of the superheroes leaves an increasingly sour taste in my mouth, and that their commercial ascendance has produced, with a few exceptions, diminishing creative returns. The scrappy underdogs and pulpy tales have turned into something else, and I wonder if some of the fun, and much of the soul, has been lost.”
Actually, that’s not so bad, is it? It’s a subjective opinion on works of art, and certainly a fair point and would be an interesting comment board discussion, methinks.
Then I clicked on page two.
Ms. Dargis begins this second half of the article with more sociological and pop-psychological gobbledygook (a word that is actually in my spellchecker!) and then throws in her throwaway take on The Avengers, which she found to be “unrelievedly dull.” (BTW… “unrelievedly” is NOT in my spellchecker, which only shows us that The New York Times lasted longer in the school spelling bee than did Microsoft.)
And again, “unrelievedly dull” is a subjective opinion on a piece of art. She’s in the minority (the vast minority), but one-hundred percent entitled to her opinion.
I did, however, start to detect the stink of one who felt her opinion was not actually an opinion, but a fact. Earlier in the article Ms. Dargis links to her positive review for The Dark Knight to show us that, yes, she does like some comic book movies, but stick a red flag on that one. It’s the guy who tells you how many gay friends he has who actually has no gay friends.
“A critic who voices skepticism about a comic book movie — or any other expensive, large-scale, boy-targeted entertainment — is likely to be called out for snobbery or priggishness, to be accused of clinging to snobbish, irrelevant standards and trying to spoil everyone else’s fun.”
And right there, dammit, is where the plane went down and now I’m stuck on this island being chased by a black smoke monster, and everyone with me is a shifty-eyed mystery. (Can you tell I just finished Lost?)
Woe is the poor critic, Mr. Scott! Set upon by the ignorant proletariat, blind as they are to see the critic’s superior intellect for what it is: the flute they should line up and march behind ‘til they dance over the cliff! Woe is he!
Clearly, Ms. Dargis agrees:
“One problem is that public intellectuals… no longer have the forums they once did. There are oppositional voices, yes, yet they can be difficult to hear in the contemporary media context, with everyone always selling the exact same thing at the exact same moment.”
You see, everyone? That’s the real problem! It’s the lack of forums for the public intellectuals! Now any dumb fart can have a voice, and the public intellectuals (such as the critics, perhaps?) aren’t treated with the reverence they once were, and that they frankly deserve!
(Sometimes sarcasm doesn’t come across in print. Did you all get that? Good.)
Now wait a second: I thought this was an article on the superhero movie in modern society, not an article about how much it sucks that critics for The New York Times can’t shout enough to be heard over the din of the blogosphere. Here, sadly, our rollicking writers fall into unremarkable clichés: superhero movies are homogenized and all the same! Superhero movies are dumbed down and neutered lest they actually be ‘about’ anything! Just because superhero movies are popular doesn’t mean they’re good! Superhero movies are sexist and the women in them are fantasy objects! On that note in particular Ms. Dargis writes about, “… Scarlett Johansson’s character in “The Avengers,” whose biggest superpower, to judge by the on- and off-screen attention lavished on it, was her super-rump.” Uh… did she see the same movie I saw? (Note to Ms. Dargis: film titles are italicized, not placed in quotes. MLA it.)
Sorry, Ms. Dargis, you don’t get bonus points for Googling “women in comics” and linking to an article on ComicsAlliance.com by Lauren Hudson tackling the much-discussed topic of women in comics, an article that is much better than yours. (Of course, Ms. Hudson also served as EIC to a website that posted this, and this, and even this… but she also wrote this… so maybe she should be talking about these issues, not you.) Sorry, Mr. Scott, you don’t get to chuckle about how your writing is likely to invoke the ire of a fanbase that, in your opinion, desperately NEEDS to feel perpetually persecuted; not when you come across as such a massive douchenozzle while doing it. (Douchenozzle: also not in spellchecker.)
The sad reality, though, is that they both got it! They figured out why superhero movies are so popular and they brushed it aside! As Mr. Scott says early on about superhero stories, “they strike mythic, archetypal chords, and cater to a persistent hunger for large-scale, accessible narratives of good and evil.” As Ms. Dargis points out, “On one level the allure of comic book movies is obvious, because, among other attractions, they tap into deeply rooted national myth.”
Yes! That’s it! That’s EXACTLY why superheros are so popular! They are rooted in both world culture and American culture! Myths and legends! Good against evil! The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his reluctant journey! Just how many centuries of evidence do you need, anyway?
No, that’s not it. Not to you. To you, people like superheroes because people are simple, because they allow vast media conglomerates to force-feed them, because the superheroes uphold deeply rooted anti-values of sexism and racism. But that’s not really the truth, is it? The truth, I think, is that the truth is not intellectual enough for you. Not academic enough. I know, it’s hard: your predecessors shared their podiums with several thousand, perhaps; in today’s day and age you have to wait your turn at the microphone with millions and millions of other voices, many without your schooling, your training, your ability to deftly turn a phrase. Be clear: I don’t doubt your combined intelligence is vast, and I believe academic enlightenment is a worthy goal and that intellect is something to strive for and be proud of.
I don’t dislike smart people. I just dislike obnoxious people.
And your own issues don’t really stem from the dumbing-down of society. They stem from the smartening-up of society, from the rise of the middle class converging with the dawn of digital and social media. The world is no longer filled with the uneducated factory workers of the Depression era, who trust the word of amplified voices because they know the voices are amplified for a reason. We are a world of sort-of smart people; not as smart, perhaps, as the PhDs out there (or as someone who writes for a very venerable newspaper), but smart enough to know when we’re being patronized, and with a platform vast enough for all of us to shout back.
I do not like to presume I speak for anyone, but I will now presume to speak for the comic book community: we are okay with the fact that you two don’t like superhero movies. That you’re sick of them. That is allowed, and frankly, we’re even getting a little sick of ‘em. (Over saturate much, Hollywood?) What we’re NOT okay with (because nobody’s every okay with this) is the idea that you two have ‘figured out’ why we like what we like, and-now-aren’t-we-cute for not seeing it ourselves in the first place?
People like superhero movies because people like superheroes, whether those heroes are named Batman or Spider-Man or D’artagnan or Odysseus or Hercules or something else from across the centuries. I admit: that’s a very simplistic way to put it, and it certainly doesn’t have the same ring as Ms. Dargis’ final thought of, “The world has moved on — there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state — but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in “The Avengers,” will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of super-nonsense.”
But then again, it also doesn’t make me sound like a gigantic douchenozzle.
Nope. Still not in spellchecker.
Tom Hoefner (@TomHoefner on Twitter) is a playwright, theatre director, college professor, and would-be novelist living in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. At the risk of bringing politics into this, he’d like to point out he’s not trashing on the Times because he loves FOX News so much. He’s more of a liberal-leaning moderate than anything else, really, although he’s a registered independent. I guess what he’s trying to say is, get the vote out. (Too soon?)
Check out From the Casefiles of Race and Cookie McCloud, a blog of super-short stories chronicling the adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, and his 15-year old former-secret-agent-in-training niece Cookie: http://raceandcookie.blogspot.com