The Oddity that is The Comic Book Movie

So, Avengers did pretty well at the box office.

Which isn’t too surprising. But, well, it is.  Comic book movies in and of themselves are surprising. It’s surprising that millions of people go see them, that Hollywood finds them sure bets, that the stories in them aren’t completely crap. It’s all surprising, to the point where we can analyze them and talk about why they work and why, when they don’t work, they really don’t work.

Comic book movies only work when you don’t go too far. When you push the story and the amount of characters in a story, the movie is bound to be terrible.

Take the first X-men movie, for example.  It had a pretty simple cast of characters with a few other cast of characters and that was basically it.  There wasn’t a lot of action in X-men.  It was mostly talk, discussion.  X-2: United (Or whatever it was called) was good because it held the same premise: Action in comic movies only works in managed doses.  The third X-men movie fell apart because we forgot what we were watching and why we were watching it. Add to that the death of characters for no reason and more characters in the movie for no reason and the movie just wasn’t baked enough.  The movie didn’t care about itself and, thus, we didn’t care about the movie. We all still went to watch it, but we knew half way through that X-men: Last Stand was crap.

Same thing with Spider-man 3.  The first two Spider-man films were perfect in their simplicity.  Not only were there one villain in each movie, but there was multiple struggles.  In the first movie, Peter Parker dealt with the gaining of his powers and the losing of his Uncle.  In Spider-man 2 (Which, really, is one of the best comic movies ever made) Peter was dealing with guilt, grief, rejection and remorse, with a dash of sadness.  Spider-man 3 was supposed to be about anger, but it just didn’t work. There were too many bad guys, too many conflicting issues, too many people to punch and not enough time lingering on the issue of anger.  When Parker finally ripped the suit off, we didn’t care because he didn’t wear it very long. And when Eddie Brook got the suit, we didn’t get the weight of his anger or the logic of him having spider powers. Not to mention that he looked stupid as Venom (shut up. He did!).

Spider-man 3 and X-men: Last Stand both fell into the trap of wanting the big, epic comic book movie. Comic book movies can’t do big and epic.  Comic book movies can do subtle and bright.  It’s not how many characters are on the screen or how many times they fight.  All that matters is who is on the screen and what is going on during the fights.

Going back to Spider-man 2, the fight scene between Spider-man and Dr. Octopus on the train is classic. It’s a classic not because of the location (even though it’s great) but because Spidey just got his powers back after not wanting his powers the entire movie.  He was also fighting for something he dearly wanted (the location of MJ) and he lost!  He didn’t get what he wanted and the movie had to keep movie.  It was a classic struggle where the hero had to do battle, and lose the battle. It’s what the audience wants to see: the main character suffering.  We didn’t see much of that in Spider-man 3.  And in X-men: Last Stand, the characters died to quickly to suffer. And, I mean, do I have to bring up The Incredible Hulk? Bruce Banner is constantly suffering (which makes me very excited for the inevitable sequel).

The “main character suffering” is something that the new Marvel movies have decided not to deal with, which is why these movies are doing so well.  The Iron-man movies, Thor, Captain America and, yes, The Avengers are good because we are seeing these characters learn who they are.  The tension in the movies is coming from the audiences desire to see the heroes achieve, not the voyeurism that comes from seeing them suffer.  Spider-man is a great character to see get beat up, because Spider-man works when he gets beat up and then pulls out the heroics at the very last second.  That can’t work for Iron-man or Captain America.  They don’t work by suffering.  They work by being heroes.  An augment could be made that the X-men and Spider-man myths aren’t hero myths as much as they are character dramas.  The X-men spend most of their time protecting each other.  Spider-man is only Spider-man because he accidentally let his Uncle get killed. But Captain America is a hero because he wanted to be.  Iron-man is a hero because he was compelled to be.  The Avengers “Assembled” because they had to.

Why did The Avengers work when I said big and epic work, even though The Avengers was big and epic?  That’s just it. The Avengers wasn’t that big or that epic.  There were three fights scenes in The Avengers.  One in a forest, one in a ship and one in Manhattan. Magneto ripping up the Golden Gate bridge was massive in comparison to anything The Avengers tried to do.  The final fight scene in Spider-man 3 was, in scale, about the same.  When you really stop and think about what you saw in The Avengers, it wasn’t how much shit blew up. It was how beautiful and cool it was when it blew up. The Avengers had style, not that much scale. Still think big, epic comic book movies work?  Did you watch Watchmen?  Yeah. I rest my case.

Which brings up the Batman.  My essay so far has said that comic book movies either work when the characters are suffering or when the characters are achieving.  The latest Batman movies have a sharp mixture of both.  Can a comic book movie have a guy suffering and being the hero we need, even though it’s not the one we want right now? I’m saying yes.  Which is why The Dark Knight works so amazingly well.  Batman is Batman because of the grief he felt with his parents’ death. But it’s not guilt that pushes him to be Batman.  Batman is STILL grieving. He’s never stopped grieving.  That’s the suffering.  And he’s somehow convinced himself that, if he saves people from his fate, he can ease his grieving.  That’s the hero.  By it’s very nature, Nolan’s Batman movies are dark, because, at the core, they are about a young boy dealing with the death of his parents.  It’s something we all can relate to, either now or later. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to deal with it. That’s why we watch a movie about a guy dressing up as a bat.  Truth be told, Batman deals with his grief much better than I would.

Comic book movies are working, still, amazingly, because they have diversified.  We shouldn’t compare comic book movies against each other. Nor should we worry that if one comic book movie fails, the whole thing is going to fail. We don’t put that same weight on action movies or romantic comedies.  Finally, after almost fifteen years, we can finally say that Comic book movies are a genre, and each one is free to succeed or fail based on its quality, not based on the fans who go and see them.  That being said, we no longer have to see every comic book movie “just because.”  Why doesn’t anyone want to go see The Amazing Spider-man?  Probably because it looks like it took the Spider-man canon and tap-danced on it.  Hollywood had better start paying attention.  We, people who enjoy comic book movies, are a discerning  lot.  You can no longer paint shit gold and expect us to pick it up and keep it (I’m looking at you, Watchmen).  With the success of the Avengers, we’ve all learned something extremely valuable: Either comic book movies have to be impossibly good, or we don’t want anything to do with them.