Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Modern Age of Super-Hero Cinema

I've mentioned before, we can't help but love movies. So many Books serve as inspiration for Films that it's a near impossibility not to enjoy both, sometimes.

My brother and I grew up in the age of pre-super-hero cinema. I count Tim Burton's Batman as the birth of the super-hero age of film. Certainly, others would disagree, calling out Christopher Reeve era Superman, but there's a distinct difference between that Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), aside from the decade-plus span between them.

Superman was a wonderful movie in it's time, but it was a film made of Hollywood rather than of Comics. I'll try to explain...

Film, being a visual medium, has lent itself, since it's silent-film beginnings, to offering up spectacular new worlds. A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Méliès and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) are two prime examples of the earliest silent-film spectacles, and prime examples of movie-making as well! A Trip to the Moon was a present-day (at it's time) frolic of fun, fantasy and frivolity, while Metropolis delves into societal woes and political commentary in a stunning future world... To help bridge the rather distant topical gap between those two movies, let me include F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) - a horror fantasy both thoughtful and fun, in the way that scary movies are fun. Each of those were visual spectacles.

There's no denying the hundreds of great films which have lacked high-levels of Spectacle, but they're not often easily recalled. Even the great real-world dramas in film history have been spectacular in some way or another. Alfred Hitchcock had a remarkable ability to spectacularize the mundane. His movie Rear Window (1954) is one of my very favorite movies, and it's entire story takes place from the viewpoint of one room in an unremarkable apartment building, featuring characters who were just regular people that any of us might know; yet, it was spectacular in its filmic ingenuity.

The point of all this is that Spectacle is not a bad thing. It's what makes us want to go to the movies, even when a movie is billed as "The Greatest Love Story of ALL Time!" A great romance, then, IS the spectacle.

Now, getting back to the Christopher Reeve Superman... the tagline for that movie was "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!" The spectacle was the thing selling it. Cinema had reached a turning point in visual innovation. Maybe it was technology, maybe it was studio greed, maybe it was an audience clamoring for MORE! Probably all of the above. The years leading up to Superman included big hairy fistfuls of effects heavy classics. From Jaws and the first remake of King Kong - for robotic special effects, to the Planet of the Apes movies and Logan's Run - for unusual sets and make-up effects, to Star Wars, Close Encounters, and Indiana Jones for new uses of miniatures, mattes, and some more make-up and physical effects. Superman came out at a time when Hollywood needed the most spectacular spectacle available, a being from another planet "who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!" The risk in making Superman was the same risk as in the making of any other big-budget picture, but thesubject was no risk at all, having been mostly popular since his inception nearly 4 decades earlier. And so, the big-red "S" smashed it's way into our hearts all over again.

And, then what? Three sub-par sequels... Meanwhile, Star Wars rose to galactic popularity, and multitudes of copycats followed. Science Fiction films blossomed beyond their previous pinnacle in the 1950s. Alien crept from the ductwork, Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers slashed at us, and Indiana Jones dug into ever more treacherous tombs. All of this Flash Gordon-y pulp horror and adventure caused some older viewers to reflect on things they'd grown up with... Reflection led to nostalgia, leading to more reflection, then rediscovery, and finally a realization that some of the most memorable stories ever sold had come from movie serials and 10-cent comic books. Indiana Jones, archaeologist and tomb raider, helped us rediscover our own entertainment history.

Coincidentally, during this same period of time, comics were going through some growing pains of their own. Year after year of declining sales wasn't helped by rising competition from TV toy-cartoons, and the birth of video games. Also, a budding industry of Indie Comic publishers had been whittling away at the major publisher's market share by releasing grittier, bloodier, and sexier comics, many of which also had intriguing stories with more mature elements than the major publishers could print - thanks to the Comics Code Authority (CCA).

The CCA was established in the 1950's after a big stink rose from the bowels of one Dr. Frederic Wertham. His book, "Seduction of the Innocent" made claims that violence in comics was corrupting the youth. He included in the book the results of interviews with problem youth, whom he claimed had pointed the finger at comics, TV, and movies as their inspiration for doing bad things. It has recently been discovered that Wertham intentionally skewed some of this information in the effort to prove his misguided point.

Major comic book publishers voluntarily submitted their works for CCA approval for about 45 years, until the indie publishers started to gain popularity. At this time, in the 1980s, Marvel and DC began experimenting with edgier stories, re-packaging older stories into large volumes of collected works, and so, the Graphic Novel was born.

Many of the newer edgy stories were new works with all-new casts of characters. But some stories featured our favorite heroes in times and places previously unknown. The first of the Great Graphic Novels in this new age of comic publishing was "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller. Frank Miller had been working in comics to great acclaim in Marvel's "Daredevil" series and had built up enough klout to get a chance at a darkly futuristic Batman story with "The Dark Knight Returns." In DKR crime is rampant throughout Gotham City following the retirement of the Batman. Able to stand it no more, old man Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl once more. Along the way he picks up a new Robin - a girl Robin! - and crosses paths with multiple gang armies, and Superman even makes an appearance. The Dark Knight Returns is beginning to feel a little dated, but is unquestionably one of the greatest works in comic-book history, not just for it's great story, but for introducing new ways of presenting a story in comics form. I re-read it often, and I recommend it, highly.

The astonishing success of The Dark Knight Returns is the root of modern super-hero cinema. If not for Frank Miller and DKR we never would've had the Tim Burton "Batman" which borrowed a number of story-telling elements directly from Frank Miller's DKR. Burton made this "Batman" his own, but this movie existed, not as a Hollywood showcase, but because it had become clear through DKR that comics could have compelling stories and boatloads of spectacle at the same time. And that's why Batman begins the modern super-hero movie era, instead of Superman.

Following on the heels of Batman came a flurry of other pulp and comic-book-inspired movies: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and more; through more Frank Miller creations like "300" and "Sin City", all the way to our most-modern and greatest super-hero movie yet, "The Avengers."

I'll add some interesting and fun links to this later, but I thought you should know, this piece was inspired by the Oscar win of Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook." Jennifer Lawrence played the young Raven Darkholme (aka Mystique) in "X-Men: First Class" which reminded me that Halle Berry, who played Ororo Munroe (aka Storm) in X-Men, X2:  X-Men United, and X-Men III: The Last Stand... which in turn reminded me that Ellen Page, who played Rogue throughout X-Men I-III had also won*. Considering their male co-stars - Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Hugh Jackman - one is almost forced to wonder "What's up with that?"

*Corrections/additional info (via http://awardsdatabase.oscars.org):
  • Ellen Page did NOT win, but was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Juno.
  • Ian McKellen has had two nominations, 1st for Actor in a Leading Role for Gods and Monsters, 2nd for Actor in a Supporting Role for Fellowship of the Ring.
  • Halle Berry won Best Actress in a Leading Role for Gods and Monsters and is the only Oscar winner to have portrayed multple 'supers' - Storm in X-Men 1-3 and Catwoman.
  • Jennifer Lawrence has been nominated twice for Best Actress in a Leading Role, 1st for Winter's Bone and receiving the statuette for for Silver Linings Playbook.
The intent was to illustrate that only female X-Men have won Oscars for Leading Roles, albeit in other films.
Many other Oscar notables have appeared in super-hero films (non-acting awards have not been included here):

Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger appeared together in Tim Burton's Batman and have each won Oscars - Basinger as Actress in a Supporting Role for L.A. Confidential and Nicholson as Best Actor for Cuckoo's Nest, Supporting Role in Terms of Endearment, and Leading Role in As Good as it Gets.
Michelle Pfeiffer - Catwoman in Batman Returns has 3 nominations, 2 of which were for Leading Role.

Tommy Lee Jones - Two-Face in Batman Forever - has had 3 Supporting Role noms, winning for The Fugitive, and one Leading Role nomination.
Uma Thurman - Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin - was nominated for Supporting Role in Pulp Fiction.

There are many more items like these, but too many to include here. I'll leave it to you to look up your favorites. ;-)