Loki’s Defense of Superhero Movies
Acclaimed British actor Tom Hiddleston—who shows up in War Horse, Midnight in Paris, and as Loki in Thor and the upcoming The Avengers—has written a rather intriguing article in defense of superhero movies. You can check it out here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2012/apr/19/avengers-assemble-tom-hiddleston-superhero. Part of it shares some overlap with Brennan’s write-up on last year’s superhero-heavy summer, which you can find here: http://cinemaexverite.com/2011/05/17/comic-book-films-modern-mythologies-the-purpose-of-humanity/. These films, Hiddleston claims, tap into universal truths about humanity, illustrating on a grand scale “the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility.” They are about people (or super-people) with problems, flaws, and the possibility of redemption. We recognize them because we are them; more precisely, they are what we would be if we could fly and smash buildings with a fist. The Hulk represents our fear of anger, Batman is a brooding, vengeful Hamlet, and so on. I think this is the key quote of the article: “In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out.” Movies about boy-spiders and blind daredevils, then, eradicate the specificity of “religions” and distill the common values into something visually consumable by masses of people who live by similar principles and attach different labels to them. Superhero movies unite us by catering to our fantasies while simultaneously questioning even the strength of those operating in our fantasies. The classical actor Christopher Reeve might have been derided for starring in Superman, but now he’s in good company: Jack Nicholson in Batman, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in X-Men, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy in X-Men: Origins, Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man, Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon in Man of Steel, the entire cast of The Dark Knight. The list goes on and on. It’s time to stop griping about them and start respecting them, Loki says, because they reflect our lives and give us some fun while they do it.
I’m inclined to agree with Hiddleston…in theory. But in practice I just can’t say that I’ve had this experience. At the end of the article, the actor offers that the Lumière brothers would be thrilled with movies like this. Scenes of spectacle ”are the result of a creative engine set in motion when the Lumières shot L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat in 1895.” Look how far we’ve come at amazing audiences, the argument goes. But I think Hiddleston is misinterpreting the impact of L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Coitat Station). Audiences were astonished not because what they saw looked so wondrously unreal but because it looked so real that they could hardly believe it wasn’t. They knew that an actual train was not headed toward them, but their brains and their bodies didn’t agree. Tom Gunning has said that “the apparent realism of the image makes it a successful illusion, but one understood as an illusion nonetheless.” I don’t think it’s quite fair to liken computer-generated-imagery and motion-capture characters and completely digital environments to footage of a train arriving at a station. Those who operate in our Transformers film culture seem to be saying “look what we can create” rather than “look what we can capture.” When the Lumière brothers were making movies, they found the power of bottling a “real” moment through a lens, which of course destroys its realism. That was the spectacle: an everyday moment framed on a big screen. It was a card-trick, not a levitation. It was about transparency, not opacity. You were wondering “How did they do that?” not because it didn’t look real but because it did. I’m cautious to give superhero movies the same credit. Things I see might look “cool,” but they don’t look real. [When I say "real," by the way, I'm injecting the term with all of the malleability inherent in it. I mostly mean "real" not by standards of "what could happen" but by what I believe is happening in the context of the film.] They distract me, taking me out of the fabric of the film and causing me to contemplate stylists sitting at computers. When you try to “wow” me, I end up feeling less invested in the story, characters, emotion, etc.
I realize that this sounds sort of strange. It’s a superhero movie, you say, and it’s not supposed to be realistic. But when I say “realistic,” I’m not objecting to aliens flying in spandex or Greek gods stranded in New Mexico or a kid shooting webs out of his wrists. I’m objecting to the tendency to privilege special effects over story, character, and emotion. I’m not claiming that all of these movies do this, but I see the industry moving in that direction, not necessarily with superhero movies specifically, but with anything with a big budget. I don’t want to bash superhero movies, because I understand Hiddleston’s praise. Yet, I see it as potential only hardly realized. In most of these films, I don’t feel that my humanity is being reflected back to me. I don’t feel that I’m connecting with universal pride or pain or faith. I don’t feel that I’m united with disparate religions under universally redemptive principles. I feel that I’m being sold something so market-tested and commercially engineered that no one involved really cares about hubris or flawed humanity. If it sounds cynical to say they care about dollar signs, I point to endless sequels and tent-pole movies that have release dates before they have scripts. Some of them have heart, but most of them feel hollow. Of course, I love The Dark Knight, but Bruce Wayne doesn’t have to be made human, because he already is one. I wish I felt the same way about other films’ characters. I wish I could join in this multiplex praise. But right now, I only can with Nolan’s franchise. Maybe more will come. Or maybe they already have, and if you feel that’s the case, chalk my reaction up to personal taste. We all have it, and we’re hard-pressed to change it.