Light in the Darkon August 24, 2011 at 7:24 pm
I am technically on vacation. This means that my blog post for Tuesday is a day late and I’m writing less-regularly than normal. Apologies for the delay. I am also in a mood, and that’s probably not a good thing to be in when trying to write a blog post, but I’m going to post this anyway, because it’s that kind of mood. You have been warned.
My son and I went to see Captain America about two weeks back, and it was as enjoyable and delightful a trip to the movies as I can remember in years. My days as a bitchy critic of cinema are long past, mind you, and I’m not interested in posting a review. I could do that. I once did do that. I stopped doing that 20 years ago. The proliferation of people who mistake their opinion for criticism made me stop. We enjoyed it tremendously, and that’s enough. Given the current state of cinema, it may be more than enough.
Rick and I did an interview on Monday for The Long and Shortbox of It with Jon Gorga and Josh Kopin, and over the course of the conversation, we ended up discussing the continued slavish devotion to that which is labeled “dark” and “gritty” in super-hero comics. You’ll get an earful on this when you listen to the podcast, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about off and on for a while now, and this seems as good a time as any to get something off my virtual chest, so to speak.
When I was working on 52, I half-jokingly asked Geoff Johns what it was with him and decapitations. If you’ve read his work, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Black Adam, in particular, had a penchant for removing the top, so to speak. His response was that he’d grown up playing Mortal Kombat. Fatalities were common, as he put it; a decapitation was de rigueur. Me, I was in college when Narc came out. Late formative years, and I still remember being taken aback the first time I watched the animated pitbulls tearing me apart on the screen.
Rick and I want Lady Sabre to be fun. Stealing a page from the Clevinger-Wegener manifesto, if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. If it’s not fun, we’re doing something wrong.
Captain America was fun. It was pure, and it was sincere, and it never once apologized for being either of those things, and in fact, that was why Steve Rogers was chosen to become the First Super Soldier. I credit an enormous amount of its success to these factors.
Here’s the thing: I am sick and tired of super-heroes who aren’t super and aren’t heroes, but more, I’m sick and tired of Hollywood blaming us for their failures. I am sick and tired of hearing various Hollywood studio execs who are as disconnected from the reality of middle-American taste as Rick Perry is from Christianity excusing the poor performance of their ill-executed product by tacitly blaming you, me, and everyone else of us who didn’t pay to see their garbage. Catwoman fails? Instead of, perhaps, just perhaps, acknowledging that the movie is a piece of excrement unworthy of use as fertilizer, they conclude instead that a female lead can’t open a movie unless her name is Jolie. So now we’re not only guilty of not being willing to pay for 90 minutes of intellectual abuse, we’re all apparently sexist jerks, as well. The problem with Green Lantern’s performance at the box office is that it’s not “gritty” enough? I don’t think so.
Art – and even if that art is commercial art, produced for entertainment – feeds and is fed by the society that consumes it. So I ask you, right now, looking around you, what flavor of escapism will go down best with you? In an era of terror alerts and bipartisan dysfunction, of rising hate and blossoming intolerance, of bank failure and wide-spread, global unemployment and recession, is gritty really what we need?
Look, I like gritty. I write gritty. There is a time and a place for gritty. I’ll take my Batman gritty, thank you, and I will acknowledge that such a portrayal means that my 11 year old has to wait before he sees The Dark Knight. But if Hollywood turns out a Superman movie that I can’t take him to? They’ve done something wrong. Superman is many, many things. Gritty he is not, something that Richard Donner certainly understood.
(Pet peeve time: for the contingent out there who sneer at heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman and Captain America, those icons who still, at their core, represent selfless sacrifice for the greater good, and who justify their contempt by saying, oh, it’s so unrealistic, no one would ever be so noble… grow up. Seriously. Cynicism is not maturity, do not mistake the one for the other. If you truly cannot accept a story where someone does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, that says far more about who you are than these characters.)
This is not an argument of era or audience sophistication. Sophistication does not negate sincerity, nor does it even deny it, as the Captain America movie proves. Sophistication demands better storytelling, clearer motivation, purer intention. “Gritty” is an apologist word in this sense, used in the place of “realism.” We don’t go to the movies for “realism.” This is why documentaries aren’t the major product in the theaters. Sophistication does not demand realism; it demands smart.
I can think of no other industry where the consumer is made to bear the blame for the product’s failure as much as Hollywood. Seriously, let’s think that one through. The movie didn’t perform, therefore it’s our fault? You got food poisoning eating the fish they served and you paid for, it’s your fault? The brakes on your new car crapped out and you wrapped it around a tree, it’s your fault?
Here’s a crazy thought.
Maybe you made a bad movie.