Moviegoers over 13 years old seem to have stopped going to superhero movies for fantasy and started going for psychological realism. I myself never stopped going for fantasy, but the seriousness with which many people, including reviewers at the New Yorker, often take these movies is beginning to worry me. The trailer for Man of Steel seems to promise us such a blandly formulaic product that I almost want to see it, if only to hear what all the Walter Mitty psychotherapists say when they come out of the theater.
Perhaps the origins of this issue lie in the degree to which many moviegoers are fascinated by the origins of superheroes If my neighbor comes to my door and shows me that blades can burst out of his knuckles, I'm going to be shocked and demand that he explain to me how he came to be able to do that. But if I see such an ability displayed on a movie screen, I'm ready to take it for granted. I'm ready to see Wolverine do his thing.
Some readers may snicker when I say there isn't an important distinction between Wolverine and Tony Stark/Iron Man. It's true that one has a superpower and the other doesn't. But is that true, really, if you think about them both even to a slight extent as human beings? They do what the rest of us don't do and, let's face it, can't do. And they're both, when all is said and done, fairly upstanding citizens. The rise of TV shows about anti-heroes -- Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy -- is an overcorrection to what's going on in movies.
A number of years ago I heard an NPR interview with a film director who was talking about moral ambiguity. He was very eloquent, but I laughed when he turned out to be Christopher Nolan, the director of the recent Batman movies. Yeah, go ahead and have Heath Ledger look and behave like a lunatic. But admit that you're asking me to play moral tee-ball. Does anyone remember the tagline for that movie's ad campaign: Why so serious? Never before has Hollywood blown the whistle on itself so loudly.
Robert Downey Jr. was genuinely fun to watch as he kicked butt in the first Iron Man movie. But in the second installment I had trouble going along for the ride. When Tony Stark is driving an F-1 racecar at full speed and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) walks onto the track, deadly metal whips in his hands, I'm impressed when Stark manages to survive the crash, get into his suit and subdue Vanko. Is this the beginning of the end for Tony Stark? secondary characters were asking. I don't know about you, but that F1 scene looked like the beginning of Tony Stark. If you think Tony Stark is vulnerable, wait till you get a load of anybody who actually exists. And shouldn't he be arrogant? He does truly save the world -- again and again. This is why his narcissism isn't human: he does what humans don't actually do. Besides, is saving the world the only good deed interesting enough to deserve our cinematic attention?
Perhaps the most frustrating case of pseudo-seriousness in action movies is the latest Bond movie, Skyfall. When I go to a Bond movie, I expect cool gadgets, hot girls, exotic locations, car chases and memorable fighting. Skyfall gave us no cool gadgets, about five minutes of a hot girl, one exotic location (at night), no car chases and no memorable fighting. What it gave us was a lot of discussion of Bond's unhappy childhood. Even Casino Royale, which is a much more enjoyable film than Skyfall, ended on a note that suggests the movie's producers don't trust audiences to enjoy watching truly vulnerable characters. The femme fatale (played by Eva Green) dies in both the movie and the novel of the same title. But in the movie Bond discovers that she didn't betray him, so he doesn't have to come off like a misogynist (i.e. a truly imperfect person). In Ian Fleming's novel the femme fatale is a femme fatale, and the book ends with Bond refusing to feel bad about her death. The last line reads: "The bitch is dead." That's what I want to say about pseudo-thoughtful superhero/hero movies. The bastard is dead.