- Why I Hate Superhero Movies
The book I'm currently completing, The Poetics of Slumberland, celebrates the plasmatic possibility that Sergei Eisenstein identified, in an uncompleted study, as endemic to the early cartoons of Walt Disney.1 Mickey Mouse and his barnyard brethren represented a freedom from "once and forever allotted form," an anarchic release well deserved by those citizens laboring in the factories of industrial capitalism. The Poetics of Slumberland centers on such tales of playful disobedience in otherworldly realms, as encountered in early comics, animation, and beyond, and it further considers how such popular media can often constitute fields of playful disobedience. Disobedience is staged not only by fictive characters acting out in fantastic spaces: media such as comics and animation can themselves be considered disobedient in relation to other media such as the chronophotographic sequence and the live-action film, respectively. The book moves well beyond comics and animation, but the last chapter returns to comics, exploring the fundamental playfulness of the comic book superhero.
But what of the emergent genre of the superhero film? Students, after all, are far more likely to be familiar with Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man than they are with Steve Ditko's, and the Fantastic Four are more likely understood as the stars of two terrible movies than as the center of one of the great comics of the 1960s. The superhero film has displaced the superhero comic in the world of mass culture; comics, in fact, have become something of a niche market. One might see superhero films as occupying the intersection of comics and cartoons. They do, after all, depend to a large extent on computer-generated animated bodies to replicate the bodies in the comics (it's been joked, with some validity, that Hollywood has only now become capable of producing images like those Jack Kirby turned out forty years ago). And yet the superhero film feels, for the most part, like something less than the sum of its parts.
While I've been a devotee of superhero comics for a significant part of my life, my relationship to superhero movies is more ambivalent, more unsettled. Superhero films remain something of a provisional genre, still very much in a state of becoming. In a way, I feel like an aficionado of Broadway musicals pontificating on the inadequacy of the film musical [End Page 118] in 1930: this was a time of ponderous, static films with lousy sound reproduction, but one of the most dynamic of film forms would emerge a scant three years later. The superhero film genre in the first decade of the twenty-first century yielded a glut of nearly identical films featuring dumbed-down versions of characters that were still appearing, to better effect, in the comics, just as the early musical films out of Hollywood dumbed down Broadway song lyrics for a non-urban and non-urbane audience. So I'm far from certain that superhero movies have discovered their real voice.
By rights, I should be enamored of the superhero film. It offers a range of phenomena that I've long celebrated—kinesis, immersion, weightlessness, bright colors, urban locations, fluidity, kaleidoscopic perception, and masquerade—in spades. It centers on the expressiveness of bodies and the eroticism of human movement. In that, it is like the musical. The heightened rhetoric of the musical took the form of exaggerated color, costume, and cinematic and performance style. The musical number became a space of liberation, of masquerade, a place where, as Richard Dyer brilliantly observed, emotional authenticity and theatricality—usually regarded as dichotomously opposed categories—combined.2 For Dyer, this act of combination is at the heart of queer responses to the musical; the musical becomes a symbol of resistance to a culture that continues to insist, absurdly, on dualistic oppositions. Utopia is thus defined as a place of movement, of border crossings and crane shots, of choreographed transgressions and performances of liberation. So much of this applies to the superhero movie: compare Catherine Deneuve swinging down the street in an extended take in Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort; 1967) to Spider-Man swinging above the...