Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Way TL;DR - Tracking Superheroes from Source-of-Shame to $2 Billion Dollars in 2 Weeks

The kids today will never *quite* appreciate what Marvel pulled off, starting with Iron Man and continuing on with this week's mega-release of Avengers: Endgame.  But, more than that, they'll never really understand what it was like to go from an era where you'd stay home on a Friday night to see a TV movie of the week starring David Hasslehoff as Nick Fury.  Truly, any crumb of a glimpse of a live-action version of the comics you enjoyed was like a signal beamed from weirdo space and invading the lowest-common-denominator normalcy of broadcast TV.  Any cinematic appearance of anything even superhero adjacent was a reason to trek to the movies (a habit I am just now breaking, pretty unsuccessfully).

These days every basic jerk out there tries to claim nerd status for just *liking* something other than sports and *admitting* they have something they enjoy (heads up!  you cannot be a wine-nerd.  You can be a vintner, wine enthusiast, sommelier or lush.  Pick one.  But a "wine nerd" is not a thing.).   But in an era before Bryan Singer turned the X-Men into a box office smash, and the internet gave us hidey-holes into which we all disappeared and Watchmen made the 100 Greatest Novels Since 1923 list...   comics were for children.  Or for nerds, losers, the mentally slow, the emotionally damaged, perverts and delinquents.

Movies might come out based on graphic novels or comics, and sometimes that source was acknowledged - but I grew up in the 1980's, and my comics habit made the adults around me visibly nervous.*  Parents, teachers, etc... knew to be disapproving and angry about musical selections (thanks, Tipper!), but comics?  What were we even doing?

I assume you're well-versed enough to know - this is a little weird when you consider the massive amount of superhero stuff out there in live-action, cartoons, radio, comics, picture books, etc...  The Shadow, Lone Ranger, Zorro, et al - all superheroes.  We're now about 100 years from the rise of the American superhero in live action - The Mark of Zorro came out in 1920!   Mask, acrobatics, fighting a corrupt system via a fancy wardrobe and nom de guerre.  All pretty familiar.

Of course a lot of the stuff mid-Century was aimed at kids, and - as happens now - suspicion regarding what those movie serials and then television shows were showing kids became ripe for someone, anyone, to come along and exploit the paranoia of concerned parents - thanks to a Senate investigation, a genuinely concerned but exploitative psychologist (when psychology was just taking off, really), taste-makers happy to undermine anything they didn't see as ideal for the mind of a child and a host of pearl-clutching vapors-sufferers - comics took a hit that, 30 years later as I was reading comics, I was unaware and which still had deep, cultural impact.

When I was very young, we had essentially four things comics-related that were live-action and a handful of animated cartoons.  Live-action comics translation included the Chris Reeve Superman films, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk TV show and re-runs of the Adam West-starring Batman.**  Of course the many iterations of Super Friends were on Saturday morning and in some syndication, and I vaguely recall network cartoons of Batman, Aquaman and - in the late 80's, a Superman cartoon that verged on being watchable.

But we were all digging out from under the backlash to the camp-approach to Batman that somehow made every person around my parents' age utterly convinced any appearance of a superhero in a live-action portrayal that wasn't comedic was *wrong*.  It's hard to explain to the kids now, but if you said the word "comic book", someone would start swinging their fists and audibly saying "Biff!" "Pow!" "Wham!".  I'm not even kidding.  But framing comics that way had been, practically, a defense mechanism - and one comics shops didn't mind existed so long as the Feds and local PD looked the other way.

Any attempt to say "hey, comics aren't just for kids" was met with derision and head-patting.  All those comics the Millennials now like to give their hot-takes on (Miller, Moore, etc...) that bridged comics from a decidedly juvenile medium to making those Time Magazine best of lists changed no one's mind - after all, no self-respecting adult was going to be tricked into reading a comic no matter what some wild-eyed nerd or beatnik told them.  (late edit:  I was watching an old SCTV clip of the classic sketch "Half Wits" and noted one of the categories for the morons in the skit to tackle... "Comics Books".  Such a common thing when I saw the sketch originally, it clearly never registered as something memorable.  Also - great sketch!).

And this lasted, arguably, from 1966 to 1989 when Burton's Batman debuted, and *despite* Superman: The Movie, Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk (not to mention Spider-Man and Captain America getting live-action TV movies).

Heck, in this century someone did jailtime and got caught in some horrendous legal wrangling because a Dallas, TX court declared "comics are for children" when a plainclothes officer bought notorious "Demon Beast Invasion" and "Legend of the Overfiend" Hentai from a clearly marked off "for adults only" area of a comics shop.  I've never been able to wrap my head around that on both logic and First Amendment grounds.  Personally, circa 2007 I lost a weekend exchanging emails with a journalist who wanted to interview me on adults reading comics whose unshakable thesis was "adults who read comics are mentally challenged or slow".  I was pointing her at friends who are doctors and lawyers who read comics and she, frankly chose to call me a liar and then cut off communication.

People, man.

Not the least of the long-term effects was how the lucrative properties of DC and Marvel couldn't seem to ever get traction in Hollywood.  At least not without a boat-ton of compromise.

I've talked about all of this at length before - but the powers that be at the studios just weren't interested in "second tier" Marvel characters and didn't know who or what most of them were.  Same mostly went for DC - if it wasn't Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman - you might get some traction on a Swamp Thing movie, or you might get Keanu Reeves cast as John Constantine.  Those execs did remember The Shadow and The Phantom, and so - weirdly, that's kind of what we got for movies between 1989 and 1998.  Sony had James Cameron puttering around on Spider-Man for over a decade, but no soap.

I guess what I'm saying is: look, up until about 2000, superhero movies were usually a "re-imagining" that enabled filmmakers to distance themselves, and/or... not-very-good.  For a good, long while, there existed a notion of what self-respecting adults were supposed to like in a movie and culture, and in a world without the internet, the only voices we heard on the matter were the tastemakers who got jobs at newspapers or occasionally on TV to tell us what we should like, and just the *idea* of superheroes exhausted this tweedy bunch.

But even at this point, studio execs, directors and actors were hugely, overly cautious about how saying a kind word about superheroes made them look.  Concepts such as "re-imaginings" began to get thrown around to separate the movie from the comic source material - anything from supporting casts, to time periods to costumes to the very character appearing in the movie.  Honestly, the movies were able to take and manhandle the content however they liked (including at DC/ WB, where we got Catwoman).  Associated talent went on Johnny Carson sometimes seemingly only to disavow any connection to the comics themselves, assuring Carson that this was an improvement on all the dumb stuff you just knew was in the comics.  Those of us who were tracking these things just kind of grew to expect it.

I'll argue that Batman and Batman Returns are probably unique in post Superman II superhero movies to care at all about who the character is - even something as gorgeous as The Rocketeer is much more about creating a mood and world than it is about Cliff Secord.  You can see it pop up again and again in those 80's and 90's superhero films - its about everyone commenting on "how crazy this is", and, eventually, getting to the costume.  I'd be surprised if there's 10 minutes of The Shadow in The Shadow.  And, of course, this is a very PG version of the character.

But if Batman (which I'll argue had significant changes from the comics) made it okay for the masses to see a superhero movie sans shame, many of those reviewers hep enough to have noticed articles the prior few years about the likes of Frank Miller's Batman work immediately drew the connection (usually clearly without having had read DKR) and upped their own "outsider art appreciator" status.

That said:  it didn't stick.  You can see the effect - the final two Batman films, pre-X-Men, which can't figure out how to recreate the 1960's camp, but can't take themselves seriously.  They aren't... fun or interesting.  Most comics nerds know about the tortured history of the Schumacher films and why there's plenty of blame to go around that shouldn't be heaped solely on the Lost Boys director.  Batman couldn't just be Batman, he had to sell toys and t-shirts, and have Alicia Silverstone there for some reason.

And that's BATMAN, by 1990 the most famous superhero on the planet.

Two movies came out back to back that sort of flipped the script.  X-Men and Raimi's paean to the 1970's flavor of Marvel in Spider-Man.  I don't want to linger on X-Men, because that may be the most tortured film franchise in history, containing epic highs and lows with no rhyme nor reason to the flailing.  Plus, it *does* suffer (in the first two) from a low budget and the desire to make the X-Men "believable" in some well-tailored gimp suits (and a ludicrous, throw-back plot that turns Magneto into a mad scientist more than anything).  Spider-Man, however, was a pure shot of what at least one period of the comics contained - something I am certain Cameron had no interest in making happen.

And, from that, going back to Superman: The Movie, I think Spider-Man thusly laid the path for how this should work as Feige and company began rolling out their first film - again: character first.  We all cared *a lot* about Peter Parker in those first two films.

And, thus, one of the things Marvel has gotten right from Iron Man has been a "character first" approach to their movies (might want to look into that, DC).  Who the character is, what their motivation is - that's the story.  Powers, costumes, etc... all of that is secondary to what Tony Stark goes through in that cave and how it drives every appearance he makes in the MCU from that point forward.  Same with Cap, Thor, Black Widow, etc...  We can buy the costumes because we can buy the person inside the outfit.  Hiring actors who could bring life to a role as a human rather than as a muscle-man who wouldn't look terrible in spandex wasn't exactly what we needed anymore.  When you had the personality of Robert Downey Jr. anchoring your movie (and universe), you didn't need the usual big-time movie stars - you got good actors and then sent them to the gym (which was also how they selected Christopher Reeve, btw).

It's also entertaining to now recollect that in 2007-8, Marvel had supposedly farmed out  all of its big-name characters to Fox, Sony and Universal.  The deal with Paramount was one of distribution, not production.  After decades of trying to get someone else to bite, Marvel just went and got a loan and did it themselves, a sort of hail mary for a company that was in dire financial straits just a few years before and looking like they might take comics down with them.  In 2006, people didn't really know who Iron Man was.  To most people, "Iron Man" was the name of grueling race.  By end of 2008, no one was talking about Spider-Man or Batman... we weren't just saying "Iron Man", we were calling him Tony Stark.  We were his pal.

In 2009, when Captain America was coming, the press kept telling us Cap was old fashioned and would fail because he wouldn't have the snark and big-roller charm of Tony Stark.  This had been, for decades, the same song anyone with a keyboard had played in regards to bringing Superman to the big screen, leading to the (many) the mistakes of Superman Returns and paralyzing DC until they could break out of their nervous catatonia with the Man of Steel Randian approach that guaranteed he wouldn't be a simp - maybe a snivelling, put-upon sad-boy, but he'd not awkwardly show it. 

Well - curiously, everyone was wrong.  Marvel got Joe Johnston and Chris Evans (and Haley Atwell) and crafted the story of that earnest do-gooder and managed to do it nigh-perfectly, setting up Cap to enter the 21st Century and lead everyone's favorite corner of the Marvel CU.

And if character came first, how these characters interacted came second.  If Avengers accomplished anything, it was alerting the media that (oh my god) not all superheroes are supposed to work in exactly the same way.  In fact, the differences between them - as in any ensemble - is what makes them interesting.  Uniting around that common goal, from Dirty Dozen to The Magnificent Seven to you name it... that's the formula.  Imperfect beings, gods and humans alike, uniting under a common flag to do good.

From back in 2012, we were warned of "super hero fatigue", and if Marvel had simply kept delivering movies of Evil Opposites with a return to status quo each film, I guess that's what we would have gotten.  But they didn't.  I'm not telling you anything you don't know about Marvel's approach to world building, shared universe building, etc... all of which was lifted from the worlds of the Might Marvel Bullpen of the 1960's.  Stan Lee may have wanted The Illusion of Change, but in the Marvel movies, we've truly borne witness to tremendous character arcs, not just for one character, but for dozens at a time, across 11 years.

If the DVR and Netflix have enabled us to experience television and serial storytelling in ways that were unimaginable in eras where movies had to be seen in the theater before disappearing, where TV shows arrived via antennae to your tube, and then were gone... the Marvel movies have brought the sensibilities of how one makes friends with and cares about what is happening to characters over a full decade and movies in which they star, guest star and cameo.  For those of us who do or did read comics in an era where you had to reset the table every episode of a TV show, say: The Hulk or Wonder Woman,  or seeing sequels that barely acknowledged the events of the previous films (see: Batman, Batman Returns) - we've been lucky enough to watch a sea change/ water shed/ H20-analogy-of-choice change in narrative delivery to the masses, based on those comics people told us we were mental deficients and geeks for consuming.

Add in what digital FX have been able to do to bring the fever dreams of comics readers and creators to the screen, as now whole convincing worlds appear.

We've broken out of the idea of "pre-existing awareness" as a prequisite for success.  The Marvel banner is enough to get people to the cinema, even if they have no idea who the heck this Carol Danvers is, or what a Groot might be - each film clocking in at $1 Billion.  We can move past the notion of the foundations of Marvel with Cap, Tony and Thor and expand out - not just telling the stories of white dudes.

After two weeks, the movie is already at $2 Billion, everyone is seeing it who can physically get to the theater, and it's all very... normal to like superheroes as an adult.  Of course, at a work meeting the week after Endgame was released, I did sit at a table with people who'd seen the film and one guy who hadn't and who was still making that face and saying "it's people in tights... I don't get it", and this time, everyone did the thing I've been doing since the age of 10... you just let it go and let them be right in their own little head.

Anyway - good times.

And to celebrate the fact I finished this post - here's a picture of the women in Avengers (minus Wright, Olsen and Paltrow).  Here's the future of the MCU:

and the now famous lunch pic where we get a different set of the women in make-up

*well, less so my dad, who had liked Blackhawk and Captain Marvel as a kid and who still will leaf through my comics on the coffee table
**I didn't see Shazam/ Isis until about ten years ago, and The Adventures of Superman didn't air anywhere I lived

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