Does Hollywood Understand Superheroes? Do We?

So Hollywood fancies its self makers of superhero films? Perhaps the people that brought the comic industry to the point where it could create this sort of unholy marriage between paper and celluloid should have a say. We were the ones feeding the beast one quarter, or one dime at a time. We were the ones marvelling at the detective comics, the caped wonders and super-science geeks turned crime fighters.

OK, before I begin frothing at the mouth like a fan-boy, it must be admitted that these spandex-clad characters were, and still are, pretty bizarre. It takes quite a few feats of fine writing to get them to fit into any kind of real-seeming world, much less make them sing with life and emotional resonance. And frankly it’s all too easy just to build a script around a costume and a license for a character that’s had a PR department churning out cheesy “pamphlets” about him for decades.

But how sublime it can be when it works.

The problem with Superheroes is they look simple on paper. They’re really, really not.

They’re strange and subversive myth figures born out of an age when the average person can see more tragedy, death and pain in one hour of televised news than most past residents of the planet experienced in a lifetime. They are born of an age when so many of our primal drives have been driven underground, explained away or just plain amputated. They are born of an age when our mythology has become just another comercial product to be slapped together and sold.

But superheroes avoided commercialization early on, not because they weren’t commercial products… but because they weren’t taken seriously as commercial products. Even before Superman and Batman threw on union suits to go looking for trouble in their respective cities (and don’t let anyone fool you. Early Superman was wanted by the police just as much as Batman. Look it up if you don’t believe me.) heroes like Doc Sampson and The Shadow were speaking to the generations of kids looking for cheap thrills written on cheap “pulp” paper.

Superheroes just sort of bubbled-up into pop-cultural awareness before anyone really had a chance to recognize how powerful they were. By the time Dr. Frederic Wertham tried coming at them with both fists in his anti-superhero book “Seduction of the Innocent” in 1954, he was already out-ray-gunned. The figure of the Superhero was already imprinted onto the minds of children all over the world. The comic industry may have taken a hit from Wertham’s ridiculous tirades, but the idea of the superhero wasn’t going anywhere. Children who had seen overwritten “Two-Fisted Tales Of Justice” pulp novels and four colors processed “Men Of Tomorrow” comics had already lived through war and depression. Many of them had read of their favorite heroes fighting the Axis Powers right alongside them. By the time they’d come back home, some might have grown into concerned parents, but the basic primal images still burned in their brains. And those images had already defined what heroes were for a generation.

Hollywood tried to capture some of that raw energy early, with some success. Superman could be heard on radio before he was on television, as could The Shadow and others. 60’s television made Batman one of the most well know comic characters in the world and Hollywood even translated the hip satire of the caped crusader to movie theaters to cash in on his TV success. But even in their most watered-down and socially acceptable versions, superheroes were subversive. They remained stark individualists who, if not actually working outside the law, worked outside of society’s rules and social moires. In a world supposedly striped of all tribal culture, here were mythological symbols crackling with multicolored mojo, attempting to fit into wire racks in grocery stores and onto toy shelves.

But if Hollywood and all it’s attendant merchandisers were mass producing this stuff, surely no one would claim that they really understood it. Of course they didn’t. Not truely. They transfered the DNA of it, but they were only carriers much of the time.

Ultimately it was children that made Hollywood understand. The people that once were kids watching bad superhero movies have grown and are now been put in charge. These newly minted “grown ups” understand in some primitive way that normally only kids can understand, and in a way that only an adult can transport into adulthood if he nurtures it carefully. Chris Nolan, Sam Raimi and Zack Snyder are now doing with comic icons what a lot of kids their age only dreamed of doing while growing up in the 70’s and 80’s watching low budget pandering TV versions of the heroes they loved.

Of the three, Chris Nolan seems the most singularly accomplished as an overall film maker and story teller.The culmination of that being his film The Dark Knight — a film so dramatic and powerful, it managed to make dark and brooding Batman Begins seem almost upbeat and cheerful. A film that draws comparisons to other crime dramas rather than other superhero films. Clearly Nolan and his team understand superheros from that childhood perspective, but with the eyes of fully matured adults and storytellers.

Rami’s success with Spiderman is legendary in the industry, and even as they try to woo him back for more films in the franchise, word has it that he’s contiplating bringing another early icon to the screen; the pulp hero The Shadow. Rami is undoubtably good, but Spiderman 3 did prove he can make mistakes. The film, though not wholly bad, and certainly not unsuccessful, was overstuffed with ideas and muddled because of it.

Zack Snyder is perhaps the most enigmatic of the three. His fun, but not brilliant, 300 was still a testament to his ability to move powerful comic images to the big screen in an exciting way. But with his hands at the wheel of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen, Snyder will have his greatest challenge yet. The film, set to be released with an “R” rating, maybe looking to pull no punches, but will it faithfully capture one of the most iconoclastic superhero tales ever printed? Moore’s 12 issues mini-series brought some ugly real-life issues onto the cape and cowl stage and built to an ending designed to discomfort. Only time will tell how well Snyder understands what he’s got, and how to translate it. It could change the way superhero films are conceived and made for a long time to come; for good or ill.

Which brings us back to the original question. Does Hollywood understand superheroes? Do we? Some of us get it, surely. We understand the raw power of the characters and how it was based in the industry’s origins. We get the solid gut punch a good melodramatic tale of justice or cosmic morality could bring us in our childhood. And we understand how these stories may have changed us and the way we look at the world at a very impressionable age.

But what about Hollywood? Hollywood understands that Superheroes make money, and money speaks loudly. The culture has voted with their time, attention, and money, and so Hollywood is giving money to a generation of film makers who grew up watching Hollywood screw over their idols for decades and who want to set things straight. In the final analysis, this may be the closest we ever come to Hollywood “getting” anything – eyes wide at the piles of cash and feet stepping reverently out of the way in hopes of seeing more. If Hollywood understands superheroes at all, it’s only because the geeks snuck in through the back door, looked at the shelves of limp spandex costumes, and said “We can do better.”

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