In Defense of the Superhero Film

I have to admit, I’m a little bit baffled by the ire Ross displays toward superhero movies. If he were a purebred cultural elitist, I’d get it, but not from a guy who’s admitted to going through a Star Trek phase and who championed the last James Bond movie, which, in addition to being one of the most delicious pop pleasures of the past decade, is more or less a superhero film without the spandex. How he can maintain the posture of being both an advocate of smart genre and be disdainful toward superhero films as a class is beyond me.

In particular, I’m confused at his choice to pick on Iron Man. The execrable, yet mysteriously successful, Fantastic Four films might’ve suited his theory that “even a second-tier superhero franchise can provide the grist for a summer tentpole movie.” And while it’s not clear that Iron Man is actually a second-tier hero, I have no doubt that we have, at least in part, the success of the FF film to thank for Iron Man. But while I didn’t love Iron Man quite as much as a lot of critics, I do think that, in general, it’s far better than average summer fare, and even somewhat subversive – playing on the superhero tropes that irk Ross while simultaneously undermining them. And, as I argued in my review, it was a rare example of a hero film, or even blockbuster of any kind, in which the characters—by which I mean the humans, not the heroes—were the strong suit. The effects were fine, the fight scenes were acceptable if basically forgettable, but you won’t soon forget any of the cast.

So what Iron Man really proves, or firmly cements, anyway, is that while you can make a profit off of most any second-tier spandex-clad goons, you can double your take by making it true to the character, employing a bit of wit, and displaying some casting ingenuity. Iron Man beat analyst expectations to make $98 million this weekend; Fantastic Four opened with a $58 million haul last summer.

If anything, it seems to me that the best superhero films – and while, as Ross notes, any number are terrible (Ghost Rider anyone?) there are a number that are genuinely quite good — are simply larger-budget versions of what Chris Orr has called B+ films. Indeed, I’ve been genuinely impressed with the way a lot of the superhero films hearken back to the classic B-movies and genre films of the 70s and 80s with their attempts to reflect the social tensions of their era. Look at the fears of urban crime on display in Escape from L.A., Death Wish or The Warriors, the anxiety about energy and the collapse of society in the Mad Max films, the worries about privatization in Robocop—and then look at the post-9/11 portrayal of New York in Spider-Man, the way the X-Men films play with issues of minority rights, the way Superman Returns reimagined the Man of Steel as a sort of liberal internationalist global hero. It’s not that any of these films have anything particularly deep to say—lord knows I found Iron Man’s politics hilariously convoluted—it’s that they’re willing to use their social context as material in a way that makes them more interesting, more compelling, more relevant, and even more fun—not just two-hour long, soulless effects reels, but genuine products of their age. Not every tentpole pic has the chance to be a genuinely classic adventure, and not all of them need to. But it’s worth applauding when any of these films bother, even for a moment, to come out from their green-screen studios and glance away from their zillion-dollar post-production rigs and take a look, even a somewhat confused look, at the world around them.