by Anne Billson
PROMOTIONAL POSTER FOR SUPERMAN RETURNS, 2006
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Great Replacement, and I don’t mean that deranged white nationalist conspiracy theory. I mean the one where all the cinema genres have now been replaced by superhero movies. This is a slight exaggeration, because there are still horror films, and cartoons too, though it could be argued that superhero movies are themselves cartoons, since nearly everything on screen has been placed there or altered by digital technology.
Of course there are still plenty of art house and foreign releases, albeit increasingly squeezed out of multiplexes and onto streaming platforms by big franchises. In 2019, the last year pre-pandemic rules applied, the global box office Top Ten consisted of four superhero movies, one superhero by proxy (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), three animated films, plus Aladdin and Jumanji: The Next Level, both classed as “live action” but essentially quasi-cartoons with live actors inserted.
It wasn’t always thus. The Top Ten of 2000, for example, included one superhero movie and one cartoon, but also grown-up blockbusters such as Gladiator (historical epic), Cast Away (survival drama), The Perfect Storm (survival drama) and What Lies Beneath (supernatural thriller with minimal special effects). By “grown-up”, I mean they adhere, more or less, to the laws of physics, and don’t feature characters possessed of the sort of alien DNA that enables them to fly through the air or leap tall buildings at a bound.
In 2019, Martin Scorsese was dismissed as “bitter”, “dumb” and “completely wrong” for describing superhero franchises as closer to theme parks than cinema. He later elaborated in The New York Times: “Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”
Indeed there are ingredients you can always count on. The third act of a superhero movie will always devolve into an overextended and indifferently choreographed showdown dominated by laser blasts and explosions. Might is right; the good guys always win because they punch harder. They’re also generically good-looking, while villains (Joker, Two-Face, Red Skull) are invariably scarred or deformed. And they’re always searching for a gizmo. In Alfred Hitchcock thrillers this used to be called a MacGuffin; now it’s the Tesseract (Captain Marvel), Infinity Stones (Avengers: Infinity War) or Mother Boxes (Justice League) – but without Hitchcock’s subtext or storytelling genius.
And it’s no sex please, we’re superheroes. I’m not asking for X-rated copulation, but if there is lust, it’s lust for power, never erotic
And it’s no sex please, we’re superheroes. I’m not asking for X-rated copulation, but if there is lust, it’s lust for power, never erotic. The last sexy superhero moment was that upside-down kiss in the rain in Spider-Man, nineteen years ago. But the last time a movie fully explored the potential for emotional S&M, teased by all that skin-tight rubber and leather, was Batman Returns (1992), where Batman and Catwoman face off in an Apache Dance of death and desire across the Gotham City rooftops.
But as Scorsese observed, the most damning trait, dramatically, is when there’s nothing at risk. If something goes horribly wrong, as it often does for Superman, Doctor Strange, the Avengers, Justice League, X-Men et al, they simply turn back time, or time-travel to tinker with the past. Twenty years ago, characters who died at the end of Gladiator and The Perfect Storm stayed dead. But Superman and Joker can be resurrected repeatedly, as the franchise demands. Even the apparently definitive death of the android Vision, milked for tragedy in Infinity War, is undercut by his return in the WandaVision mini-series – which kills him off again only after setting up a Vision doppelganger, no doubt available for future films or TV shows.
The idea of resurrection is apt: superheroes are now a religion, and we’re not just talking Kal-El being sent to Earth by his father to save the world. Worshippers at the superhero altar desperately want their gospel to be hailed as cinematic art on the level of, say, Citizen Kane, hence the outrage when someone like Scorsese dares express a mildly critical opinion. I can guarantee any superhero fan reading this piece will nitpick (Oh please, Vision is a synthezoid, not an android!) and dismiss it as heresy, like the Guardian columnist who recently sneered at “the slightly po-faced type of cineaste who cannot understand geek culture and Hollywood’s obsession with adapting fantasy TV shows, comics and old B-movies.”
Or maybe, just maybe, we understand “geek culture” perfectly well. Maybe we too grew up loving fantasy and sci-fi and B-movies. Maybe we even think they can be great art. We just don’t understand why Hollywood can’t embrace other genres as well. When I first started writing about films in the 1980s, it was true that mainstream reviewers back then didn’t “get” geek culture – probably one of the reasons that genre classics such as The Thing and Blade Runner were greeted with such an overwhelmingly negative critical reception on their initial release. But in the years since then, geeks have inherited the earth. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that maybe, just maybe, it’s now the geeks who can’t understand all the other stuff.
Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer