No, the title of this piece is not some vengeful spoiler!
There were more than a few moments while I was watching the latest Hollywood superhero extravaganza – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice from the DC stable – where I wondered how things could go downhill so quickly. I stopped paying attention long ago. And I’m not talking about just the film. It had two of my childhood superheroes together on screen for the first time, and yet here I was, reflecting on cinema’s biggest existential crisis since Austin Powers took down the self-serious spy genre.
Back In Time
This superhero genre, not so long ago, is what used to make me squeal like a little kid (and I was one, for long) in anticipation. I used to fantasize about larger-than-life caped crusaders, imaginative (and not necessarily believable) action set pieces, memorable villains and a fun time in general. This was partly down to the exclusivity of the genre; only a few popular superheroes dotted the cinematic landscape for a long time till the mid-2000s.
Mostly it was DC Comics’ Superman, which stopped in the 80s, and various versions of Batman – not more than one film every 3-4 years. This gave us something to look forward to, a break from the fast-evolving realism, dinosaurs and aliens, and the overall advent of world-class dramatic storytellers.
Peter Parker, What Have You Done?
A little more than a decade later, a brawl that Marvel’s Spiderman started back in 2002 has now spiraled into an all-out all-conquering disease. To be fair, it was even novel back then, despite Tobey Maguire’s undying efforts to over-nerdify a perfectly capable nerd. 14 years, and what seems like 342 films later, the genre has gone way past the ‘overkill’ stage, and is on the brink of simply legalizing itself as a trade business.
Times have changed, and with it, technology has made sure that our jaws remain intact even in the face of some of the most gravity defying set pieces on screen. So, obviously, Christopher Nolan understood this futility of making everything a VFX orgy, and went the other way, humanizing Batman and his ilk like never before. He stuck to old-fashioned action and chases (something, ironically, he was criticized for), but gave a new old-school psychological dimension to the genre – a timely throwback to the essence of its predecessor comics and graphic novels.
Every Action Merits an Equal and Opposite Reaction
On the other side, though, Marvel, in a desperate quest to counter Nolan’s darkness and disdain for cosmetic battles, decided to make this a full-fledged rivalry. They occupied the other end of the spectrum, and fought ice with fire – albeit a Michael-Bay-fueled destruction-porn wrath of spectacle.
After the fairly middling X-Men franchise, and the great success of the Iron Man movies (the first film was admittedly a perfect balance of wit, spectacle and humanism), they brought out the big funs. The Avengers series was born, and with it, an epidemic that would soon turn into an ugly battle to gain studio supremacy. As acceptable as the first Avengers film was, the second one demonstrated the horrible side-effects of pushing a joke too far.
SPY v/s SPY, SUPERHERO v/s SPOOF
In a way, the superhero genre is where the spy-action genre has been for more than a decade now. Even James Bond and Ethan Hunt have begun to uncharacteristically play to the gallery and indulge in some self-aware self-depreciation, arguably to battle the satirical monster genre that Austin Powers, and later, the refurnished Pink Panther and Johnny English series took forward. Kingsman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. only reintegrated the style into this new frolicky spoofy style. In effect, everything to be done with serious and thrilling spy genres was done. The only way forward was if they began to realize how annoyingly heroic and intense they were – and so, the individual segments of the Avengers (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk) began to do more than just save the world. They became flawed, egoistic and funny ‘human’ superheroes. They become parodies of themselves, which sort of worked with audiences not knowing what to expect next. This irreverence peaked with the Avengers, and self-destructed with its sequel – so the next level of comic-action was scaled with Antman, followed by the much-admired Deadpool. Ryan Reynolds’ obscenely-amusing superhero figure captured imaginations across the world, simply because nobody (except Iron Man, to an extent) had poked fun at the universe they occupied with such relentlessness.
THE DAWN OF INJUSTICE
And now that Marvel went full-retard funny, DC – under visual-man Zack Snyder – decided to do the opposite, but in a misguided way. They wanted to out-action Marvel’s destructive climax sequences and out-intensify the hell out of children who were getting used to laughing at super-humans on screen. It was almost as if Snyder went, “How dare you laugh at power?” and then made perhaps the most incoherent and misplaced sequel to a reboot (Man of Steel) in the history of reboots and sequels. Even The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with its inane repetitiveness and terrible simplicity, made more sense than a forcibly dark Superman battling a perpetually gloomy Batman somewhere between a plastic Metropolis and an ambiguous Gotham. The intent isn’t wrong, and the skills exist too, but the ambition to incorporate every possible trope into an origin story (of The Justice League – DC answer to Marvel’s Avengers) overcooked the golden goose. At no point could I believe that I was watching a movie not meant for comic book geeks – which is an arrogant step on part of the studio and filmmaker, to become all exclusive about what they make.
It will make tons of money, because everybody will watch it once. But the fall in audience percentages show that this film is perhaps the zenith of all the evils this genre has internalized. The genre has become a lot like the repugnant slime abomination that Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman end up fighting against in the last sequence – a horrid, loud and blinding climax of power-drunk aliens (and filmmakers) caught up in Instagrammed environment of artificial and unimaginative zaps and pows.
The silver lining, of course, is the very welcome trailer of The Batman Lego Movie – a spinoff on Pixar’s ingenious The Lego Movie – a Warner Brothers’ venture that seems to finally tell us that even they’re quite sick of how predictable and somber the genre has become. It’s sweet irony that this hilarious trailer – one that even involves a Lego Batman (and Will Arnett’s distinct voice) throwing a hissy fit to Alfred after he is caught talking to his dead parents (again) – has been put out by the same creators, and demonstrates a willingness to adapt, and move with the times. Then again, there are rumors of a few Justice League movies ahead (without Superman and Zack Snyder, we hope), though The Suicide Squad raises hopes of a resurrection.
I want my adulthood back, Marvel and DC. Now start laughing a bit.