Anyone who has been to the movies, watched TV, perused a bookstore, surfed the web, or otherwise corresponded with the outside world in this century understands the scope of the superhero film’s stranglehold on popular culture. The already robust roster of superhero films was officially extended last week, as Marvel and DC revealed plans for over 40 franchise films in the next 6 years alone. If anyone was holding out for the end of the superhero franchise era this decade, they’re out of luck. Whether these films deserve endless installments is a topic worth exploring, but not one this essay will focus on. Though this writer considers most of these movies painfully competent and little more, this opinion has no bearing on the issues raised here. Instead, we’re going to look at superhero franchise discourse, an institution that rivals even the films in ubiquity. Judging by the unfailingly enthusiastic response to the recent announcements, almost everyone in the world is on board for these movies, just as they were for all that came before. If this tradition of unmitigated fandom seems harmless, it is only because we neglect the very real and troubling side effects this unconditional love has on the cinema. Put bluntly: mainstream fandom is hurting the movies in 3 central ways.
1 – Mainstream fandom as anti-critical
The first is that mainstream fandom functions anti-critically; that is, it prevents us truly assessing or engaging with these films.
Nearly without exception, every time I have read or heard discussion of an individual superhero film, it comes coupled with a comparison to other superhero films. This might seem natural if the other superhero films are of the same series, but this is not always the case. Strangely, most comparisons are to entirely separate franchises either made by the same company, or just related by simultaneous popularity.
This idiosyncrasy of superhero franchise discourse can be found with almost any franchise film, but let’s consider specifically the reception of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Many positive reviews define the merits of the film predominantly in terms of other Marvel films. For example, in his Hollywood Reporter review, critic Todd McCarthy praises the reduced use of CGI as a “bold (for Marvel) step.” Similarly, Variety writer Scott Foundas identifies the film as “chockfull of the breathless visual cliffhangers dictated by the genre, but equally rich in the quiet, tender character moments that made the first film unique among recent Marvel fare” [emphasis added]. As an indication of how easy it is to encounter such discourse, these are the first reviews listed in the Wikipedia page for the film. And if critics are generally genre-centric in their discourse, fans are almost always genre-centric.
Why do we feel the need to put the Marvel disclaimer in these discussions? The implication of this shortsighted dialectic is a refusal to contextualize these franchise films within the larger cinematic landscape. Every superhero film thus becomes “interesting” only within the franchise context. The playful and self-parodic Guardians of the Galaxy is “interesting” to many fans because it exists in contrast to other superhero franchises that feature dour, self-serious superheroes. “You guys at DC can have your brooding, neck-snapping Superman – I have a talking tree that only says ‘I am Groot!’” How about we compare these movies to – imagine this – other movies? Fans will declare Captain America: The Winter Soldier a thoughtful, mature and even subversive exploration of political ideas, but what are they basing this on? Is it that the film is thoughtful and mature for all movies, or just for the superhero genre? Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have compared the film to a 70’s political thriller film. Yet you’re hard-pressed to find any fans interested in charting the intersections between these genres, since there seem to already be so many productive intersections within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How does Captain America 2 function outside the MCU? How does the film’s treatment of its ideas compare to that of 70s political/conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, or Three Days of the Condor, or to more recent thematic cousins like Live Free or Die Hard or Minority Report? Does the film still seem thoughtful, mature and even subversive when compared to these movies? Unfortunately, these questions have yet to be answered, since we don’t seem interested in investigating them. We’ve already established that Captain 2 is definitively all those things and more within the MCU, which seems for all intents and purposes the end-all-be-all of film analysis in the 21st century. Because we refuse to contextualize these films in a broader cinematic landscape, we can’t truly assess the film’s ideas or evaluate its merits and flaws. But why bother, right? If you ain’t in the canon, get the f*** out the club.
Defenders of superhero franchises at their worst seem to be the new auteurists. They echo sentiments of Francois Truffaut in projecting importance, meaning, and quality on films simply because they are of a certain make and model. Certainly Marvel’s unprecedented production model shares DNA with the classical Hollywood studio system and its industrial approach to filmmaking. Just as critics like Truffaut and later Andrew Sarris studied the conventional, formulaic genre pictures of the classical Hollywood studio system for scraps of personality, so too do superhero fans run the finest-of-the-fine toothed combs through each and every superhero film until they find something resembling depth and nuance, which they can then use to further explore other superhero films. The fundamental assumption at work here is that because something is a superhero film, it instantly deserves to be put in intellectual dialogue with other superhero films. Why is that the case? Why we can neglect hundreds of forgettable films each year, yet refuse to let a single superhero movie pass by without fanfare and pseudo-deliberation?
There’s an equally troubling insularity to mainstream fandom itself. By nature, this audience phenomenon involves surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals. Complications arise when we become too comfortable in these supportive environments and stop exposing ourselves to opinions outside this immediate realm. Though this is certainly not a pattern that applies to all fans of the genre, it undoubtedly applies to many. Surely we can all agree this insularity has no place in cinema, especially in one of its most popular incarnations.
2 – Mainstream fandom as anti-artistic expression
The second problematic consequence of mainstream fandom comes from its persistent discouragement of artistic expression. Simply, most fans don’t seem to want original interpretations of their comic book heroes.
Nowhere do we see this aversion to interpretation better than in reactions to Iron Man 3’s treatment of the villain Mandarin, portrayed in the film by Sir Ben Kingsley. The mysterious, terrorizing villain was a major player in the Iron Man comics. Many have asserted his significance by likening him to Batman’s Joker, or Superman’s Lex Luthor. Needless to say, it came as quite a shock when Iron Man 3 exposed the character as a fraud. The person who looked like classic Mandarin, behaved like classic Mandarin, and otherwise was classic Mandarin turned out instead to be a harmless, bumbling British actor being used as a puppet by Aldrich Killian, the film’s true villain. This edgy twist was the brainchild of director Shane Black, who had this to say about the decision in an interview with Total Film:
“I would say that we struggled to find a way to present a mythic terrorist that had something about him that registered after the movie’s over as having been a unique take, or a clever idea, or a way to say something of use. And what was of use about the Mandarin’s portrayal in this movie, to me, is that if offers up a way that you can sort of show how people are complicit in bring frightened. They buy into things in the way that the audience for this movie buys into it. I think that’s the message that’s more interesting for the modern world, because I think there’s a lot of fear that’s generated toward very available and obvious targets, which could perhaps be directed more intelligently at what’s behind them.”
This writer was genuinely surprised by the Mandarin twist, but even more so by the fact that superhero movies still had the capability to surprise him (*he has yet to be equally surprised since). A few fans even seemed to appreciate the interpretation, which clearly served larger thematic objectives.
But while some were able to take the twist in stride, most public fan discourse looked like this:
Anyone who has ever checked a comments section on a superhero film article will encounter discourse just like this. And these are only the tame ones. In some cases, fans felt so deeply dissatisfied by this new Mandarin that they continued to hold out hope for a second reveal that would give them the Mandarin they’ve known and loved all along.
In their rage and frustration, affronted fans consistently give us clues about what they value in these superhero movies. Many of us don’t go to these movies prepared to engage with our characters in new ways – we go to see exactly what we already know and want. It’s no wonder these movies rarely surprise. By spoiling us for a decade with every franchise we ever wanted, the industry has created an abominable fandom of dictation. “We know what we want and you better listen up because we’re here to tell you!”
The Mandarin controversy represents a dominant antagonism toward reinterpretation in superhero franchises. None of these complaints against the fraud Mandarin suggest a serious consideration of the artistic choice. Instead of considering whether the twist had thematic impact or was simply a cheap gimmick (and why it wasn’t effective in this case), these fans outright reject the film like it took their toys and played war the wrong way. These people seem fascinatingly unable to comprehend the interpretation and, in their confusion, grasp at the familiar: the mysterious 10 rings, which at least one person says would’ve played well into Phase 2 and 3 of the MCU. We’re more tolerant of people interpreting Hamlet than Mandarin these days.
Whether or not these vocal fans represent the majority is beside the point. What matters is that these comments represent the most visible discourse of mainstream fandom. This is a big problem. The Mandarin controversy is just Exhibit A in this case of Mainstream Fandom v. Original Interpretation.
This creative entitlement also appears as fans weigh in on which villains should be written in to which movies, how a film should treat its material tonally and practically, and, in the most extreme and most disappointing incarnation of this entitlement, why certain actors are or aren’t right for certain roles.
Who is the artist and who is the audience in this discourse? Many seem prepared to head out with their own cameras and shoot these movies themselves if not given exactly what they want. How is this fandom productive for cinema? How does this serve artistic expression? How does this system benefit anyone? We’re deprived of thoughtful works in favor of basic fan service, and the industry is forced to suppress original voices due to lack of interest. And in the process of rote translation to the screen, the material we love loses its textual vitality. Does this really protect your comics?
3 – Mainstream Fandom as Unconditional
The final problem with mainstream fandom is that, in their unconditional love for the genre, superhero franchise fans have turned the act of consumption and hype into a pleasure all its own. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with loving certain movies, directors, and genres and making it your task to see all the associated works, but certainly no one would agree that all movies deserve to succeed simply because they are. And yet, unconditional love and devotion to these superhero movies seems completely detached from aesthetic skepticism. When the trailer for The Avengers: Age of Ultron leaked last week, who in mainstream fandom actually wondered if they would buy tickets for the movie or not? If this question seems ridiculous and laughable, that’s because it is. No one wondered that. Everyone is going to buy tickets for this movie, and in fact if they sold tickets today for all the “Phase 3” Marvel movies, they would likely break box office records. It’s clear all Age of Ultron or any of these movies has to do to succeed is exist, and they’re doing just that.
No movie deserves unconditional love or support. Not Age of Ultron, not Batman vs. Superman, not Citizen Kane, or whatever the new “film snob” movie is. No. Movie. We need more skepticism. Movies have to earn our respect and adoration. We need less “How great is the new Avengers going to be?” and more “I wonder if the new Avengers is going to be good.” Or if you aren’t willing to make that big a leap, at least: “I hope the new Avengers is good.” No one is acknowledging the possibility that these movies could be bad, even though by mathematical law most movies are average. This law unquestionably applies to a genre with such a large body of work.
“Skepticism be damned!” the fans cry, “We are determined to make every one of these movies a huge success, because otherwise what kind of fans would we be?” Good point. But consider this unintentionally over-poetic question: do you really love something if you can’t step away from it and look at it critically? Do you really respect something if you can’t question it? If you can’t complain about it? You may think this writer too critical, but it’s true that you don’t have to be a critic to benefit from critical distance.