There’s a lot of things you can say about superhero movies and sucking, mainly involving bad pacing, boring characterization, bad motivations for super villains, and cliches. But Matt Zoller Seitz shoves all that aside in his denunciation of the form to make what is, to my mind, one of the most tediously wrong assumptions about what makes something artistically valuable or interesting, the assumption that something’s worth can be measured by how grim or horrific it is. The main thing that superhero movies do wrong, in his book, is they don’t make you sad enough. This is equated with bravery.
The death of Rachel Dawes in “The Dark Knight” — a visually sloppy, exposition-choked saga that at least had the courage of its source material’s grim convictions — is a rare example of a superhero film daring to make its audience hurt.
Since we didn’t actually see Dawes die in the movie, I’m going to suggest that Seitz is going to be pissed when she comes back, probably as Catwoman. But this is just a minor example of this fallacy wound throughout the piece. He makes it quite explicit here:
The superhero movie too often avoids opportunities to summon tangled feelings, lacerating trauma and complex characterizations — qualities that make genre films worth watching and remembering for reasons beyond their capacity to kill two hours and change.
And because of this, he suggest that “Superman Returns” was somehow better than the infinitely superior “Iron Man”, because it had a mean streak and a bunch of sad stuff in it, whereas “Iron Man” was all charm and entertainment. Being thoroughly entertaining is almost a drawback, really, because then a movie goes into the dreaded “time waster” category. You’re not educated by it, or enlightened to the darkness of the world. But I have to ask, why is goofy joy not considered a respectable emotion for a movie to invoke?
This is the same fallacy that allows half-baked dramas to vie for Best Picture Oscars while perfectly made, amazing comedies get no credit whatsoever, even though it’s probably harder to make someone laugh than cry. I’m not saying “Iron Man” was a contender for Best Picture or anything, but I think that it’s perfectly great for what it is, which is a popcorn movie. And I admired it, because I’m on the opposite page from Seitz. Nothing makes me roll my eyes harder than a movie that has nothing to say about the darkness of the human spirit choosing to shoehorn that in as a cheap grab at pseudo-edginess. “Iron Man” was a tall drink of water, because it respected that charm is a legitimate filmic achievement. The only time it really started to drag was when Tony Stark was working out his daddy issues with the villain. Other than that, it seemed a respectable wedding of screwball style to the superhero genre, a much more interesting choice than trying to raise the stakes through pathos, which are easy enough to dredge up. (Just kill someone the audience likes.)
Seriously, what accounts for this knee jerk assumption that sad is more artistic than happy, that tragedy is deeper and more interesting than comedy? My experience in the world has often been the opposite—sometimes you can say and do more with a joke than by trotting out sadness or darkness. Nor are the two mutually exclusive. I’m a big fan of dark comedy, and I think that “Iron Man” pulled that off better than most superhero movies, which veer more from light to dark. Stark wasn’t a hero’s hero, and that was by far more interesting than whatever the hell Superman’s paternal heartbreaks are.
Anyway, the plan is to see the sequel this weekend. My hopes are low; sequels are rarely so good, with the exception of X-Men and Spiderman.