Theres quite a set of bookends this superhero movie season. From Mays Spider-Man 2 to Novembers The Incredibles, the cape-and-mask set have had a lot to be pleased about this year. And while the books inside the bookends (to stretch a metaphor) havent all been up to the standards of the ends, theyre still no slouches, either. Some have excelled in their storylines, some in their use of CG animation, but all have had something of interest to recommend them. As stories of people in peril, current superhero films cant help but be informed by the events of 9/11. The idea of an explosion in the midst of a major metropolitan area has less entertainment value and more current event angst than it might have before that date. And yet, the stock-in-trade of super-villains and some superheroes is blowing things up. Its a tough problem for filmmakers to deal with.
Historically, comics have been there for our major national crises. Superheroes reached their all-time peak of popularity during World War II. Superman, Batman, Captain America and many other heroes engaged in battle against the Axis powers. From kids on the home front to GIs on the battlefront, superheroes were entertainment and inspiration for a nation at war. With fear of saboteurs the wartime equivalent of todays terrorists in the back of everyones minds, it was apparently reassuring to people that there was someone like Wonder Woman or Superman to deflect our societys enemies, though even the youngest child had to know they were figments of the imaginations of writers and artists. That many of these writers and artists would end up in the armed forces fighting the battles of WWII might well have fueled the urgency of their stories and seeped through to their eager audiences.Today, for better or worse, the need for fantasy heroes is as strong as ever, but superheroes are accessed for the most part in movies, on TV and in videogames, as opposed to solely the pages of comic books (aka graphic novels). Aside from the generally declining readership of comics, the advent of the age of visual effects means that movies and TV are better suited in some ways at conveying the incredible world of the superheroes and their counterparts, the super-villains. One of the breakthroughs of modern filmmaking that make them ideal for tales of superheroes is the ability moviemakers have developed to seamlessly mix live action with CGI to create fantastical worlds that exist nowhere but inside the camera and computer.
With the exception of The Incredibles, while the current superhero films are for the most part live action, they are enhanced by the integration of 3D animation and vfx into their imagery. Cinema superheroes do their thing with the aid of CGI that make their world look much like ours, yet different enough that it inhabits a parallel dimension a step removed from our own. For instance, the New York City of these films be it Spider-Mans or Sky Captains looks something like our own, but is cobbled together from bits and pieces of cities, some real and some that exist only inside the guts of a computer.The CGI is one part of the equation. On the photographic level, the quality of vfx, makeup and prosthetic devices have advanced by leaps and bounds over the decades so that its sometime hard to know at first or even third glance whether a character is real or animated. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen achieved this with its Mr. Hyde character, a character arguably more Hulk-like than the CG Hulk was in his movie. On the other hand, the Mr. Hyde of this summers Van Helsing looked like the Hulk of last year like a rubberized doll whose unreality detracted from the scenes he was in. And yet, the Frankenstein Monster of Van Helsing, a creature of make-up and prosthetics, was one of the best movie monsters in memory. Scary yet sympathetic, it made many of the films CG effects seem less convincing by comparison. Whereas a comic book provides a jumping off point for your imagination to create the wildest special effect your brain can come up with, todays state-of-the-art effects enable filmmakers to create characters and locations so detailed and convincing you feel like you actually could go see and touch them for yourself. If it can be imagined, it can be realized. Even things that look like theyre photographed are really created in the computer.
The most extreme example of this is, of course, the world of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. With none of its scenes being shot on location, its settings, especially its New York of 1939, seemed realer than real. Clearly, love of the medium was lavished on all the scenes in this film, which were enacted, for the most part, by the films stars in front of green- screens, with all the backgrounds created digitally. A paper-thin script left the film a lesser experience than it could have been, but no one whos seen it will forget imagery like the giant robots invading Manhattan. In most of these films, the superheroes rarely fight terrorists per se. Instead, they fight monsters and super-villains who stand in for what terrorism represents to us. After all, the deepest non-physical wound a terrorist can inflict is instilling the feeling that we are never safe no matter what we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones. And isnt that feeling of dread what we feel when we encounter the monsters in Van Helsing and Hellboy, the giant robot marauders of Sky Captain or the nuclear power gone mad that created Spider-Mans nemesis Doctor Octopus?
Perhaps having these metaphoric terrorists menace the worlds of their movies is more cathartic for us than having the heroes simply bop wild-eyed maniacs who may be plotting carnage. The latter are harder to find and to stop than bombastic costumed or mutated super-villains who love to have the spotlight shone on them and to explain in excruciating detail why theyre doing what theyre doing as theyre doing it. The fact that real-life terrorism is not so easily vanquished as Dr. Octopus would leave us with the opposite of relieving catharsis. It would perhaps make us feel the anxiety that we have gone to the theater to escape. Of course, the most successful of these films were the ones that realized that above and beyond big budgets and spectacular effects, great characters are what make any film including superhero movies come alive. An audience will forgive less-than-perfect vfx if the story and characters are people (or monsters) they care about. A bad vfx can make you laugh. A great character can make you cry.
So, how did this years crop of big-screen supermen and women fare against the forces of evil, and what does it mean to the bigger picture about ourselves and our society? Lets take a look
In his cinema sequel, Spider-Man already the best representation of a superhero to grace the screen just got better. Alfred Molinas performance as Doctor Octopus brought depth and nuance to the terrific script. At the same time, the CG effects and even the intense sound effects made the outlandish science fiction elements of the story fit seamlessly with the realistic elements. The fact that the New York of the movie like that of Sky Captain was a stylized version, cobbled together from pieces of New York, Chicago and the filmmakers imaginations meant that it was a step removed from the reality of the real-world city that experienced the traumatic losses of 9/11. Tobey Maguires born-for-the-role Peter Parker/Spider-Man was also no small part of both Spidey films success, creatively and commercially.
While Spider-Man 2 isnt overtly about terrorism, there is something about Dr. Octopuss approach to life his willingness to destroy the entire city of New York with his experiments and in his quest for revenge that, intentionally or not, chillingly echoes the fear of the citys destruction, whatever the motives of the would-be destroyer.
The comic-to-screen translation of Mike Mignolas masterwork was a pretty seamless translation. From the WWII opening tying the movie into the era of the greatest generation to the present day adventures, the key, as with Spider-Man, is the characters. Both Mignola and director Guillermo del Toro knew they wouldnt be happy until they got Ron Perlman to play the role of Hellboy and the resultant movie shows why. While the CG effects were occasionally detectable, the heart the actor brought to the key role made the world all the more convincing and believable. While Hellboy brings us up close and personal with a world of demons and monsters, it certainly steers clear of any hint of the menaces of terrorism. (But it does leave us with the comforting thought that Hellboy is out there somewhere, literally fighting our monsters for us.)
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Not specifically a superhero movie, Sky Captain is influenced by vintage comics, cartoons, serials and other noir and fantasy films. If Sky Captain confidently flying his plane, waving to the public, his square jaw neatly coming to a point, isnt cut from the superhero mold, then nothing is.
As spectacular as Sky Captains effects are, thats how wafer thin the plot and the performances in this eye-filling extravaganza were. Still, the various locales and creatures in the movie, as well as the muted retro look were all pulled off with extreme skill and a great sense of fun.
Here, the menace to New York of an army of giant robots is scary but in a fun, entertaining way. Pure escapist fantasy is what this movie is after and what it delivers. If it evokes terror of any kind, its the terror of WWII London, where nightly air raids were the norm, and the echoes of that terror felt in the U.S., where regular air raid preparedness was practiced.
After a slow beginning, and a display of some of the worst fake Transylvanian accents on record, Van Helsing turned out to be a fairly impressive genre piece. While Van Helsing may not wear tights and a mask, hes as much a superhero as anybody. This vampire hunter treks the earth in search of monsters to destroy and encounters the granddaddies of them all Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. The plot gets them all together efficiently and puts Van Helsing in the middle of the situation in a way that is dramatically satisfying.
VHs vfx are a mixed bag, but for the most part seamless. After the clumsy Mr. Hyde, the Frankenstein Monster -- looking like a scarier version of Peter Boyles monster from Young Frankenstein is a triumph of visualization of the character. Dracula looks great, both in mortal form and as the full-on vampire monster. The werewolves of the story have a bit of a King Kong stop motion feel to them that gets smoother as the film goes on. Draculas brides are consistently sexy and terrifying in the monstrous forms they assume. And the non-character effects the lightning-infused storms, the howling snow squalls are all sensational.
As far as the films relation to terror, it returns it to its more comfortable definition as a state brought on by really scary vfx. Its a throwback but maybe thats not such a bad thing.
They saved the best for last. The Incredibles, as just about every critic and viewer can attest, is a fantastic achievement. Pixar ably got around the problems of making humans convincingly real in their CGI-animated film by choosing to avoid the photoreal. While placing Mr. Incredible and his super-duper family in a world that looks hyper-real, Brad Bird and his team of animators made the human characters in the movie caricatures so no one could accuse them of trying and failing to capture reality. In so doing, they created a world that immediately pulls you into it and makes you believe its real. And because the story is so strong, you dont find yourself thinking what a cool effect as you do in, say, Sky Captain. Of course, the fact that the film is all animated, not trying to combine live action with CGI, enables it to be the seamless experience it is.
Much of the action takes place in a city that, while not identified as New York, is sure reminiscent of it, as the movies villain executes his agenda. The fact that this agenda is pursued with such a cavalier disregard for people and property, and pursued on such a large scale, actually echoes the effects of real world terrorism, as parts of the city are destroyed in battles. In addition, one of the premises of the movie and I dont think Im giving anything away here is that superheroes are responsible for as much damage as they prevent (at least in the eyes of some). The idea is that even people trying to protect you can do you harm, as good as their intentions may be. If not terrifying, that thought is certainly disquieting.(Special mention should be given to Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2. A story of revenge served with an Asian flavor, Uma Thurmans Bride character as well as the adversaries she faces certainly display powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men and women. As if to underline the point, writer-director Quentin Tarantino gives her adversary the Bill of the titles a speech in which he discusses Supermans secret identity and how it relates to the Bride. Perhaps the most unsettling moment of the films is the scene showing the mass murder of the wedding party in what, to the perpetrators, was an act of vengeance, but to most of the victims was random and senseless, a true act of terrorism.)
While Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles are now the new gold standard for superhero movies, the other films in the current crop all have something to recommend them. The task of heroic fiction in a post-9/11 world is at once more complex and more simple than it was before. Real world terror has made it so that its hard to know what in our fiction will reassure us, what will scare us the way we want to be scared when we go to the movies, and what will leave us feeling that we have big targets painted on our backs. When it comes to superheroes on screen, we want our characters and the perils they face bigger than life yet able to help us deal with the real dangers and conflicts we face. Thats a lot to ask of entertainment, but its really what weve always demanded of it. Its just become a little harder to pull off. Does the CG animation make this task harder or easier? As always, the answer lies in the execution. Superhero fans will be eagerly awaiting the upcoming Blade III, Batman Begins, Fantastic Four and, way down the road, the new Superman movie to see how the challenge is answered in the future.
Danny Fingeroth was the group editor of Marvels Spider-Man comics line and was a consultant on the 1990s Fox Kids Spider-Man animated series. He is the author of Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society (Continuum 2004) and is the editor in chief of Write Now Magazine, the premier publication about writing for comics and animation, published by TwoMorrows. He teaches comics writing and leads seminars with comics creators at New York University. He can be reached at Danfinger@aol.com.