Unmasking cellulose superheroes and their successors.
WORDS NOEL VERA | ILLUSTRATION TONE DAÑAS
You could start a discussion on superhero movies at any point — from the first Zorro movie in the 1920s to Marvel Studios’ 2011 Captain America — but in my book the genre properly began in 1933, with a super-powered vegetarian.
Popeye the Sailor could punch train engines in the face, pummel warriors into pacifism, and hurl traditional adversary Bluto into low Earth orbit. As produced by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, Popeye’s adventures were not fairy tales from some European neverland but often realist melodramas set in Depression-era shacks and alleyways, revolving round the sailor’s love life (or total lack of).
When he pops open a can of spinach, the movie kicks into high gear, sometimes turns surreal sometimes acquires color, on occasion sprouts a third dimension (thanks to the stereo-optical process, a Rube Goldberg contraption combining tabletop dioramas with a multiplane camera, done decades before Pixar or Fleischer’s old rival Disney came up with the digital equivalent). This while insisting on an existential individualism that cuts through conventional notions of beauty and social class (“I yam what I yam!” insists the one-eyed near-bald bandy-legged mariner with bulging arms).
The Fleischer brothers would, in the early 1940s, go on to realize the first Superman adventures on the big screen: gorgeously realized eight-minute shorts that added to the hero’s legend (where in the comic book he leaped “tall buildings in a single bound,” in the films he simply flew) but more conventionally told, with a more straightforward animation style.
PLAYING IT STRAIGHT.
Superheroes played it mostly straight through the 1940s and 1950s in low-budget live-action serials without attempting the large-scale effects of the Fleischer shorts; to achieve brief popularity in the 1960s, producer William Dozier (with Lorenzo Semple, Jr. as head writer) turned the adventures of one of DC Comics’ most popular characters into camp — rat poison for serious Batfans but fairly inventive verbal fun for the casual viewer (“I’m not pussyfooting around!” “Holy Human Pressure Cookers!”).
Of course, Filipinos aren’t about to let that kind of foolishness pass without a response of some kind. Artemio Marquez’s brilliant no-budget conceit was to mash together two pop icons — James Bond and Batman — for the price of one (any opportunity to save cash-strapped audiences money) in 1966’s James Batman. Not so much witty as it is bizarre, the film explicitly presents a rapaciously misogynist Bond (Dolphy) — arguably the most honest onscreen take on the character — and a regular if inept Juan de la Cruz of a Batman (Dolphy again, in a dual performance), who takes his lunch (boiled rice, tomatoes, salted fish) seasoned with a touch of vinegar like everyone else.
Toward decade’s end, Dino de Laurentiis offered Italian horror master Mario Bava US$3 million for a comic-book adaptation; he did it for US$400,000. Unlike the Batman TV series Danger: Diabolik! (1968) isn’t camp but a dead-serious thriller with scenes of unabashedly adult sensuality (mostly Marisa Mell, magnificently underdressed), a gaudy palette (from mandarin orange gowns to deep purple “exhilaration” gas to — literally — a burst of molten gold for the finale), and the wit to infuse sleek futurist sets with European decadence (a vast revolving bed papered with dollar bills).
Diabolik himself (John Phillip Law) is a cipher with a steely Rorschach glare that you see as either society’s terminal hedonist or its last romantic rebel; the film plays deftly to either interpretation. Barely a superhero — like Bruce Wayne he’s a skilled amateur armed with ultra-expensive gadgets — his abilities don’t involve superhuman strength so much as superhuman cool.
MAN OF STEEL.
The next major interpretation would be Warner Brothers’ 1978 production of Superman — not so much for the filmmaking (by journeyman Richard Donner) as for the casting of Christopher Reeve in the eponymous role. Reeve was presumably picked for his good looks but proved a deft comedian, lending the holier-than-thou hero (“I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way.”) an appealing modesty and a winning sense of humor.
The movie’s success allowed for a sequel, our real point of interest. Superman 2 (1980) paired Reeve with a real filmmaker: Richard Lester, who gave the Kryptonian a sex life, a bittersweet relationship (“Have you any idea what it’s like… not be able to talk normally to you, or show how I feel about you, or speak to anybody else about you?”), a series of inventive superpowered battles punctuated with the odd comic touch (a man loses a toupee; another, a scoop of ice cream; yet another laughs in the teeth of the storm).
The humor is integral to Lester’s absurdist vision: he sees the Man of Steel as a victim of circumstance, as helpless as the rest of us against a silly senseless world (a wandering H-bomb releases his father’s worst enemies; tragedy leads him millions of miles to his life’s love — a human, and hence an impossible match). When outnumbered and outpowered three-to-one, what saves him? An accidentally dropped crystal shard. If God the Father (Marlon Brando in the banal Richard Donner version) were a sadistic prankster he’d give Lester an envious reluctantly admiring eye.
Meantime, that same year, our favorite brawling vegan returned to the big screen as interpreted by the wayward poet of 1970s American cinema. Robert Altman’s Popeye didn’t win much respect from critics then, and has not inspired much licensed merchandise (or even a spike in the sales of canned spinach) since. But once in a while, a discerning critic comes up with a thoughtful appreciation: Paul Thomas Anderson went so far as to appropriate its most yearning song (“He Needs Me”) for his most openly romantic work, Punch Drunk Love.
Popeye (lead played by comedian Robin Williams with prosthetic bulging arms) is remembered for the ramshackle sprawl of Sweethaven, for the diverse demeanor of the townsfolk (from Linda Hunt’s diminutive Mrs. Oxheart to Bill Irwin’s contortionist Ham Gravy to Shelley Duvall’s tottering Olive Oyl), and for the visual and aural lyricism (half-heard melodies and mumbled lyrics by Harry Nilsson).
The film lacks the high-calorie gleam of today’s multimillion-dollar adaptations, announced with enough orchestrated fuss to bring on The Second Coming, but its lilting wayward beauty haunts you; it stays long after everything bigger louder brawnier has since faded from memory.
A COMEDIAN? BLASPHEMY!
Donner cast the perfect Superman in Reeve; Lester cast Reeve as hero in his own idiosyncratic universe (he would push the idiosyncrasy further with Richard Pryor in Superman III but audiences refused to follow, alas — some sequences were Lester at his most surreal). Comics fluttered one way, movies another; neither would creatively collide again till nine years later, when Tim Burton picked Michael Keaton to play the Caped Crusader.
Another comedian? Blasphemy! Protest mail flooded the Warner offices; hordes of Batfans howled at the prospect of another camped-up parody (see above). But Burton drew on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s Faust, among other masterpieces of German Expressionism, to create not comedy but comic nightmare, not superhero drama but Gothic opera peppered with low slapstick.
Keaton’s Batman has no quotation marks to his performance. His archnemesis, The Joker (Jack Nicholson), acts the buffoon then suddenly the psychopath—it’s the uncertainty that’s unsettling. Add Anton Furst’s cathedral-like designs and Danny Elfman’s swooning heroic score and millions of Batfans became instant converts, to the tune of US$251 million box office gross (US$550 million when adjusted for inflation)
Batman’s success meant Burton could do whatever he pleased, and what pleased him was a sequel done his way. Batman Returns I’d consider Burton’s oddball best—Lang at his most megalomanic, with generous helpings of Charles Dickens. Danny DeVito’s The Penguin is the archetypal Dickens hero (orphaned and abandoned) grown to monstrous proportions; Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the female psyche shattered then stitched together Frankenstein (Francinestein?) style.
The dialogue is witty, spoken in odd truncated cadences (“Somebody mention fish? I haven’t been fed all day!” “Eat floor. High fiber.”) as if everyone onscreen had developed a practiced comic patter to hide their inner pain. The film (thanks to Stefan Czapsky’s metallic cinematography) sports a dark gleam, and manages (thanks to a combination of towering miniatures and massive enclosed sets) to be vertiginous and claustrophobic both — you always feel in danger of plunging to your death, the same time you can barely breathe.
By film’s end, Burton manages to touch comedy, horror and pathos. You either giggle helplessly or stare aghast, either reaction being equally valid. There’s a perverse audacity to the way Burton both trashes and transforms the character—our “hero” is a massive brooder who, without hesitation, hooks explosives to henchmen’s belts, or roasts them alive with his vehicle’s rocket exhaust. At the same time, you catch glimpses of hidden humanity: the orphaned boy who can’t help but respond to a fellow (more psychopathic) orphan boy; the lost soul who yearns for and suddenly finds—unmasked and emotionally naked—his fellow lost soul (appropriately, in a costume ball).
Compare and contrast Burton’s Dark Knight with Christopher Nolan’s. Nolan’s is completely orthodox to the comics, a dark upholder of justice who scrupulously avoids guns and killing, a serious brooder with no compensating comic foil. In short, a crashing bore. Instead of Anton Furst’s brilliant designs surrounding him, Pittsburgh; instead of Stefan Czapsky’s (or Roger Pratt’s) dark carnival glow, Wally Pfister’s gray verite. Heath Ledger’s Joker—admittedly an improvement over Nicholson’s (though I much prefer DeVito’s Penguin and, above all, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman any day)—pointedly asks: “Why so serious?” Nolan doesn’t know how to mix emotional tones, doesn’t know how to use comedy to sharpen horror, horror to queer comedy; he’s all about straight drama. Naturally, the Batfans were ecstatic.
‘WE’RE THE OTHER GUYS’
The over 20 years since Batman Returns, as far as I’m concerned, has been a barren wilderness, punctuated here and there by bright patches. Kinka Usher stepped out of his role as director of television commercials to do Mystery Men (1999) an eccentric (to put it mildly) parody of the genre (one hero throws forks; another wields a shovel; yet another called The Spleen emits deadly gag-inducing gas— you don’t want to know how). The film isn’t as funny as it wants to be, yet has a persistent off-kilter charm (“We’re not the heroes,” The Shoveller, played by William Macy, admits, “we’re the other guys”). After the film’s box-office failure—it earned US$33 million on a budget of US$68 million—Usher stepped back into commercials and hasn’t been heard from since.
Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies (2000-2016) play on the subtext of mutants as social outsiders, the highlight of the series being a mutant coming out to his family in X-2: X-Men United (2003) and their witheringly hostile response. Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies (2002 – 2007) cleverly kept the action cartoony, the soap opera soapy. Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016) took Spidey’s schtick into rated R territory, at the same time granting the hero superswift healing powers that made the violence more than a little pointless.
Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) is weighed down by dark psychodrama involving Bruce Banner’s supervillain father—love it. Lee divides the action into panels and slides them across the screen, a comic book page come literally to life. Never been a fan of the man; I think Lee’s best work are low-key melodramas about the middle class—but here he jiu-jitsus all expectations to reveal a distinct visual sensibility, a bonkers deadpan humor.
Guillermo del Toro’s Blade 2 took ideas from his early masterpiece Cronos and blew them up to Hollywood proportions; his Hellboy movies turn on the conceit that Hellboy isn’t a spawn of the Devil but an average working Joe, subject to petty jealousies and adolescent yearnings like any other schmuck (it helps that Del Toro has a visual style few contemporary Hollywood directors can touch, an excellent approximation if not direct translation of Mike Mignola’s glorious graphic line).
Erik Matti’s Gagamboy (Spiderboy, 2004) has Junie (Vhong Navarro, whose performance is key to the movie’s fun quotient) bitten by a spider dunked in toxic wastes (the Philippines can’t really afford radioactive waste); the result is a small triumph whose biggest virtue is in taking the absurd notion of a man wearing his colored underwear out in the open and parading it proudly, like a pair of colored underwear worn out in the open.
First-time director Peter Stebbings’ Defendor (2009) takes Mark Millar’s conceit in the Kick-Ass comics (what is pulling on a costume and fighting crime really like?) and splays it on the big screen. Where Millar quickly escalates (degenerates?) into less credible characters (Big Daddy and Hit Girl) and excessively gratuitous violence (electrocuted testicles, whole neighborhoods massacred) Stebbings keeps his film grounded thanks to the essentially sweet-natured hero (Woody Harrelson, channeling his ‘Woody Boyd’ persona in Cheers). Cinematographer David Greene gives the picture a darkly gilded look; Stebbings’ script (unlike Millar’s comic) keeps the action blessedly small. If anything the film’s a bit too modest; you feel that it needs a touch of crazy to distinguish it from all the other masked crimefighters crawling out of the woodwork.
Enter James Gunn. Mostly known today for grafting quirky humor on the usual superhero shenanigans (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014), Gunn’s Super (2010) is his far more demented take, about a patty-flipping loser named Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) who pulls on a cowl and bashes evil on the skull.
The picture has been compared to Defendor but I don’t buy it—the latter is a straight-arrow drama trudging inevitably to its grim conclusion. Super is glorious satire, from Frank’s origin story (hentai tentacles cut open his skull to allow the Finger of God to nudge his cerebral cortex) to his bluntly effective weapon of choice (a pipe wrench) to his enthusiastic sidekick and insatiable nymphomaniac Libby (Ellen Page, hilariously unhinged).
The picture has also been compared to Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (made the same year) which I don’t buy either — Vaughn’s violence is cartoonish and slickly produced, ultimately comforting in its stylization. Gunn’s has a carefully cultivated cinema verite look such that when Frank brings his wrench down on someone’s cranium the crunch! can make you flinch in your seat.
Joss Whedon, I’d call a better writer than director. In his Avenger movies, he doesn’t propose a group of heroes struggling for acceptance in a mundane world, but a group of people — recognizably human folks who happen to have abilities — struggling under the burden of damaged psyches (less a sense of implied superiority than of grievous self-pity). It’s a subtle psychological touch that wins my sympathies much more readily than the entirety of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel with its insufferably noble hero (“You just have to decide what kind of a man you want to grow up to be.”)
Snyder’s follow-up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) kicks things up a notch with a largely contrived showdown between The Dark Knight and the aforementioned Man of Steel, full of sound and fury signifying not very much. The Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War does a marginally better job at pitting a noble superhero against his more cynical equivalent — but maybe my biggest problem with the lot is that none of them have a look, a distinct and personal visual style able to lift the movie beyond its fugly steel-and-concrete color palette, its shakily shot frenetically edited filmmaking.
A note on costs and profits: with all the digital effects superhero movies don’t come cheap. The Avengers movies average US$250 million each while Spider-Man 3 sets the record (so far) at US$258 million. Whedon’s can justify their size through box office, but Raimi’s third webslinger adventure (which I happen to like) and Snyder’s pair of steel duds (which I happen to despise) have struggled to recoup their sizable investment.
Not that keeping the budget low is any guarantee. Defendor and Super’s budgets are US$3.5 and US$2.5 million respectively, and their ticket sales add up to less than a million combined (DVD and other residual sales contribute a little; it helps to be considered a cult classic).
Arguably, superheroes are doing better on the small screen — particularly cable. Whedon’s Agents of Shield had an interesting storyline about betrayal and deceit (though I wish they’d move away from sets made exclusively of sheet metal gray); Gotham has a real look, taking its cue from Burton’s updated German Expressionism, but needs to come up with a more compelling storyline. What I’ve seen of Arrow and The Flash seem okay, but suggest nothing particularly special.
Marvel does better with its Netflix series. Daredevil has some of the grittiness of The Wire (high praise in my book), but sadly lapses into comic book simple-mindedness towards the end. Jessica Jones proposes a superhero with PTSD — easily the most convincing and compelling of the small screen “specials,” as they’re called in the MCU (Marvel Comics Universe).
I do still hold out hopes for Whedon; after all, he did happen to direct the in my book best superhero movie of the past eight years, 40 minutes instead of 140 minutes long, with a budget of US$200,000 not US$300 million. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog has all the pathos and comedy of the Dark Knight and Man of Steel and Marvel movies combined, only rhymed and set to music; if reports are true and Whedon has finally freed himself from the evil influence of Marvel Studios (a subsidiary of the larger, and even more insidious, Walt Disney Studios) then maybe he can produce inventive small-scale stuff again. A musical, of course; nothing makes “small” seem more special than a collection of clever songs.