Here I thought I was going to be a lone voice, but a bit of searching showed me otherwise – recently, people have been coming out of the closet to admit they think Unbreakable is a freaking excellent superhero film.
It’s even in Time Magazine. So I guess I’m showing up to the party rather than ranting on the corner.
Anyone reading this already knows that this film followed M. Night Shyamalan’s box-office hit and fan favorite The Sixth Sense, and that it didn’t do as well at the time although not panned. But in today’s haze of MCU and whatnot, it might be good to remind you, once well into the 1990s, “it’s a comic!” wasn’t a common marketing or reviewer phrase. U.S. movies were mining comics constantly, as usual, but promotion and reception about the source material was weird.
What follows isn’t film fanwank! (1) I was consulting for filmmakers during this time, for actual money, so had some inside scoop on economic and production details like rolling breakpoints; (2) I’m listing these for historical context to talk about the post topic and admission of bias (the confessions), so please don’t provide your standard rant on any of them, and please stay within the time-frame.
- Some were released with little mention and no mainstream promotion of the comics origin: The Mask (1994), Men in Black (1997), Mystery Men (1999).
- Confession: No surprise, I like all of these a lot, like most people I know (at least for the first two).
- The Batman films in this period, including Returns, Forever, and & Robin, were aimed at making big bucks on opening weekend and nothing else; they aren’t even comics films but rather franchise spectacle and to a great extent sneered at the comics source material.
- Confession: I hate these, and I’m not even a Batman purist – they really are crap films.
- Some were obvious genre-ghetto productions like The Meteor Man (1993), Tank Girl (1995), Barb Wire (1996), Steel (1997), and Spawn (1997), promoted to “those comics people” and expected to make their money in international video release. Blankman (1994), TimeCop (1994), and the two Tales from the Crypt films (Demon Knight 1995, Bordello of Blood 1996) were similar but with a little more expected commercial return due to the comedy, action, and horror categories respectively.
- Confession: I like three of these without reservation, like one of them but feel quite filthy in doing so, regard one of them as not too bad, dislike one of them very much, and haven’t seen three of them.
- I suspect that The Shadow (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), The Phantom (1996), and The Saint (1997) all suffered from being promoted as “comics” before release, meaning, during production, they were modeled on the Batman strategy and received B-team writer treatment.
- Confession: I am fond one of these mostly due to its charm if not anything great, and find the other three boring and very badly scripted.
- The Crow (1994) is too confounded by its production circumstances to categorize, but it sort of goes in this zone, perhaps unintentionally, and might have gone in the first.
- Blade (1998) took a little while to be recognized as the “comics, say it loud and say it proud” breakout.
Obviously comics had broken into Hollywood in a big way but were writhing in the throes of second-class status at all levels of production, promotion, and reception. My point is that Unbreakable wasn’t promoted or spoken of as a “movie doing comics” at all. Ebert’s review glances that way, recoils in horror, and then spends all its verbiage trying to tapdance away from it.
And that’s my topic: the difference between a comics movie vs. a movie about comics. Maybe my “vs.” is misplaced, in that they may not be exclusive, but I do think one or the other must take priority.
What am I claiming? Let’s approach it from the negative. Take a look at Kirby’s Captain America’s and Leifeld’s too. Say what you like about either as “real” or “the rightful” artist on the character, but to non-comics people all such talk is baffling, because both images are indisputably comics content, period. And a movie with that in there is a comics movie, right?
Whereas a comics-person may pony up tickets on that basis, but will also get a little deeper in the long run, focusing on more fundamental characterization and conflict-content, when and if they ever think about it. The costumes and slam-bang aren’t enough on their own, and, I think, really don’t have to be all that extreme for the “that’s comics!” category to apply.
In the very same year, X-Men came out, full of perfectly enjoyable scenes like this one ’cause – in non-comics discourse – that’s a “comics movie” for sure. I’m saying Unbreakable is too. Even with lines in it like this:
It’s all right to be afraid, David, ’cause this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.
Well, life doesn’t fit into movies either, set into frames that were shot for it. Plenty of comics, even superhero ones, include lines like “this isn’t a comic book,” to indicate that they won’t be including certain idiomatic tropes, and that doesn’t stop them from being excellent superhero comics concerning all the other idiomatic tropes, and more importantly, the appropriate characterizations and conflicts.
I want to talk more about that, a lot. But now I need to dispose of two distractions. In doing so, please stud “Ron thinks” and “in his vewing” throughout the next bits.
Distraction 1: It doesn’t “deconstruct” comics, it’s simply very good. Young academics had found as of this very historical moment that they could talk about comics and about films that weren’t directed by Coppola or Hitchcock as long as they claimed they were deconstructing them – even when their analyses used standard methodology. You can read a lot of film critique that’s straightforward Gerald Mast or Roland Barthes but waves the Deconstructionism flag high, because otherwise that Ph.D. candidate could never have gotten away with watching Star Wars 82 times for his degree. Therefore “deconstructs,” when describing a director or text, often masks “hey this film is pretty great” and nothing more.
The plot structure is simple: this happens, then this happens, and finally, this is what we know now. Nothing about any of the “this-es” is unusual, reversed/skewed, or in any way critical of how they’re typically done in superhero comics.
Distraction 2: It’s not a ‘twist’ movie, thus obviating any debriefing about whether it was a “good” twist, or whether you “saw it coming”/”guessed,” or didn’t. “The twist!” became a reviewer-favorite concept in the 1990s, then graduated to a marketing term, so for some time, it has become over-applied to mean any film in which information is explicitly stated to a protagonist after the halfway-mark. Perhaps Shyalaman even did himself in with The Sixth Sense, so that forever more, people watching his films will shout “twist! twist!” whenever something happens which the protagonist didn’t fully understand until that point. Granted, he didn’t help much with this line:
This one has a surprise ending.
But a surprise for the protagonist isn’t the same as a twist for the viewers. If you experienced Price’s disclosure near the end as a surprise for yourself as well as for Dunn, that’s fine, I’m not saying you’re dumb or anything, but I also don’t think it changes anything about what the viewer already saw. It adds causality and tightens up the relationship between hero and villain, but it doesn’t revise prior events ‘ established causality or turn the hero’s decisions into different decisions from how they were presented. I experienced it as addition and clarity, not reversal.
Please let’s move completely past the distractions and talk about the movie entirely without first-viewing, first-weekend-review perspective. So, comics movie vs. movie about comics … I think it’s a comics movie with about-comics material inside it, reinforcing the primary content rather than overtaking it.
About the hero: there’s never a real question whether David Dunn will get into superheroing. It takes a lot of steps, most of which are small, and tone is in a minor key, but it does happen steadily. Much more important is the procedural anatomy: to be a great superhero, you need three flaws: first, the physical or social one that’s overcome and effectively eliminated by becoming a hero; second (and optional), the vulnerability or limitation that keeps you from being untouchable; and third, the moral one inherent to how one became a hero, which cannot be removed.
Captain America is a great example, because the first and third are split over such diverse introductions. In the first (1941), all he’s got is the first flaw: becoming a superhero overcomes his initial physical frailty. In the second (1965), he gains the moral flaw: he’s a modern-day hero now, but framed in the death of Bucky and its corresponding lack of closure. The latter isn’t merely a co-occurrence; the event which killed Bucky is the same which resulted in his being preserved.
Dunn’s initial flaw is his emotional disconnectedness, especially to his family, apparent in his behavior toward his seatmate in the first scene, and implied strongly in the immediate backstory. Awakening (acknowledging? realizing?) his powers directly aids him to put his personal life together again, mainly due to his son’s belief in him. It’s so incremental that one may wonder halfway through whether it’ll succeed, but in retrospect, it absolutely does.
Then he confronts his vulnerability, which means (i) he must suffer, agonizingly, desperately, for altogether too long; and (2) he doesn’t succumb – and check those swelling chords when he makes it out of the pool. There’s a lotta Marvel in this part of the film, including the genuine fear that he won’t make it despite all reason to the contrary, and how the affirmation that someone cares plays its role in his victory.
What remains is the moral flaw that’s intrinsic to his becoming a hero, and that’s clinched at the end when he discovers his own powers-origin, or access/realization thereof, is inextricably tied to three instances of mass murder. He will have to pay for that – every life he saves can be thought of as such payment, and yet, no matter how many, ten times as many as those who died at Price’s hand, it won’t be enough. No more than for Bucky, Uncle Ben, Battlin’ Murdock, you know the list. Again, that’s why I don’t think it’s a twist, but a completion.
In this case, that’s tied to the origin of the villain too, which is common in film adaptations, not so much in the actual comics although it’s not unknown. As usual, it overshadows the hero’s origin by a considerable margin. The whole story even begins with Elijah Price’s agonizing birth, and wince-inducing contact with a life defined by physical and social pain. In terms of back-story, Dunn has been in denial about his powers for a long time because he refuses to be set apart from humanity, but eventually, in becoming superhuman, finds himself more connected to humanity. Whereas Price begins utterly set apart, appallingly so, and who can even begin to question why he’d commit atrocities in order to make his life into a story – if he can’t be a person, then he’ll be meaningful to people.
It’s a gorgeous blend of Marvel and DC, combining the vulnerability and psychology of the former with the plot/puzzle context of the latter, nicely in one feature, specifically that the hero cannot beat him simply by hitting him.
All live-action superhero films obsess way too much on powers-origin, but in this case, the whole story is the origin rather than shoehorning it into a rushed version of a later story. THe climax is really getting the complete origin story – in a big way, the hero’s “real” series is yet to begin.
Elijah Price is now in an institution for the criminally insane.
Yeah, if you think that’s the end of the story, you haven’t been paying attention. But not the way you might think. I’d almost be happiest – imagining “Unbreakable the ongoing comic” – if he stayed in there as the unresolvable “original sin” of the hero, just as I tend to think that the worst possible thing that happened to Batman and Spider-man, conceptually, was to see the respective killers embedded in their origins return to the pages. I want to see what Dunn does next with other villains, with the knowledge and guilt obtained from this one never absent from his mind, and no closure remotely possible.
Okay! Now for the content about comics inside it. First, there’s the Dark Side of romanticizing or idealizing comics. Price is a really interesting example of fandom. He’s not really a collector, for whom the old mint issue is strictly an investment; he cares greatly about its contents. But on the other hand, he’s not a share-the-love idealist about the stories either. He doesn’t want a kid to have a piece of genuine comics history, and I think he wouldn’t have been thrilled to see it go to a fourteen-year-old any more than to a four-year-old. It’s as if his comics-reading experience in childhood were the Ancient Days, now forever gone; to him, the contents are to be revered and brought to fruition in reality, not to be experienced in an innocent way any more, ever. I suspect more than one comics fan out there recognizes this profile.
Second, the absolutely real ambiguity of the ostensibly heroic, brave content of comics. Think about what Stan Lee has said many times in many books: the villain is brave, the villain is not stupid, the villain feels pain, the villain is the hero of his or her own story. Price gets good advice from his mom as a kid – and he takes it, which is all the more horrifying. He finds his ideals – and he sets his goal – and he’s brave as hell in making it happen. The boy she’s so proud of, who survives a deadly physical condition and becomes a professional success, is the same one who plots and conducts mass murder – it’s totally not a case of split personality or denial. Both happen because he took her advice, focusing on the text they used together to clinch it, and he expresses it here:
I believe comics are a form of history. That someone, somewhere, felt or experienced.
Which, dear reader, is the same reason why I write this blog and why you read it. We believe that too.
Third, the film presents about the bluntest portrait of white and black super-identities possible, much more so than any comic I can think of. It’s either uncompromising or insensitive to tap into the “villainous black killer” meme like that, especially with Dunn as the quintessential ordinary, rather stodgy, service-class sector white ex-jock. I think of it as simply admitting that the issue has been central and trenchant in superhero comics since the mid-1960s if not before, and choosing to go all-the-way with it rather than trying to massage or manage it. To lay it out without softening, Price is black because the demographic is already semi-dehumanized according to the majority culture, so when other black kids in your neighborhood dehumanize you from them, you are no longer only Outsider, you are truly Other. It removes the accusation “he could have chosen otherwise” from accepting himself as inhuman. For my part, I find myself empathetic with Price enough to be entertainingly disturbed by it, which makes it hard for me to take seriously the notion that casting Sam Jackson, or rather, any black actor into the part is ipso facto racist, but I don’t claim to have solved or explained away the issue on that one-viewer-only basis.
Fourth, Price’s theory about comics and culture – if a bit ahistorical – is almost picture-perfect text-obsessed Superman fandom: that the comics superhero originated as deeply-felt, culturally-embedded New Myth, then was transformed into colorful, charming trash. In this context Dunn’s power-set makes a lot of sense, being so minimal, evocative of the early-early Superman rather than the cosmic library o’powers one. His most important one isn’t even his physical durability, but his empathetic “sin-sense,” which could easily have been included in my post Sense, coincidence, nonsense, and consequence.
Fifth, and this is a little weird and perhaps just my viewer’s projection, but it struck me in the theater that some, even the majority of the imagery and culture is very 70s – the kid’s haircut, many of the clothes, even the glimpse of the back-story which pitches his high school as a kind of sports-heaven idyll. Not everything: Price’s birth is set in 1961, positioning the story as contemporary with its release; Willis’ gleaming dome distracts from it; there’s also the walls o’bagged comics store, and a couple other things like the woman’s belly-tattoo and Price’s mobile chair. But still, a lot of it evokes my pre-teen and early teen period with less compromise than one might expect. That makes Price’s insistence that comics are, too, important! more pointed, as no one around him even begins to understand.
Whew! To quote my favorite movie incarnation of a certain villain, “For once, I’m left without a punchline.” Tell me what you think.
Reading: Adilifu Nama’s Super Black provides great compare-and-contrast material for all the comics, film, and TV of the larger history.
Links: Present-day looks at the film at Collider and Bullies to Buddies
Next comics: Sword of God (November 8); One Plus One (November 10)
Next column: Spider-Schlep (November 13)
Posted on November 6, 2016, in Filmtalk, The 90s me and tagged Captain America, David Dunn, Elijah Price, M. Night Shyamalan, Mr. Glass, Superman, Unbreakable 2000 film. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.
I saw Unbreakable in Seoul when it came out in one of the last single theatre venues that were left before the local rise of the cineplex. I saw it there because it was around the corner from my apartment at the time, had great popcorn and seats, and a sound system that could shake the earth. I did not know anything about the movie, and had in fact gone to the theatre to see something else – which had moved on.
Unbreakable, in its mood, its color palette, its pacing, its portrayal of its characters, its content, and its music quickly catapulted the film onto my list of favorites. I feel a small tinge of sad surprise when I talk about it with people and they reveal how disappointed they were about the weak ‘surprise ending’. I didn’t see any of the marketing before or afterward, but I imagine it was billed as ‘from the director of the 6th Sense’ which would have caused certain associations to form in anticipation of the film. That these associations are held onto after seeing it is the sad part.
I like it so much because of how genuine the characters and their world appear, even though the content itself is so fantastic. This is a mood that has not quite been captured by the big Marvel Movies which on one level or another contain an awareness of the audience and include them in the jokes, like the comics did.
I like it so much because nothing is quite right with its main characters until they start to do what they were meant to do. There is a power in that simple assertion about the hero, and the villain, that I miss when I read outside the old pulps I grew up on.
I am glad to hear that you like the film, too~
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I love seeing movies cold. When I was seeing a lot of them per unit time, I had to train my friends not to say what they considered perfectly ordinary pre-viewing information from trailers and from reviews. It clued me into how much people are profoundly oriented toward the film before viewing it, even with phrases like “it’s too long,” or judgments of performances, such that the viewings become false validations of the orientations.
Your description of how you came to see it was the same as mine with, say Jacob’s Ladder, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and many other 1990s films. I still don’t read reviews and I don’t follow any TV/radio media about cinema whatsoever.
Your speculation about Unbreakable‘s promotion is correct. The orientation I’m talking about was absolutely in place that this was The Sixth Sense 2 in viewing-experience if not literally a sequel, and it followed very quickly on that film, much more so than many big-release high-promotion films. Starring the same actor may also have contributed. Since saying “it’s a comics movie!” was verboten, the orientation through promotion was necessarily vague and confusing – whether it was naturalistic vs. magic-realism, horror vs. drama, thriller vs. horror, even whether you viewed it for the ride vs. for the puzzle (a conundrum that’s plagued a lot of interesting movies since The Usual Suspects, and which bollixed both the content and intelligent viewing of Fight Club) … it may also show that without this very extensive and constrained orientation, a lot of people don’t really know how to enjoy a movie, which I observed in a number of my friends during this period when they watched films with me that neither of us knew anything about.
Fortunately, as I discovered, your and my enjoyment of the movie, and the issues I touched on here, are way more commonly-expressed as of a few years ago, so I’m looking forward to comments like yours and the conversations stemming from them.
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If I can help it, I see films and read books cold. Like you, that is a luxury I have had to carefully cultivate time and again. Being given information prior to the experience will invariably spoil my experience of the thing one way or another, such as by revealing too much, showing too many of the wires, or – like with people and Unbreakable – lead me astray and into an undeserved disappointment.
Have you viewed both the theatrical release and the director’s longer cut? If so, did you have any thoughts about the slower pace and fuller exploration of the characters’ angst over their place in the world – and in particular the world’s reaction to their questions?
i saw it in the theater and more recently via my cable service. I don’t know whether the latter was the director’s cut. It didn’t seem any different from what I remembered, and there wasn’t any world’s reaction content, so I’m guessing not.
Okay I’ve only read the blurb, but fo’ real? Are there people who don’t realize Unbreakable is THE BEST superhero film?
Okay I’ma go read the post now.
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Everyone does now.
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Having just moved, and just unpacked all my media, and just found the shiny, still shrinkwrapped copy of Unbreakable, maybe I should crack it and watch it again. Right after I rewatch the sealed copy of the Vengeance trilogy, and the sealed box set of Carnivale, and the sealed copies of The Lasts Starfighter and Dragon.
Not surpassingly, I also love Unbreakable. I hadn’t realized Price (what a name!) is born in 1961. The same year as Fantastic Four. Nice.
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Maaaaan I feel anxious as I’m writing this. Turns out I had strong feelings about how I want this movie to be remembered. A common discussion I have with friends concerns my theory that we read Unbreakable as a superhero movie now, but when it was released no one saw it as a superhero film, everyone saw it as a thriller. I sometimes sustain my argument by pointing out that the movie is filled with references to and information about comic books, which is precisely the one thing “real” superhero movies DON’T do: As Borges said, the one word that’s forbidden in a puzzle of which the answer is “Chess”, is the word “Chess”.
I remember feeling really smart, as I grew up, thinking of Unbreakable as a superhero movie and David Dunn (that alliteration!) as a superhero, like it was a secret I had discovered. Now my experience is quite the opposite, where everyone will put it on the list of superhero movies alongside the MCU ones, X-Men, the old ones like Batman or Darkman -hey, how come Darkman didn’t make your list, Ron?-, and I feel the need to lift my finger and say “Hey, you know, it’s not quite a superhero film”. Maybe it’s just my need to feel smart 😦
I’m sorry if I’m taking this in another direction, but at least it’s a sincere response. I sort of had a mental list for years of stories that were borderline-superhero genre, but not quite. If I think about it, I think it’s actually three lists:
1) Stories that are not normally received as superhero stories but I could read them that way (and that sometimes are enjoyed by a lot more people than people who like superheroes, triggering my fanboy resentment in the 90s and 00s), like Unbreakable.
(Here I need to add another digression, and also a defense of Roger Ebert. I could think of the boy of Sixth Sense as a sort of supernatural hero, who goes around helping ghosts, and I get to see his first ‘case’ on the movie – the girl that was poisoned by her stepmother. I think there’s something Stephen King-y to this. I wish I had read him more. But I feel there’s a thing, I can’t quite name it, where you take horror tropes and allow your characters to be competent around them – and you’re kind of in comic book territory. Like when characters face threats but also have encountered fictional stories about them, and it feels like that’s what it would happen to us real people if we happened to encounter dragons, ghosts or… vampires. Wait, I said “vampires”! Now I know what’s going on: I think I’m going full-90s, which was the decade between my being 3-year-old and 13. Buffy fan. Never watched X-Files, never played Vampire RPG -I’m delighted by your analysis of it-. I wonder whether I’m thinking in postmodernism terms – during the next decade I loved Alan Moore and Evangelion and Umberto Eco, and the TvTropes version of deconstruction.)
2) Argentine superheroes, that many times aren’t seen as superheroes, especially the ones who succeed. Think Cybersix, which is said to be the Italian comic that stopped the manga wave on France (or was it Italy?) for four years. Also Los Simuladores and a bunch of others. Hijitus, the kids’ character from the 50s and 60s, goes more on the next category.
3) Superhero parodies that actually function quite right as superhero stories, only sillier. Radioactive Man would be a borderline case, because Simpson Comics did a lot of commentary on the history of American Comics (I learned more about the Comics Code Authority from the 22 pages of the Radioactive Man against a ‘corrupter of the youth’ than from anywhere else). I think I mean Mighty Mouse? Haven’t watched it in ages. From what I’ve read, Paperinik (Donald Duck) goes here (especially the 00s version) and maybe Goofy’s superhero identity (which I HAVE read) as well. Bartman DEFINITELY goes here, again Simpson Comics – in this case the blend between parody, adventure and commentary was more balanced, with Bart fighting guys who wanted to play the comic book market of the 90s and almost falling to his death in a vat of silver paint used to do variant covers. A female student of mine and friend has told me Darkwing Duck is just like that, having actually poignant episodes, and that she actually enjoyed this ¿¿¿sub-genre??? more than actual superhero comics, and wanted to write her own some day.
I’m sorry I wrote this long. I really liked your analysis of Unbreakable, especially about how it enlightened me of two things: The “moral flaw” component, and that Shyamalan really knew what he was talking about when he wrote the script.
I dunno, I guess that if I had to sum up my point in a nutshell (assuming I did have one), it’d be that maybe before people tried to hide comics/superhero associations to movies, and maybe now it’s the opposite, with associations tacked on or highlighted.
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Thanks for the reflection! I always enjoy comments which include relevant autobiography.
Several short replies, out of order.
1. I was planning to include Darkman! But I only remembered it while I was away from the computer, and forgot about it by the time I was working on the post again.
The original Darkman (1990) could be included as a precursor to the period I’m talking about, as it “feels” very much like some of them to me. (It’s a bit interesting as the comic is derived from the film, not the other way around.) The period I’m writing about includes Darkman II: The Return of Durant (1995), and Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996), which I haven’t seen.
2. I think a lot of the parodies are very fine non-parodies, often to the point of not even being silly, as I talked about in Now you’re a myyayun. In fact I should have included the film discussed in that post.
3. Since plenty of comics reference comics internally, and not merely to be snotty or meta, I don’t see why a “comics movie” can’t reference comics.
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About the third point: I dunno, maybe I’m being too centric on Marvel movies of late… But I feel I’m onto something. I can’t think of a single superhero movie post-X-Men that references comic books as a form, and I think most of them never use the term “superhero” (much like zombie movies don’t use the term “zombie”, if I believe the DVD commentary of Shaun Of The Dead), and for a great while they refused to give their characters costumes (I was really surprised at the look of Psylock in the latest movie, ’cause for me it was the X-Men movies going full circle).
But you’re right, that doesn’t disqualify Unbreakable as a superhero movie. Still… I feel Shyamalan as a filmmaker has a great need to be taken seriously, and that this is somehow intertwined with that.
Hey. I just realized it’d be interesting to compare Unbreakable with Kick-Ass and Super, two recent movies who start on the premise “this is in the real world and these guys are gonna become superheroes following the examples from comics”. So I guess you’re right, it isn’t such a big, unique thing.
There may be some complex c ategories at work here which my post doesn’t uncover fully.
1. A “comics movie” in the sense of capturing the thematic punch that comics are surprisingly capable of delivering, whether using an existing comics character, an expy, or a new one makes no difference. This is mainly what I’ve been writing about in the blog posts, ranging from The Six Million Dollar Man to Orgazmo to Unbreakable. I submit Darkman, The Incredibles and Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight as more good examples, and to showcase the range of genres and specific/precise tropes per film.
2. A “movie of the comics” which purports to bring the comic product to the screen, with strong branding for that particular character. This is what the 1989 and 1990s Batman movies do – it has literally nothing to do with the comics; the comics merely provide material to make action movies intended to tap into ready-made selling points.
This is the one for which fandom gets very hung-up on specific translated details – unnecessarily, because no one involved in making the films gave a shit. (You may notice I have a jaundiced view of fandom; believing type 2 is produced in good faith regarding type 1 is an example of its least attractive features.)
3. A “movie about comics” which includes fictional or real titles within its own story, which have a strong effect upon the otherwise ordinary or mostly-ordinary people. This seems most obviously critical toward the comics as they “make” people reckless, over-idealistic, or sociopathic, but I imagine there’s some range here.
As with all things comics, identity hides behind one or more masks. The live-action Batman movies are all sold as #1 but are totally #2; Mask of the Phantasm is sold as #2 but is totally #1. Unbreakable appears to be #3, but is #1 with #3 inside it as a reinforcer.
It may be that the categories are not exclusive, although I submit they don’t “blend” or co-exist equally per film. The first X-Men movie strikes me as a nice case of #1 being “inside” reinforcing #2, and the first Iron Man movie almost succeeded in doing that as well. Blade strikes me as an interesting #1/#2 thing too.
But (and here I’m responding to your point) the latest decade and a half of movies seem very much #2 to me, basically being very colorful action movies which mine the comics mainly for promotional value, replacing rather than capturing the comics’ genuine force, a concept which is only tangentially related to faithfulness in detail. No wonder they don’t refer to comics or super-heroes – they’re movies, selling themselves, and nothing else.
None of this is intended to be fully-baked or declarative. I’m musing.
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Thanks A LOOOOT. I feel thoroughly answered as to everything I was wondering about, by the entirety of your post.
May I get more personal, in order to make sure we’re both talking about the same things? I like how the MCU movies don’t stick to a formula I think the 90s Batman movies codified. They marketed their movies as changing genres in regard to their materials (Cap America as a WWII film, Thor as “shakesperean”) and I’ve completely bought it. It reminds me of the characters of Lost and how their flashbacks showed them in stories of different genres. So I think that from now on I’ll say to people ‘What I like about the MCU movies is that, well they’re not really superhero movies, but if you think about it neither are the DC ones or the “Marvel off MCU” ones, now or in the 90s; but unlike the other ones, who are this weird “movie based in superhero ‘let’s be 1989 Batman'” genre, they’re different genres of cinema with superhero trappings.’ That’s me at a party in the future. If I had the snobbery of quoting your name, which I wouldn’t, and I were talking to Woody Allen, would he make you appear from out of frame so you could say “That’s not what I meant at all”?
Your use of the word “comics” movie instead of “superhero” surprises me. Clearly there’s a thing, a story thing, that superhero comics do well and a few movies have successfully done as well. Group #1, and we’re probably thinking about which RPGs can do #1 as well. But I keep wondering, what about other comics? And I don’t mean Astérix, I mean American comic books that are in the genres of horror, sci fi, plus comix/underground/etc. Your use of the term “comics” movie leds me to believe there’s something special about the form that makes it apt to deliver a certain kind of thematic punch in all genres, but maybe it’s just a word.
I think my response will make sense if I include one more term or idea that occurred to me after my last reply.
“Comic-book movie” used as a damning assessment, or with the same logic, as an excuse for some failing. The idea here is simply that they want to say the film is stupid or childish, and everyone knows “comic books” are stupid and childish, so there you go.
You might think it has something to do with realism, but it absolutely does not. When someone likes a story-event which is absurdly lucky or surrealistically physically impossible, they call it “the magic of cinema,” when they don’t, it’s “too comic-booky.” That exact usage is mere ass which lasted way longer than it had any right to because people like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert hate comics; it needs no further discussion.
But the more complete version is interesting. A film or its promotion might embrace it, saying, “yes, we know it’s silly, but hey! it’s comic-book!” The Batman franchise of 1989 and the 1990s relied on this as a fallback or pre-emptive insurance, which obviously blended badly with its purported darker-and-edgier claim. Conversely, a film might use it as stealth cover for what I listed as #1, like both Orgazmo and Mystery Men.
Regarding your film discussion at the party, I suggest simply leaving my name out of it entirely. It seems to me that your thoughts are still coming together and I’d rather let them be yours.
You’re right that I’m not being rigorous in using “comics” vs. “superheroes” in this post or set of replies. It may be that I’m talking about “superhero comics” as a more limited device than either word is by itself. Perhaps I’ll work that out a bit better in later posts.
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Movies, those I’ve seen a bunch of, but I’ll bet Ron and others are STILL way ahead of me. Just not as much as in comics-reading …
Unbreakable – oh, yes, that was a good movie, and very much a comics movie, even to my eyes at the time. More so as I consider it from my better comics-informed present. And oh, yes, it didn’t get the love it deserved when it came out.
For whatever reasons (I think the “surprise” ending is among them, for many people), when it first came out it left a “oh, this was JUST a gimmick/comicbook movie” impression. Good to know folks are now looking past that rarely-appropriate JUST assessment to the real movie that false label can conceal from them.
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