captain america – a film review and treatise on the fall of the superhero

The comic book movies are having a hard time these days, and understandably so – their audience is growing older.

While next generations are carefully considered by the producers and marketers of the recent glut of comic book movies, it is still the age group which grew up with those books that composes the largest slice of the pie, according to demographic studies.  This is interesting, since the chief ticket buyer of the age groups is the 16-24 year-old male.  The kind of moviegoer that grew up with Captain America, though, is older – he’s in his thirties.

How can I say this when Captain America first came out in 1941?  It wasn’t until the 1960s when the character was brought back into the main stream by Stan Lee in an issue of The Avengers.  And while the Captain’s history in comic books is labyrinthine, it is arguably the 1980s when the character became modernized (with issues of homophobia and methamphetamines introduced, and the villain “Red Skull” fleshed out) and during this time that the series gained the followers which are most targeted by the film version.

If you were to draw a graph depicting the releases of superhero comic book movies, you’d see a density in the late 90s and early 00s.  Starting with Superman: The Movie  in 1978, there’s really nothing for a while, save for the sequels.  The late 80s and early 90s saw a small rash of superhero movie flops – premature pics like The Fantastic Four and even Captain America himself which never made it to theaters or even video.  A couple squeezed through, like Dick Tracy and The Punisher (with Dolph Lundgren), which fared poorly.  It was still a niche genre struggling to find its way.  When Tim Burton began the Batman films in 1989, the realm of superhero movies began is arc.  As technology reached the demands of the superhero story (and expectation of the audience), Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk (in multiple incarnations), X-Men, and others emerged victorious, and a new, re-imagined Batman came again, spawning the gritty realism that seems to serve the genre the best (Nolan’s The Dark Knight has had one of the best opening box office weekend of any of the superhero films, as did Ironman, creating what I consider the apex, or culmination year – 2008).

It’s no accident that the success of the genre is concentrated in the early 00s, and that we’re beginning the descent down the other side. Ironman 2 was a throwaway, the “Greens” (Lantern and Hornet) both fell by the way side, and we’re actually seeing previews now, for, yes, another Spiderman franchise already.  These films have lacked the insight and compelling narrative to keep thinking audiences connected to them.  It’s as if, rather than being realized by film artists who bring something special to the table, the projects are now being churned out by a machine.  Captain America feels like it was directed by a robot programmed by a studio rather than an artist with a unique vision.

This is what happens.  There’s a law in the universe, called entropy, which states that all things tend towards sameness and disorder.  What begins with life – the organization of concepts, the uniqueness of character – tends to devolve towards homogenization.  No where else can we experience this phenomenon more acutely than in the American movie business.

During the “rise” of the superhero comic book movie, its principal target audience was in the prime demographic.  Born in the 70s, during the Silver Age of comic books, potential viewers were now in the 16-24 age range during the late 90s and early 00s.  By 2011, though, they have grown out of the range – and some of the suspension of disbelief that comes with youth has been molted.  In order to keep that prime group interested, films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man can succeed, with excellent storytelling, plenty of grit and accessibility to characters which, despite their obvious eccentricities, are more plausible.  Tossing to that group a character from the World War II era who fights against a one-note villain wielding weapons of the gods just isn’t the same.

But none of this really has to do with why Captain America fails as a film.  Why a film works or doesn’t work has nothing to do with the audience it attracts or doesn’t attract.  Attendance, translatable to dollars and cents, may be the mark of success for the Trades and the studio execs who read them, but from a filmmaking and storytelling point of view, it means nothing.  A film works because it touches a nerve, captivates the mind, presents relatable characters, and because it does that intangible something that good films do – each one does it differently, but the feeling produced is the same, the sort of drug that keeps discerning audiences coming back for more: it transports.

To be truly transportive, a film doesn’t need to be high-minded or clever for cleverness sake.  Alternatively, it shouldn’t be dumbed-down out of fear for alienating any potential audience.  Neither too specific nor too diluted, the transportive film expertly balances between smarts and thrills.  It begins without hackneyed flashbacks and unfurls its length without long bits of obvious exposition (monologs revealing key information about so-and-so or such-and-such).  At its core, as in, to examine the engine that powers it, a film is nothing more than an entertaining delivery of information.  Where the poor film fails is that the information gloms together into obvious bits of telling, only to advance the viewer along to the next gooey bit of action and thrill.  The better film succeeds by crafting a story that feels truthful by masking the fact that it is not.

Film producers have tried all sorts of ways to get around this hump.  The most obvious is the “true story” phenomenon which emerged in the 80s.  A film doesn’t even have to be “based” on a true story these days, it can simply be “inspired by” a true story (which means that someone thought about something that happened and then made a movie).  This is basically an ill-concealed attempt to goad the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and make the filmmaker’s goal easier, which is to be transportive.  Obviously, superhero comic book movies can’t tag their film upfront with the “true story” ruse.  Their work is cut out for them to make something for an aging audience transportive.  As we continue to shift towards a younger audience, and studios give up on those firm fans who grew up with the characters, the trend will continue towards hedging, machine-made films.  Entropy will reign.  Captain America, with its forgettable dialog, blah blah blah special effects and antiquated context is the perfect example of the end of an era, and the beginning of a new – the age when comic book movies are often about as exciting as the latest formula-based romantic comedy.


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