My first instinct was to agree with Ethan Hawke.
The actor sat down with the Film Stage the other day to gab about an array of topics and the conversation eventually turned to the pillar upon which contemporary Hollywood is built: superhero movies. To put it simply, he’s not much of a fan, and he seemed particularly irked by the praise thrown at James Mangold’s 2017 X-Men spinoff Logan. Quoth Hawke:
Now we have the problem that they tell us Logan is a great movie. Well, it’s a great superhero movie. It still involves people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not Bresson. It’s not Bergman. But they talk about it like it is. I went to see Logan cause everyone was like, “This is a great movie” and I was like, “Really? No, this is a fine superhero movie.” There’s a difference but big business doesn’t think there’s a difference. Big business wants you to think that this is a great film because they wanna make money off of it.
Now, before we go any further, I have to point out that I love Logan. That’s a matter of record. I cried on no fewer than three occasions during the screening. It’s near the top of my list of the 30 best superhero movies of the 20-year-old superhero boom. I had a great conversation with Mangold about it. I wrote about how important it was that the film was nominated for a writing Oscar. I have, more times than I can count, recommended and praised it in casual conversation.
But I have to confess that, after five years of writing professionally about superhero movies and well over 20 of watching them, I really can’t bring myself to get excited about anything spandex-related anymore. Going to Avengers: Infinity War was like strapping myself into the Ludovico Technique machine. Afterward, I wanted to puke from all the empty calories.
So I was primed to be on Hawke’s side when I first saw his opinion pop up in angry quote-tweets. The superhero glut has gotten so overwhelming that my knee-jerk response to any criticism of the genre is to think, Yeah, that’s probably right. And yet, in spite of everything, there’s still some part of me that hasn’t given up hope for a better tomorrow, one in which Ethan Hawke and I will both walk out of the multiplex thinking we’ve seen a meta-human picture that isn’t subject to the soft bigotry of low expectations. We can build a better superhero movie. We must.
Smarter people than me have pointed out the prime factors that currently hold the genre back. In fact, you can find more or less everything you need to know about the market-based reasons superhero movies so rarely leap the bar in one essay by my colleague Matt Zoller Seitz, written in the wake of 2014’s abysmal The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Entitled “Things Crashing Into Other Things: My Superhero Problem,” it laid it all out: the complacency of commerce (“The fat bottom lines guarantee that neither studios nor producers nor writers nor directors will feel much pressure to make superhero films great, as opposed to better than expected”), the flatlined expectations of viewers (“The audience seems to have no interest in demanding better films, much less excellent ones. It settles for okay and better-than-okay. As long as the films aren’t unbearably bad or unnervingly personal, they’re content”), and the risk-averse sameness (“Their goal is to minimize financial risk and avoid a scenario in which viewers buy a ticket for the latest Marvel picture and get something substantially different from what they’ve been conditioned to expect”).
A counterpoint is often that Hollywood churned out a lot of Westerns (the genre Logan most wanted to ape) too, and they included genre pieces that are — at least now — regarded as great art: The Searchers, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Noon, Shane, and so on. But even here, solid arguments can be made that Westerns were more open to innovation than superhero flicks are, for a variety of reasons. John Heath summed them up nicely in an essay that responded to Seitz’s: Westerns’ comparative cheapness made experimentation less risky; Westerns weren’t chained to telling the stories of literally the same characters (your Batmen and Captains America) over and over again; Western actors were more important to success than their characters while it’s vice versa for superheroes; and so on. A grim picture is painted.
But let’s take a deep breath and step back for a moment. These are all commercial considerations, not really thematic ones. Is the very idea of the superhero story broken at the core? I have to believe that’s not the case.
There are plenty of superhero stories that have risen to the level of great art. They just haven’t been found at the movie theater yet. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the debut of Superman, the first real superhero, in the pages of Action Comics No. 1. In the decades since that pivot point in global culture, a great many creators and creative teams have made superpowered narratives that are as rich as any piece of genre fiction in any medium: the unprecedented works of writer-artist Jack Kirby in the ’60s and ’70s, the soaring deconstructionist achievements of Watchmen in the ’80s, the pulpy brilliance of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson’s ongoing Astro City saga, Grant Morrison’s cosmic take on Batman, the recent young-adult genius of Ms. Marvel. I could go on.
What all of these stories have in common is their ability to riff on the fantastic, fundamental question of the superhero: What does it mean to use extraordinary power? It’s a theme that’s universally relatable, insofar as we all have unique abilities and advantages that make us special in one way or another, and we all need to grapple with the ways in which we deploy them — and the consequences of their misuse. There are trappings and tropes of the superhero genre that are fun — serialized storytelling, world-crushing threats, alternate universes, improbable technology, visually interesting shows of force, self-referential banter — but they’re empty if you don’t have an interesting take on the quandary of power.
All too often, superhero movies get caught up in the window dressing because they don’t have anything interesting to say about power. How many times have these pictures simply told us a variation of “with great power comes great responsibility” by showing us a person or a group who are reluctant or confused about how to use their power for the greater good, then get their shit together to do so in the end? You can obscure the sameness with new visuals (the boilerplate Doctor Strange had some terrific CGI whiz-bang) or topical jokes (Thor: Ragnarok is quite funny despite mostly being just another story about overcoming the odds against great evil), but rarely do you see anyone truly innovate with the narrative core of the genre. You can come up with extremely fun, well-crafted versions of the same old, same old (The Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy come to mind), but you’ll only go so far.
There’s so much more to mine here! There have been steps in the right direction, like Unbreakable’s meditations on the self-doubt of the potentially powerful American middle class; or Black Panther’s grappling with how utopian societies and people of color use power; or, yes, Hawke’s bête noire Logan, in which we’re forced to wonder whether a violent man can be a kind of Christ figure, using his power to do terrible things as a way to take on the sins that a child shouldn’t be forced to commit. They’re all still held back by the considerations Seitz and Heath outlined (Unbreakable inserts a wholly unnecessary serial killer for easy shocks, Black Panther loses a lot of steam in its formulaic third act, Logan only really resonates if you’ve seen a ton of X-Men movies) but they stab toward greatness in a way that should give us cause for optimism.
Someday, hopefully not too far in the future, an auteur or an artistic collective will be given the freedom to ruminate on power in a way that cinema hasn’t seen before. That can even mean outright ripping off a comic that’s done it well already. There’s no shame in that. What matters is taking honest stock of all the commercial considerations that handicap so many superhero flicks and choosing to ignore them. I don’t hold out much hope that we’ll see that kind of experimentation en masse anytime soon. But I don’t think superhero narratives are fundamentally doomed to the kind of non-ambition that Hawke identifies. We don’t have to live in a world where superhero cinema regularly induces shame in people who want it to be better. The question is whether Logan will be a ceiling or a stepping stone.