Are Campy Superheroes a Must?

A snarky and nasty competition has begun burning its way through geekdom, and the question is eye-rollingly annoying: Which is the better kind of comic adaptation – Marvel’s shiny and goofy otherworldliness, or the gritty, brooding scenes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series? Which is better for the medium? For film?  For longevity?  Fans have staked out their positions, and are currently arguing it anywhere one can argue about movies and comics. Which is pretty much everywhere.

It’s easy to understand why so many hail Nolan’s vision as a pinnacle of cinematic achievement. Nolan’s Batman films have breathed new life and respectability into the genre. They’ve got their flaws and detractors, but overall, I think they're such a natural fit for the character that it’s almost baffling why it took so long for someone to do it. Superheroes (especially the dark and angry vigilantes) shouldn’t be campy.

Marvel has taken a different, but no less defining approach.  While they’re certainly not camp, they’re definitely (almost defiantly) more fun.  There are plenty of moments of drama and pathos within all the Marvel films (“I had a date…”) but they’re packaged more brightly and with a little more absurdity.  But the key delicacy Marvel has achieved (and I realize how crazy that is when discussing a film so full of shattering glass and toppling skyscrapers) is that it doesn’t make fun of its characters or concepts within the film.  Iron Man can crack wise at the craziness of it, and call Loki “Reindeer Games” but the film is never nudging and winking about how crazy it is that Hulk, Captain America, and Thor exist, let alone together. It asks you to accept them as they are. And we do.

It’s unclear why we have to really choose one approach as being superior.  I like that we have both, and many a moderate geek or film fan agrees with that.  But having these two successful (hugely successful, I might add) paths of adaptation is going to prove interesting to the comic book movies to come, whether they’re Marvel, DC, Fox or Sony.

I suspect, post-Nolan, we’re in for a few more gritty, “real world” versions of vigilantes.  It seems natural for Fox to take a Nolan approach with Daredevil, for instance, or for a future Wolverine installment.  Marvel won back the rights to the Punisher and Blade, and it’s easy to imagine some rookie director taking a Nolanesque crack with them too.  But unless one director gets three (or four, or eight – whatever the new standard is) films to really tackle their vision and arc of a character, these attempts won’t work. They play like lazy, calculated knock-offs, leaving the characters to be rebooted by someone else who will probably take them in the opposite direction.

The Marvel approach seems easier for most studios to tackle, though, and I fear we’ll see a return to “camp,” because few screenwriters and filmmakers will realize that delicate balance Marvel has struck between humor, fun, and self-awareness.   With hundreds of millions in the bank for The Avengers I suspect we’ll see Fox, Warner Bros and Sony adopt more of a wacky approach to their properties, especially if The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t do as well. (You know, it might not crack a billion zillion dollars, thus being declared "a bomb" post-Avengers.) The thought will be that audiences want lighter fare instead of broodier, and the race will be on to make all their superheroes wise-crackers.  (Sony already seems a little prescient with their sarcastic Spider-Man reboot.)  The big question will be if anyone can actually pull at the seams and realize what makes the jokes in Avengers work (Tony is a wise-ass, Thor is oblivious, Hulk wants to shyly fit in, Cap is a dork) as opposed to “HA HA OMG SUPERHEROES AMIRITE?”  Once the movie asks you to ridicule its characters, it slides into camp, and we’re back in Joel Schumacher territory.

A return to that seems inevitable as everyone continues to catch up to what Marvel and Christopher Nolan have already done.  I certainly hope not – I like this era of good superhero flicks, and I’ve waited a long time  for it – but given that Hollywood isn’t big on study, but on making a mess, I fear we’re in for a lot of loud chucklefests and plastic costumes that we’ll lament amid our longboxes.

Movie & TV Awards 2018