Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

The Great Escape: What the Ascendancy of Comic-Book Culture Tells Us about Ourselves

Lest anyone doubt the real-world superheroic capabilities of a fictional character, let me state for the record that Batman taught me how to read.

For in watching the syndicated reruns of the Adam West series in the late seventies—the kitschy opening credits, specifically—my not-yet-literate mind eventually recognized a correlation between the splashy title-card logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman” became the first word I could read and write.  Absolutely true story.

"Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba! Batman!"

“Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba! Bat-man!”

I loved the old Batman show—the pop-art color scheme and Dutch angles (not that I took conscious note of such stylistics at the time) were like a cartoon come to life.  The camp humor?  Entirely lost on me:  When Batman and Robin slid down the Batpoles and zoomed off in the Batmobile—staged in that glorious life-sized playset of a Batcave—the sense of adventure was kinetic.  And when the villain-of-the-week left our heroes for dead in some Rube Goldbergian contraption—their fate to be determined in twenty-four agonizing hours!—the tension was excruciating.

Unlike most of my heroes at that time—Michael Knight, the Duke boys—the Dynamic Duo weren’t confined to the limited jurisdiction of their own fictional worlds, but rather popped up elsewhere, too, in animated form on The New Scooby-Doo Movies and Super Friends, and I never quite understood why no one had thought to put Adam West, Christopher Reeve, and Lynda Carter in a movie together; with no concept of copyright issues or irreconcilable aesthetics or what later came to be called “shared cinematic universes,” it seemed like a no-brainer to assemble an all-star superhero team from the preexisting talent pool.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Thirty-five years after I—along with an entire generation raised on the same pop-cultural diet, it turns out—first dreamed it, the team formerly known as the Super Friends are getting the tent-pole treatment next month with the release of Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros.’ opening-salvo attempt at the kind of license to print cash shared cinematic universe Marvel has so deftly pioneered (to the envy of every studio in Hollywood).  Fanboy anticipation is at a full boil, if enthusiasm on social media is any barometer; many are counting down the days with a breadth of fanaticism ordinarily reserved for the Second Coming, others forecasting the would-be mega-franchise’s stillbirth, but all are anxiously awaiting Dawn.

Not me, though.  I can say with absolute and irrevocable certainty that I’ll be sitting out Batman v Superman—in theaters, on home video, on cable.  In perpetuity.

But, more on that shortly.

 

KINGDOM COME

“Just as generations of aboriginal artists have taken it upon themselves to repaint the totems, so too does the enchanted environment of the comic-book dreamtime replicate itself through time.  A superhero universe will change in order to remain viable and stay alive.  As long as the signs stay constant—the trademark S shields and spiderweb patterns, and the copyrighted hero names—everything else can bend and adapt to the tune of the times” (Grant Morrison, Supergods:  What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, [New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2011], 118).

The coming year, like the one before it—and the one before that—will usher the big-screen debut or return of a host of comic-book heroesDeadpoolCaptain America:  Civil WarX-Men:  ApocalypseTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Out of the ShadowsSuicide SquadGambitDoctor Strange.  (To say nothing of the plenitude of superhero-themed shows on television—over forty on the air or in development!)

Count me out for all of those, too, since we’re on the subject, though for reasons less emotionally complex than my abstinence from Batman v Superman.  I’ve simply reached my tipping point with these movies.  Enough is enough.

It’s not to say some—or even all—of them won’t be worthy efforts.  I’ve written in depth about how folkloric characters are versatile enough to accommodate perennial reinvention, as celebrated superhero scribe Morrison (Arkham Asylum, All-Star Superman) suggests in the citation above, and comic books have certainly been hailed as contemporary mythology, starting with the primogenial model:

“Superman was the rebirth of our oldest idea:  He was a god.  His throne topped the peaks of an emergent dime-store Olympus, and, like Zeus, he would disguise himself as a mortal to walk among the common people and stay in touch with their dramas and passions” (ibid., 15–16).

Indeed.  And in my lifetime, which has seen the marginalized idols of geek subculture promoted to billion-dollar corporate agents, superheroes have been literally deified:  Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, those erstwhile, kid-friendly “Super Friends,” are these days venerated as DC’s “Trinity.”  But then, kids are no longer the target audience for their adventures—adults are.  The violent, profane, R-rated Deadpool, for instance, broke “countless records,” per Deadline, over its opening weekend, which only underscores the dramatic demographic shift:  We’re the ones buying tickets to see these movies, posting and blogging about them, cosplaying at Comic-Con, and lining our shelves with collectables—toys rendered totems.  Why?  Why are we so taken with these Saturday-morning cartoons writ large?  Is it purely nostalgic—the once-disparaged four-color fantasies of our youth brought both to life and mainstream credibility by A-list actors and spare-no-expense production values—or is some other subconscious impulse at work here?  What does our cultural obsession with superheroes say about us?

Though they were surely going for “irreverent,” this tasteless advertisement comes off as rather insensitive in light of recent mass shootings

Nobody’s hero: Though they were surely going for “irreverent,” this tasteless advertisement comes off as tone-deaf and socially insensitive in light of recent mass shootings

Most mornings, my mind can’t reconcile the incongruity of headlines about displaced refugees of sectarian violence and impending environmental catastrophe with the puerile posts on social media celebrating some who-cares-less televisional crossover between Supergirl and The Flash.  In the face of the former, I wonder, how can we possibly give an unironic shit about the latter?  I can certainly appreciate how one’s sanity and spirit require the occasional escape from the daunting realities of our present era, but how is it—‘cause I really want to know—we can care so obsessively about the minutia of our fictive worlds when our real world is in such dire need of the same meticulous attention?  Morrison suggests that “[s]cary times and superhero movies go together like dirt and soap” (ibid., 375), but he also proffers a less fear-based correlation:

“Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models?  Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project?” (ibid., xvii)

Perhaps.

Here’s the thing, though:  My father grew up in New York City during the Depression, and later served in Korea.  My mother was born in the midst of World War II, and was a college student during the civil-rights unrest and political assassinations of the sixties—that was the world she was preparing to step out into.  The Cold War—and the nuclear annihilation it threatened—loomed over a fair portion of their lives.  AIDS took the life of their friend—my godfather—in the eighties, one of the first men to be diagnosed with that out-of-nowhere scourge.  Theirs was a world, I think it’s fair to say, bereft of idealism, too (my father was a liberal intellectual who didn’t subscribe to Reagan’s sunny platitudes; he nursed a distrust of Wall Street—probably owed to his upbringing in the thirties—long before the stock-market crash of ’87 exposed the Gordon Gekkos of the era), yet, despite this, they didn’t fetishize their childhood heroes and fantasies as either a nostalgic diversion or aspirational paradigm.  Nor did any of my friends’ parents, for that matter.  No, that’s an idiopathic characteristic of Generation X (one that has now by all evidence been transmitted to the Millennials, placing it among the few commonalities our two discordant generations share).  Expressing eternal fascination—hell, pledging lifelong devotion—to the bedtime stories of our youth?  That’s all us, baby.

“’I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s’” (Stuart Kelly, “Alan Moore: ‘Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?’,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/22/alan-moore-comic-books-interview).

Some of our incessant juvenile preoccupations, of course, may very well have to do with marketing:  We’re simply being sold superheroes by a well-oiled corporate machine that’s figured out there are big bucks in nostalgia, certainly for a generation feeling displaced by the Digital Age and prematurely put out to pasture by its Millennial cohorts without Gen X’s memory of—or crippling yearning for—the bygone analog world.  But, that said, we’re still buying what the corporations are selling; we’re submitting to infantilization—and paying for the ignominy of it, at that.  Which leads me once again to the one-word question I posed above:  Why?

Esteemed comic-book writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, Batman:  The Killing Joke) offers a starkly dissenting view on the matter:

“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence.  It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics” (Pádraig Ó Méalóid AKA Slovobooks; “Last Alan Moore Interview?,” blog entry by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, January 9, 2014, https://slovobooks.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/last-alan-moore-interview/).

So, there you have it:  two different takes from two different masters of the medium—Grant Morrison and Alan Moore.  Is the superhero role model or false idol?  Do his stories offer escape or retreat?  Is our insatiable infatuation with fantasy—with the postnarrative pleasures of Game of Thrones and Star Wars and Warcraft (also getting a film adaptation this year) and now the Marvel and DC movie franchises—a harmless diversion, or is it somehow reflective of a collective Weltanschauung, in ways either optimistic (Morrison) or troubling (Moore)?  Is, as Morrison asks, “the superhero truly a Man of Tomorrow—a progressive image of futurity—or a nostalgic fantasy with nothing to offer beyond a sad, tired muscle show?” (Morrison, Supergods, 294).

 

INFINITE CRISIS

“It should give us hope that superhero stories are flourishing everywhere because they are a bright flickering sign of our need to move on, to imagine the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be” (ibid., 414).

Full disclosure:  I have a professional ax to grind with the prevalence of the superhero movie.  I can assure you from firsthand experience as a screenwriter who’s spent the last decade churning out specs and taking pitch/development meetings with producers all over Hollywood that the interminable slate of franchise-film reboots/sequels has crowded the marketplace to the exclusion of original, mid-budgeted genre projects—and at the expense of the careers of the beleaguered scribes who trade in new materials.  There are a lot of great, unknown screenwriters out there producing what could be, if given a chance, the next culturally defining movies… but you’ll never see them.  Here’s what will fill your local multiplex for the foreseeable future:

Infographic © ComicsAlliance.com

Infographic © ComicsAlliance.com

Superheroes, superheroes, superheroes.  The same origins, the same conflicts, the same tired hagiographies you’ve sat through a thousand times before.  (Seriously—another Spider-Man reboot?  This’ll be the sixth film—and third “unique” incarnation—in only fifteen years!)  As Mozart in Amadeus so cogently bemoaned, “Why must we go on forever writing only about gods and legends?”

However, as I contended in “Attack of the Clones,” mine is more than a mere vocational lament.  How will a new set of stories and heroes, I submit, take root in the imagination of a new generation when all we do is recycle yesteryear’s fantasies rather than foster ones that reflect the folkways of the here and now?  Flash Gordon served merely as the inspiration for Star Wars, as the ghost comedies of the forties did for Ghostbusters and Zorro did for Batman—old ideas were made new and pertinent again through sweeping reinvention by artists with influences and interests and idiosyncrasies that mixed with and mutated those germinal stimuli to deliver them to their next evolutionary phase.

But when a work of art—something that speaks to the ethos of a particular time and place—becomes a brand—something timeless and hallowed, like, say, Coca-Cola—popular culture ceases to express who and where we are, and instead becomes a hall of museum dioramas:  dusty, immutable, and bulwarked from exposure to harsh light and fresh air, those ubiquitous agents of decomposition and rebirth.  Our “gods,” such as they are, are thusly reduced in stature to monumentalized icons—to toys on a shelf.  Far from being aspirational exemplars, they operate only as wistful reminders—as mint-in-box relics—of an era that has long since sunk into the abyss of history.

“I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times” (Pádraig Ó Méalóid AKA Slovobooks; “Last Alan Moore Interview?,” blog entry by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, January 9, 2014, https://slovobooks.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/last-alan-moore-interview/).

I’ll give Morrison this:  Superhero stories are unquestionably a sign of our need to move on—from superheroes themselves.  They aren’t the guardians of the galaxy; they’re the petulant gatekeepers standing in the way of exploring new creative and intellectual frontiers—ones that will light the path through the seemingly intractable minefield of existential crises that lay ahead.  All we need do is surrender our sentimental attachment to them.

So, why’s it so hard, then?

 

BATMAN FOREVER?

Long after teaching me how to read, Batman remained my favorite hero for decades.  The comics, I would discover, provided a more addictive, more fulfilling soap-operatic high from issue to issue, from one epic storyline to the next, than the gimmicky cliffhanger format of the old live-action TV series, but nothing came close to the yearlong mania surrounding the first Tim Burton feature in 1989—the “Summer of the Bat” as it’s known by those who remember it.  Man, that was a capital-E Event—the kind no longer possible when each month welcomes the release of yet another superhero movie.  As a blogger noted years ago (I’ve long since forgotten who, else I would include a link to his post):  “There would be better Batman movies later, but none would ever be bigger.”  Amen.

Vintage toys from the 1980s Super Powers Collection that sit on a shelf in my office, proving I’m equally susceptible as anyone of my generation to the fetishistic sentimentality I denounce

Vintage toys from the 1980s Super Powers Collection that sit on a shelf in my office, demonstrating my own susceptibility to the fetishistic sentimentality I denounce

About ten years ago, my interest in the Dark Knight was waning—maybe I’d gotten too old for comics at that point, or perhaps I’d simply cycled through every possible iteration of the character in the quarter century I’d been a fan—but it was Christopher Nolan’s brilliant cinematic reinvention that brought me back into the fold:  Here was a Batman story told with a level of sophistication I’d never seen or even fathomed possible; just as Adam West had captured my inchoate imagination and Michael Keaton reflected my teenage loneliness, this bold new vision spoke to the geopolitical preoccupations I’d developed as an adult (“In Nolan’s films,” observed Morrison in Rolling Stone #1162, “Batman is a soldier, and it echoes the whole War on Terror”).  Just when I thought Batman held no more surprises for me, three of his most compelling adventures were delivered in the forms of Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).  The stories were more grounded and ethically complex than those of the West era, undoubtedly, but the sense of excitement they provoked in me was no less potent than it had been each afternoon in the early eighties when I’d tuned in to hear the urgent rallying cry, “To the Batpoles!”

Somehow, over three decades and counting, Batman had grown alongside me, becoming more mature and complex as I grew more mature and complex; he remained personally relevant throughout the different seasons of my life.  And just when it seemed I’d finally outgrown him, he evolved further still—into his most fascinating permutation to date.  With Nolan at the helm, I found myself once again along for the ride—and thrilled to be there.

Batman proved a hard habit to break.

 

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

“[I]n place of time, comic-book universes offer something called ‘continuity’” (Morrison, Supergods, 114).

Last year, I wrote about what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff identified as “postnarrative” storytelling, a relatively nascent mode that deviates from the linear, three-act “hero’s journey” structure articulated by Joseph Campbell—in which stories become more closed as they reach their conclusion—in favor of interminably open-ended tales that are “not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible” (Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock:  When Everything Happens Now, [New York:  Penguin Group, 2013], 34).  These would include The X-Files, Lost, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Orphan Black, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to name a handful.  What these sprawling, often ensemble-driven series with their rabbit-hole mythologies reflect is our cultural shift away from a world in which events unfold sequentially, over time, toward a “hyperlinked reality” in which all things occur simultaneously, in the present:  The text messages that distract you during your dinner date, just like the “Easter eggs” in the Marvel stories that point to other adventures unfolding concurrently (in one of the countless other movies or television shows), are constant reminders that we exist now in a continuous state of “presentism,” where what’s happening later is irrelevant—it’s all about what’s happening elsewhere.  Nothing gets resolved, you see, when there’s always another subplot to cut away to.

In a postnarrative world, action happens simultaneously, not sequentially

In a postnarrative world, action happens simultaneously, not sequentially

I have a learned colleague who doesn’t subscribe to postnarrativity as an emergent storytelling form; in his view, soap operas and comic books were telling these types of serialized stories—ones that got their juice from outlandish or gimmicky plot twists that were always subject to whimsical reversal (the death of a major character, for example, need never be made permanent, even in the absence of a plausible explanation for resurrection) over nuanced emotional authenticity—long before there was a trendy buzzword for it.

That is true—the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after all, is only emulating what the comics upon which it is based have been doing for decades.  But, throughout the twentieth century, comic books (and soap operas, too) were considered shoddy storytelling—a lesser form of literature for an undemanding audience; now they’re the stuff of billion-dollar corporate franchises.  They’re Emmy darlings, as well:  Postnarrative shows like The Sopranos and Arrested Development and House of Cards seem so much cooler, so much more sophisticated, so much more plugged into the zeitgeist than the self-contained network series of yore, in which the contrivances of one week’s installment were tied into a perfect bow by the closing credits, and seldom if ever had any consequential bearing on the subsequent week’s carefully act-structured, low-stakes quagmire.

In the "old days," stories were closed-ended -- a problem led to a series of challenges and, ultimately, a definitive resolution

In the “old days,” stories were closed-ended — a problem arose, led to a series of escalating challenges, and, ultimately, reached a definitive resolution with a “moral”

So, while “postnarrativity” as a form may not, in fact, be a “new” thing, it “is no longer considered bad writing” (ibid., 34).  It has become an acceptable, mainstream style of storytelling because narratives with no conclusion, with no takeaway lesson, are now an equally legitimate—and possibly more resonant—way of viewing the world as Campbell’s closed-looped hero’s journey.  We no longer look to stories for moral guidance, for catharsis, for closure, but instead prefer to “live inside” the world of the fiction, indefinitely, not unlike a role-playing game, and derive our pleasure from speculating as to how all the pieces connect:  What do the numbers mean on Lost?  Who do you suspect are Jon Snow’s biological parents?  Therefore, comic-book movies, the ultimate pop-cultural expression of postnarrativity, are less about providing a model for “the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be,” as Morrison asserts, than they are, per Moore, an exercise in attempting “to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’” they present.

“‘I particularly don’t like the modern way of comic book-film adaptations, where, essentially, the central characters are just franchises that can be worked endlessly to no apparent point’” (Stuart Kelly, “Alan Moore: ‘Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?’,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/22/alan-moore-comic-books-interview).

 

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW?

The irony, of course, is that as totemic reminders of the simpler, linear world we lost—the one never coming back—we have preserved our superheroes in the very nonlinear, postnarrative framework to which we now find ourselves eternally consigned:  They exist, like us, in a hyperlinked continuity with no discernable narrative trajectory, no endgame.  Comic books, and the movies they’ve spawned, no longer operate as the elementary morality tales that grew out of the Depression and Second World War that followed it, but have instead become increasingly darker—if not always deeper—to appeal to the aging fan base that still cares enough to consume them on a regular basis.  “In one of the uglier paradoxes of the superhero-comics industry,” wrote Asher Elbein in a recent article for The Atlantic, “characters who were devised to entertain children soon became completely unsuitable for them.”

“‘[Superheroes] don’t mean what they used to mean.  They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience.  That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently.  These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it’s nothing to do with them.  It’s an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men’” (Stuart Kelly, “Alan Moore: ‘Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?’,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/22/alan-moore-comic-books-interview).

Moore’s observation points to the real culprits in this impasse, and it isn’t superheroes themselves.  (My apologies for earlier accusing them of petulance.)  It’s our unhealthy cultural fixation with them that’s troubling, and for that there’s blame aplenty to go around, from the fans who’ve clung for far too long to their childhood heroes, to the publishers and artists who’ve enabled such obstinacy by evolving superheroes only to stay relevant to their middle-aged demographic and not necessarily the changing times themselves (DC is about to initiate yet another lineup-wide relaunch—a mere five years after the last one—in a desperate bid to combat flagging sales), to the corporations that have perverted the cinema into a teeming, bottomless toy box from which there is no escape.  As a screenwriter, I deplore Hollywood’s addiction to comic-book movies at the expense of everything else, and as a storyteller in general, I echo Moore’s concerns over what our insatiable appetite for them means for us culturally.  And yet…

And yet, as a fan—or, perhaps, “recovering fan”—for whom comics in general, and Batman in particular, have been until relatively recently such an integral part of my life, I’m compelled to acknowledge that Ben Affleck’s tenure as the Caped Crusader, however long it lasts, may very well have the kind of meaning to a new generation of children that Adam West’s had, that Michael Keaton’s had, that Kevin Conroy’s had, that Christian Bale’s had.  God knows, the Dark Knight was forty years old by the time I became aware of him, so my ilk can hardly claim exclusive cultural ownership.  Batman is American folklore, and the kids of today have every right to decide for themselves if he resonates with their imagination—with the world as they see it.  But—and this is critical—he needs to be for them; my Batman, like the linear, analog world into which I was born, is now a thing of the past.

Not that you’d know it, though:  Children plainly aren’t the audience Dawn of Justice is being marketed to or made for, any more than Deadpool or Suicide Squad or X-Men:  Apocalypse or Jessica Jones are.  And over on The CW, that bastion of arrested development, Arrow and The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow aren’t courting adolescent viewers; no, they’re getting their juice from adult fans who take their pleasure in watching that arbitrary “multiverse” wormhole its way into programming on other networks, like NBC (Constantine) and CBS (Supergirl).  And that’s problematic, because today’s youth aren’t going to discover—aren’t going to emotionally invest in—that which isn’t produced to specifically appeal to them, to stoke their receptive imaginations.  As such, content creators will be required to reconsider their approach to these kinds of stories; doing so will not only allow for superheroes to reach their originally intended readership/viewership, but may even ensure they continue to thrive as meaningful pop-cultural figures and not the niche-audience nostalgia acts they’ve become.  Provided they are tailored for the proper spectators, we can make room for superheroes as an active part of a diverse cultural canon, but what we cannot do is continue to allow them to monopolize the stage as they have.  There’s simply too much at stake for us culturally for that to go unaddressed and unchanged.

“As a medium, stories have proven themselves great as a way of storing information and values, and then passing them on to future generations….  That’s one reason civilizations and their values can persist over centuries” (Rushkoff, Present Shock, 16).

There is profound nobility in being a writer of fiction—a servant of the zeitgeist—but, to be clear, it means serving the zeitgeist, and not endlessly exploiting “the ephemera of a previous century.”  Star Wars:  The Force Awakens has broken box-office records (as though that metric should mean something to anyone besides studio accountants), as will, I’m sure, the forthcoming Ghostbusters remake, but will either of those warmed-over Gen X artifacts affect the culture—inspire the imagination of generation—the way the originals, so of their time, did?  I doubt it.  And when the history books are written, which of our telltale values will these recycled stories inadvertently enshrine for posterity and retroactive judgment, besides creative bankruptcy, corporate hegemony, and the willing infantilization of a generation that’s been selected, whether we’re happy about it or not, to summon the courage, innovative thinking, and self-sacrifice required to make certain this civilization finds a way, in the face of unprecedented challenges, to persist for centuries still to come?  Those will be the superhero stories of the 2000s, provided we can find it in ourselves to put away the childish comforts of yesteryear and, to borrow Morrison’s exquisite phrasing, finally “feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project.”

It’s time, Xers—to yield the playground to the next generation.  Let them have our old toys—to take whatever entertainment and inspiration they can from them—and let’s instead turn our attention to forging a new set of heroes, out of paper and ink or, hell, even flesh and blood.  There’s never been a greater need for them.

And letting go isn’t as hard as you might think.  Here’s how I did it.

 

LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT

The Batman comics that had grown to bore me by the mid-aughts seemed, in light of the Christopher Nolan films, only more inane, more convoluted, more delphic and inaccessible to all but the most devoted readers with an interest in Easter-egg hunting over the old-fashioned pleasures of a finite story.  For a fan who thought he’d experienced every iteration of Batman that could possibly be conjured (including that aforementioned team-up with Scooby-Doo), The Dark Knight Rises had a final surprise in store for me:  It would tell the Last Batman Story—the theretofore untold account of what happened to the Caped Crusader at the end of his career.

And it was remarkable—the perfect end to a series that aimed so much higher than the average comic-book adaptation, endowing the franchise with the rich characterization that had been absent from Burton and Schumacher’s interpretations, exploring overlooked aspects of the mythos (Batman’s training; his friendship with Jim Gordon), and eschewing over-the-top pyrotechnics for their own sake in favor of presenting a nonetheless thrilling narrative that dared to be, to invoke Alan Moore’s criterion (whether or not he would agree), relevant and sufficient to its times.

With the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan was finished with Batman, content with what he’d accomplished.  In retrospect, his timing was impeccable:  In the current atmosphere of interconnected universe-building, which he missed by a hair, his Dark Knight trilogy would’ve never emerged as the boldly imagined, self-contained experience it is; it would have been subject to creativity by committee—part of a broader studio agenda masquerading as a “unified creative vision.”  The series would have been stripped of its idiosyncrasies in order to make it synergistically compatible with Green Lantern and The Flash and umpteen other toyetic assets, all in service to some all-stars assemblage that would probably be fun to watch, sure, but wouldn’t likely have the real estate for the philosophical and introspective and emotionally charged moments Nolan devised that still give me chills each time I revisit them.  He produced something never before attempted or achieved in superhero cinema:  a structurally cyclical American myth—an epic poem, even—that dramatizes the origin, the reign, and the fall of our culture’s most recognizable “supergod.”

“It is the most perfectly logical way to do this kind of fiction.  And each part has a beginning, middle, and end; each movie stands perfectly well on its own.  Look at the three of them, and you have an over-story that is better than each of the three movies, as good as they are”—longtime Batman writer/editor Dennis O’Neil commenting in the documentary The Fire Rises:  The Creation and Impact of the Dark Knight Trilogy (2013).

When Alfred nodded his poignant goodbye to Bruce in the closing shots of Rises, so did I.  I hadn’t expected or planned for that, but after a lifetime of caring for Batman just as Alfred had—of following his adventures wherever they’d led—I’d reached the end with him, and I was wholly satisfied with the catharsis that awaited me there.  In the most fulfilling sort of way, I didn’t need Batman anymore.  His final gift to me would be permission to move on to other interests, other heroes, other stories yet to be told—many of which I’m looking forward to producing myself.

To a lifelong fan saying his last goodbye, that sly grin spoke volumes

The Long Goodbye: For a lifelong fan saying his final farewell, that sly grin spoke volumes

So, this year, I’m going to do something I’ve never done:  pass up the chance to see Batman on the big screen.  The almighty team-up I waited over three decades for arrived at last… but it was simply too much, too late.  I’d already moved on.

Part of the world-building appeal of these movies, aside from the diversion they offer from the vast complexities of the real world, is the chance to experience the uncommon, the unlikely, the sensational—that is why we all lined up around the block during the “Summer of the Bat” to see what all the hype was about.  And in this postnarrative era in which superhero movies must work ever harder, given the overcrowded marketplace, to wow audiences with grander spectacles, bigger and better feats of derring-do, I can’t help but appreciate that Nolan’s Batman took my breath away like none other with the kind of old-fashioned, once-commonplace Great Escape that has in our new millennium become the stuff of long-forgotten legend:  a conclusive resolution to his own story.

18 Comments

  1. So interesting, Sean. You explain my disinterest in these films in a way I hadn’t considered. My husband loves them, but he’s twelve, so it makes sense :-). I grew up with the old comic books and goofy TV series back when we only had 3 channels. I like the purity of those stories and characters. As an older person now, I gravitate toward stories about the uncertainty of life, and the consequences of choices, the “super-ness” revealed in ordinary lives, if that makes sense. They have to run deeper, I think. So, is it the quality of the stories or the changes that come with age? Or both? I’m not sure. Great post with lots to think about 🙂

    • Thanks so much for that, Diana; this particular post, I acknowledge, is a little more demanding than average of a reader’s time and attention, and I appreciate that you gave it such careful consideration and offered such thoughtful feedback.

      In this brief video essay titled “Why We Love Zombies and Post-Apocalyptic Shows,” Douglas Rushkoff suggests that when we live, as we do now, in a world without cause-and-effect — without origins and goals and conclusions — we begin to long for the simplicity of a back-to-basics existence, and that’s the fantasy postnarrative shows like The Walking Dead provide. Furthermore, as humans, we feel devalued in a world in which our virtual avatars are more socially engaged than our actual selves, and zombies — the undead — are an apocalyptic manifestation of that.

      I would further argue that on the other side of that coin, superheroes are, as Grant Morrison asserts, an idealized expression of what we’d like to be: supernaturally empowered flesh-and-blood agents of positive change in a digital world that feels out of our control (think Neo in The Matrix). But, like our fascination with zombies, when we learn to control our own anxieties about the postnarrative world in which we now find ourselves, and begin to see it (and its new technologies) as an opportunity to reshape civilized society into a sustainable, non-zero-sum model, we’ll “no longer need a zombie apocalypse to justify where we are today” — or, for that matter, a pantheon of almighty supergods to do the same. We can actually evolve to a point in which we no longer require superhero stories to help us deal. Wouldn’t that be something?

      Check out Present Shock — it’s eye-opening.

      • Thanks an interesting take, Sean, and I can totally see how it reflects the collective consciousness and mankinds attempt to wrap it’s head around the utter breakdown of social norms. As I wrote that comment, I was thinking about my preference for movies/books/art that is emotionally authentic. (My old counselor role lifting its head). That’s often why the superhero movies just don’t strike at the core for me, and the emotionally raw stuff lingers. Even cheery movies with happy endings will sit with me a while I’m embedded and believe the emotional component of the film. Fascinating discussion 🙂

        • I think superhero stories of all varieties (be them comic-book adaptations, fairy tales à la The Lion King, or even biopics about real-life superheroes like The Imitation Game) can certainly supply an emotionally fulfilling/resonant/authentic experience when done artfully, something I wrote about in my review of Alastair Swinnerton’s YA novel The Multiverse of Max Tovey; the genre, after all, is ultimately meant to express the complexities of feeling different from those around us, something we’ve all struggled with at one point or another, hence the popularity of Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and Katniss Everdeen. (Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut are all great examples of emotionally engaging comic-book movies, certainly.)

          But, we surely can’t allow every big-budget movie to be about the escapades of the costumed heroes of DC and Marvel — to write “only about gods and legends,” to quote Amadeus; the culture simply requires more diversity than that, and we have, at this present moment, really allowed superheroes to “squat possessively on the cultural stage,” to borrow Alan Moore’s astute observation. (One needs only look at the lineup of one-sheets at the local movie theater for proof.)

          Furthermore — and this is something I feel very strongly — the cooptation of comic-book superheroes by adults to the exclusion of children is becoming, in my view, a cultural embarrassment. I mean, when the biggest movie in the country (Deadpool) is a violent, profane, R-rated comic-book adaptation, and even the squarest, most morally upright superhero of them all, Superman, is about to be featured in a film to which the MPAA awarded an “R” rating, I think that’s a sign we’ve crossed a line that ought to give us pause. I have nothing against entertainment for mature audiences (I’m writing a novel right now, Escape from Rikers Island, which is violent and profane and not in any way meant for kids), but we’ve taken characters that were expressly created for children and repurposed them rather perversely to the point where they no longer serve the function for which they were intended. (The runaway success of a movie like Deadpool only underscores that.) And we really ought to ask ourselves why that is, which is what I’d set out to address in this post. I had hoped it would inspire discussion, Diana, so I thank you for engaging me in one! I think as the trend toward R-rated superhero movies continues (’cause Hollywood loves a bankable trend), you’re going to start to see more and more parents ask, “Wait — why can’t I take my kids to see these movies anymore?” And maybe, just maybe, we’ll see a reversal in this troubling wrinkle. But, God knows, if superheroes don’t start courting a new, younger audience soon, they are going to die out with my generation, because there will be no one left with any fondness or nostalgic goodwill for them.

          But, all that said, there are some truly great movies playing right now that deliver on powerful, authentic emotional experiences, like Brooklyn and Room, for instance, and those are the kinds of stories that speak to me at present. (Hell, even belated franchise entries like Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed made me feel something heartfelt, so true emotion isn’t the exclusive province of small, independent films.) I just hope the day comes when we see a resurgence of mid-budgeted genre fare not based on some preexisting IP, like the stuff I grew up on: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, The Lost Boys, etc. We’ll see…

  2. Hey, Sean. I’m finally settling down after my whirlwind February and took the opportunity to read your post. (By the way, I’m really excited about getting back into reading my favorite blogs – including yours and Diana’s – and resuming writing my own again.)

    LOTS of thoughts brewing over this, some complex and which I’ll need to think about some more before putting to words. But for now …

    1. If you were to take any 101 level Business class, they’d start by telling you that the primary goal of a business is simple: to make money. Philosophically, we may agree or disagree with the merit of that goal; but as far as the world of business is concerned, if you are making money, you are successful. Every decision a business makes is aimed at “the bottom line.”

    As such, when the businesses of Hollywood find a niche that people are willing to pay for, they are making money. And so, as businesses, they are succeeding and making a good decision. If they were to put artistic license of exposure to a wider variety of story over the goal of making money, we would say they were not making a sound business decision. Businesses can be involved with art and culture and making a difference; but those things never trump “the bottom line.”

    I’m not defending the comic-book onslaught. I’m just putting something out there that occurs to me, by way of explanation and discussion.

    2. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that, when one type of story is being told, it takes the place of anything else that might have been there on the screen. It’s obvious – perhaps so obvious as to be overlooked. But it definitely was a strong sentiment and thought-provoking “case,” to consider that if on-screen offerings are all of one sort, we aren’t seeing what else could have been there instead. Again, variety and meaning will never supersede profits in importance for a business; but it does cause me to wonder how both might be achieved and who would have to be involved for that to happen.

    3. Most serialized television shows we’ve ever loved were built around characters and short-lived situations, not around an ongoing plot with a beginning, middle and end; continuity; or even reference to any past or future event. Think The Brady Bunch. We grew to love the characters and the potential for disaster or joy that their situation lent itself to. Character certainly developed and grew and drew us in. Plot didn’t. We remember “the one where Greg hid the mascot goat in his room” or “the one where Marsha got hit in the nose with the football.” And through isolated “adventures,” we grew to know and care about the characters, and to tune in again next week. We knew each “mini-adventure” would be wrapped up with a lesson or value. And we were all OK with this.

    I’m wondering how serialized comic-book movie culture is much different from this. Again, I’m not defending it. I myself am over it. But I’m also over The Brady Bunch. I don’t have anything against the show, though.

    4. I think an aspect of superhero movies that I relate to, regardless of all else, is that they are super and have expectations on them, and yet (in most films, at least) the hero is shows to have flaws, struggles, wishes that will never be fulfilled. I can relate to this. I’ve been put on a pedestal for most of my life, and so I can relate to the idea that “Erik can do anything and is always fine and will save the day.” And while it’s true to some extend (i.e., I do many things well, my mood is more up and level than most, and I am known for coming through in seemingly impossible situations), there is also a personal cost to it all, a longing for someone who relates and will just see me as “a regular guy.” And so that is what I respond to in most of these superhero films and shows – the complex relationship between ability, expectation and vulnerability. I only mention this because it wasn’t brought up in your piece; just thought I’d add another perspective of why “old guys” like me might watch them.

    Great work, as always, Sean. I love the fact that you always make me think, learn and stretch.

    • Hey, pal! Thanks for weighing in! I know you’ve been busy. You may very well be a real-life superhero, actually, given all your obligations to others…

      I could probably spend an entire afternoon chatting over the finer points of this stuff with you, Erik, but let me see if I can offer a response that covers the most salient aspects…

      Hollywood is a business, and, right now, superheroes are big business, so, yes, in that sense, this trend isn’t surprising or even fiscally ill-advised. Comic-book sales, however, are in the crapper — comics are essentially serving as a loss leader for superhero-based feature films and toylines — and that has a lot to do with the fact that the two dominant publishers, Marvel and DC, have made no effort to nurture a new (read: younger) fan base, but rather continue to sell to the same folks who’ve been buying them since the ’70s and ’80s. So, I hold the publishers in contempt for failing to find a new generation of readers by not producing stories designed to appeal to them, and I fault the movie-studio execs lacking the vision and/or courage to greenlight new, culturally defining works of popular entertainment. (One of the unintended consequences of the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike was that the studios collectively decided there was no longer any need to sink development money into new materials when they already had a vast library of IPs — from Star Wars to Ghostbusters to Bourne to Bond to Harry Potter to Pirates of the Caribbean to Fast & Furious to the superheroes of Marvel and DC — that could simply be sequelized/rebooted ad infinitum.) It’s easy to forget now, but there was a time — not that long ago — when Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future were risky undertakings, as they had no preexisting brand awareness or fan base, and drew on unproven concepts, be it an old-fashioned fairy tale set in outer space, an archeological quest for an esoteric Biblical artifact, or a time-travel comedy with an Oedipal subplot. But, these days, studios (for all sorts of reasons worth debating/discussing another time) are unwilling to take chances on unknown entities, preferring instead to endlessly recycle “the ephemera of a previous century” (which, though certainly strategically profitable, has the potential to be “culturally catastrophic,” per Alan Moore).

      But, to be clear, I don’t exclusively lay blame with the corporations that own both the movie studios and comic-book publishers. In my view, Generation X — talkin’ ’bout my generation — has shown themselves to be staggeringly, disgracefully creatively bankrupt. J.J. Abrams (age 49) is emblematic of this: Who is he as a filmmaker? Well, he produces Mission: Impossible… but that’s an extension of Bruce Geller’s vision, not his own. He made the last two Star Treks, but, again, those are the product of Gene Roddenberry’s imagination. And now he’s being celebrated for Star Wars, the brainchild of George Lucas. So, again I ask: What does an actual J.J. Abrams movie look like? We don’t really know. He claims Spielberg as a professional role model, but Spielberg (like his contemporaries Scorsese and Lucas and Carpenter and Zemeckis) made a name for himself by forging new cinematic territories: He gave us these incredible cultural treasures we all share, like Jaws and Indy and E.T. and Poltergeist and The Goonies. What has Abrams paid forward to the next generation, exactly, except warmed-over second helpings?

      And he’s not alone. As soon as a Gen X director establishes a name for himself with a successful original genre movie, he’s then seduced by the studios into helming yet more entries in the franchises of the previous millennium. Cases in point: Rian Johnson (age 42) made Looper, now he’s directing Episode VIII; Gareth Edwards (age 41) made Monsters, now he’s got Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on his résumé; Colin Trevorrow (age 39) made Safety Not Guaranteed before moving on to Jurassic World and Episode IX; Josh Trank (age 32) made Chronicle, then tanked his promising career with Fantastic Four (and lost his shot at a Star Wars film for it); Neill Blomkamp (age 36) directed sci-fi originals District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, and shortly after renouncing “the whole corporate-sausage-factory notion of summer blockbusters,” signed on to do a fifth Alien movie (which has since, mercifully, been shelved).

      Our generation was gifted with the most wonderful, imaginative fantasies, but thus far all we’ve managed to do in return is recycle content rather than create it. And that, to me, is what the superhero onslaught is emblematic of: a certain (and troubling) creative bankruptcy, a lack of vision. Directors like Abrams and Trevorrow will likely have long, lucrative careers directing other people’s movies, but what are they contributing to the cultural tapestry, exactly? Will those guys ever be venerated like Spielberg and Lucas and Scorsese? Even Lucas, for as much as fanboys hate him now, inspires passion, because his films meant so much to a generation — they both reflected and defined their times. Being a storyteller is a privilege, but it also comes with a responsibility to the culture, and I think the Gen X filmmakers of today have, by and large, failed to use their talent and muscle to champion new visions — some (many) of which might very well fail, yes — but have instead infantilized an entire generation by serving up the same old fantasies of their own youth over and over and over again. And I understand that Gen X finds comfort in those bedtime stories because we’re the last generation with any memory of the bygone analog world, and we’re still reeling from the trauma of that seismic societal/technological shift, but “The Great Escape” is a call to all my contemporaries to have the courage to face the unprecedented challenges of the postnarrative era we now live in with creative thinking and enthusiasm for the possibilities that lay ahead — the non-zero-sum world we can lay the foundation for — and not nostalgia for the days we’ve left behind; there’s simply too much work to do and new heroes to create for that.

      Thanks, Erik, for participating so thoughtfully in the conversation.

      • Hey, Sean. I hadn’t received the usual email notifying me that you’d replied. I just hopped back on, fearful that the old “disappearing act” had once again occurred, and my well-thought comment had been sucked into cyberspace. Now, I’m thinking I just didn’t click the “Notify me of new comments via email” checkbox before submitting.

        Believe me, I’m with you on all fronts. Money is a tough lure to resist. Lose money doing something inspiring and original? Or make millions “giving in” to the big, current, but ultimately meaningless? There’s got to be a way to do both, but I wonder if it’s just too big a risk for some people, when the easy dollar is placed before them. Not even sure what I would do, in some of the exact situations these guys face. I wonder if any of them have secret projects they’re telling themselves they’ll get to when they are “big enough” or have earned enough respect (kind of like Lady Ga Ga’s last two albums, which have not been mega-hits, but have been more fulfilling for her as an artist; she felt she could do it, because her fan base love her enough by now). It’s tough, because I’m sure they see the cautionary tales (e.g., M. Night Shyamalan) who were big and then tanked, and they have this fear of becoming one themselves (little realizing, per your post, that they already are, to some degree).

        • This is a fascinating comment, Erik, and one that probably deserves exploration in a fully realized post of its own (and perhaps it will get one yet), but here’s my off-the-cuff take: The corporatization of our media has unequivocally transformed what were once simple American pastimes into billion-dollar multinational businesses. Comic books, for instance, were $.75 apiece when I was first buying them in the late eighties — even kids with as little “flash money” as we had (a term my friends and I picked up from Beverly Hills Cop II — one of many, come to think of it, and probably the least vulgar of the lot) could, most days, scrounge up three quarters, buy a comic, and then pass it around for everyone to read. It was cheap entertainment (printed on pulpy, low-quality paper stock, you’ll recall, with ads for things like “X-ray specs!”), designed to be consumed by the working-class masses; now comics are glossy and expensive — four or five buck apiece, on average — and aimed strictly at “collectors” with disposable income (the over-forty demographic Moore chastises).

          Same with ballgames: When my dad would take me over to Yankee Stadium, tickets were priced to sell so blue-collar fans could afford to attend — and buy a beer and hot dog, to boot. Nowadays, the only way my wife and I get to go to Dodgers games is through “industry trade” (free tickets supplied by vendors — who do business with my wife — that own a box or have season passes or what have you). Otherwise, the parking and meals alone would be cost-prohibitive, were we not supplied with a vehicle pass and watching the game from a catered suite. (Again: at the cost of a small fortune that, thankfully, we’re not paying for.)

          And look at NASCAR: That started out as moonshiners racing stock cars through the backroads of the South, and now the vehicles and drivers are plastered with as many advertisements as you’d see in Times Square. Stock-car racing and baseball, two formerly down-and-dirty American sports, are now billion-dollar businesses that, just like comic books, no longer mean what they used to mean. Money has made them impure. (Let me amend that: Big Money has made them impure.)

          And so too is the case with Hollywood. I mean, moviemaking was always a for-profit enterprise, let’s not kid ourselves, but the studios used to be independently owned, whereas now they’re all assets of larger corporations or conglomerates, and beholden to stockholders, et al. And given the cost of making and marketing a movie these days (something I don’t downplay), the new business model is all about $100 million-plus tent-poles and under-$10 million genre pics (usually horror, like 10 Cloverfield Lane or the kinds of movies produced by Blumhouse: Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Insidious). There’s no room in the business plan for mid-budgeted genre movies like the kind I grew up on: Back to the Future; The Lost Boys; Raiders of the Lost Ark; Ghostbusters — something original and ambitious and, yes, a little risky. And in an atmosphere in which the average big-ticket genre movie now costs about $250 million to make and market these days (which includes all those Marvel and DC superhero movies), studios pretty much only greenlight projects that have some kind of built-in fan base or what they call “pre-awareness” (or as Rolling Stone‘s David Ehrlich wrote earlier today: “People always say that they want to see something new, but they’re only willing to pay for something old”). As such, there are simply no opportunities anymore to produce the next Star Wars, the next Ghostbusters, the next Terminator — the next culturally defining hit.

          So, media like movies and comic books, which were once creative laboratories for testing out new (sometimes radical) ideas (consider what the X-Men represented when first published in sixties), have instead become museums in which the exhibits are sometimes rearranged or moved in and out of storage, but you’re never really gonna see anything new there — just the same old fossils, relics of a time gone by, dusted off and perfectly preserved. One of the criticisms of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was that it repeated the beats of A New Hope verbatim; Terminator Genisys, ostensibly a “soft reboot,” was all but incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the tropes and events of the previous movies, and meet the new Ghostbusters, same as the old Ghostbusters, right down to the Tribeca firehouse, proton packs, and Ectomobile. And I fully understand the fiscal reasons for this, as I explained in “Attack of the Clones,” but I really hold Generation X, insofar as our responsibilities as the custodians of pop culture go, in contempt for allowing “the ephemera of a previous century [to squat] possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.” I know there are those who disagree, like Jeff Ritchie, but there are others, like Forbes film critic Scott Mendelson, who were sounding this alarm as far back as five years ago.

          So, ultimately, I think there are a lot of factors at play in the stagnancy of our pop culture at present, and I could probably write a book on the subject. But, what I do know is this: I’m looking for ways to tell new stories — Sean Carlin stories — and I’m so grateful for the opportunity self-publishing provides for artists with something different to say to explore new modes of creative expression. So, in addition to blogging about this subject — something I feel passionately about — I will continue to put my money where my mouth is by A) refusing to support “the ephemera of a previous century,” and B) continuing to produce the best, most meaningful, most original works I can. And if they fail, at least they’re mine all mine.

  3. Hello Sean,

    First of all I want to make an admission of guilt: I wanted to disagree with you. Here’s the thing, I came here from the link you posted on David Ehrlich’s article on Rolling Stone. When I read your comment on the article, it was those last words, the whole “entire generation of infantilized middle aged men choking on their own nostalgia” that made click. I was expecting to find an article filled with insults against the audience of superhero films. Instead I found a well thought, finely researched article (and plea) that reflected many of my concerns regarding fiction, and other subjects, from the last couple of years.

    The truth is that I began losing interest on comic book movies a while back. I still saw them and commented them with my friends but I realized that I had stopped enjoying them, at least as much as I had in my teenage years. More often than not I saw myself defending them from my less geek-culture friendly friends. I felt that I had to, eventhough I found most of them frustrating in one way or another. Probably because I thought that I had to protect the concept of superheroes from something. What? I wasn’t sure, but that’s how it felt.

    That particular quote from Morrison’s Supergods still resonates with me. When I read the first time a part of me wanted to shout: “Yes! That’s exactly it, that’s what superhero fiction can be!”. He perfectly articulated and encapsulated my feelings for the genre. But sadly, as you point out (and as I have been feeling for a long time) that’s not what many of them are.

    Last year I found myself thinking about the dangers of nostalgia in fiction, mostly they way it has been sanctified and profited at the expense of new things. “Jurassic World”, “The Force Awakens” and many others from the last couple of years have benefited immensely from this cultural obssession with our childhood milestones. And while a part of me enjoyed some of them a different, bigger part of me was worried. And just like you pointed out I ask myself, how many new worlds and stories with the potential to impact culture have been passed on for the sake of another sequel, another remake? How many childhoods have been robbed of them? I make no exaggeration when I say that stories saved my life. I was a kid with no friends and absent, working parents. A lifelong nerd, I was bullied at school, unpopular with girls and fat. So for many years my refuge were those movies, those heroes. I still remember the utter joy of watching Dragon Ball after school when I was 9 years old. Then I felt the power Morrison spoke of. I as mesmerized, enchanted. And many of the lessons and emotional teachings from those shows still resonate with me today.

    But then, I grew up. I found my brain and heart navigating towards other interests. However I was always defensive about those old loves and sometimes I felt I had somehow betrayed them. I would ask myself, why is it that they’re no longer good enough for me? I used to think it was pretentiousness but I eventually realized I had simply grown mostly out of them. And it hurt. It was like saying good bye to old friends.

    However, as I writer I’m still enchanted with the potential and magic that fantasy, not only the superhero genre, has. I still believe those words by Morrison, and Gaiman and other writers but mostly i remember what I felt when I watched The Lord of the Rings on the theater as a 12 year old kid and how it changed my life. How it made me want to make other people feel what I just had felt. As I grew older other films and genres deeply influenced not only my writing but my growth as a human being and my sense of self.

    I don’t know when, or if, the age of the superhero film will end. I just hope, for our sake and the next generations’ sake, that the cultura stagnation that has defined the last couple of years is broken. Personally I’d love to see more films, superhero movies included, that are not only better, but more honest and capable of creating truthful emotional connections with the audience. I’d love to see new superheroes, new worlds. Not for the sake of the old guard but for the new one.

    • Carlos,

      First off: Thank you for clicking the link and taking the time to read this post, as it is, by my own full acknowledgment, rather long. Second: Additional thanks for such a thoughtful, candid response, which I will get to in a moment. Third: Anyone is always more than welcome to disagree with impunity on this blog (my friend and fellow author J. Edward Ritchie published an impassioned rebuttal to “The Great Escape” on his own website, engaging me in exactly the kind of friendly debate I’d hoped this essay would provoke), though I’m glad you read the piece through and took time to consider the nuances and complexities of its argument.

      In my view, it is a perfectly healthy thing — an emotional evolution, even — to have lost interest in superhero movies as you matured. As Alan Moore says, “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” I could say the same thing about The Force Awakens (a movie, for the record, I very much enjoyed, as I did The Avengers): Isn’t it an alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see Star Wars and taking pleasure in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1970s?

      Fantasy heroes can be like good teachers, in a way: They make an indelible impression on your receptive mind at a very particular point in your life (Batman taught me how to read, after all), and then you graduate to a new set of mentors — ones that can challenge you to grow yet again. You’re not moving on because the association was unproductive; you’re moving up because the experience did precisely what it was meant to do: deliver you to the next stage of your emotional and intellectual development.

      I learned my morals — and had my nascent imagination stoked — by the likes of Batman and Luke Skywalker, and they will hold a special place in my heart forever for that, but they have nothing left to offer me. And when I see an entire generation of middle-aged men — my contemporaries — hijacking these characters from their intended audience (children), perverting them (I haven’t seen Batman v Superman, nor do I plan to, but I’m told that Batman’s portrayal in particular is downright nihilistic), and allowing them to monopolize the cultural stage, I grow very concerned for the next generation, who are being robbed of their chance to have their own heroes, and my own generation (Gen X), who have seemingly missed the point of the cherished comic-book stories of their youth (to go out into the world and effect positive change) in favor of gorging themselves on the recycled fantasies of a bygone era. I mean, at what point does one put away childish things? Doesn’t nostalgia ever reach a saturation point?

      On the subject of Gen X nostalgia, here’s the thing about my disgust with the franchise fixation: There’s no set of hard-and-fast rules about it, really. Two of my favorite movies last year were sequel-cum-remakes to/of film franchises with their origins in the 1970s: Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed. They were great pieces of entertainment that absolutely deserved to be made and seen. So, it’s a complex issue that needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. (Certainly, the origins of Fury Road and Creed weren’t that their respective studios were clamoring for them — they weren’t — but rather were passion projects for the directors, both of whom had to jump through many, many hoops to get those movies made, which I think is why Creed and Fury Road rise above the usual sequel/remake cash-grab nostalgia act.)

      So, since we’ve established that there aren’t rules insofar as these things are concerned, let’s, as content creators, at least agree to this guideline: “[I]t is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.” That should be the mantra we all keep in mind as we select our projects.

      I completely agree with you: It’s less an issue of “fewer remakes/sequels” than it is a plea to writers/filmmakers/creators of content to practice honest storytelling. The world is desperate right now for trustworthy storytellers, and I think my generation has not lived up to its responsibilities in that regard: Gen X had a chance to explore new fictive worlds, and we opted instead to revisit the old ones ad infinitum. Here’s hoping you’re one of the new voices that leads the charge to get our culture back on course.

      Please stop by again, Carlos, and be sure to keep me updated on your own projects. Thanks for joining the discussion.

      Sean

      • Sean,

        Thanks for taking the time of reading my comments, specially since they weren’t particularly short. I agree wholeheartedly with the assessment that it’s indeed potentially catastrophic to leave a generation behind that has no identifiable culture of its own. I read in the other comments something that has bothered me as well for a long time, the whole issue regarding copyright and the intellectual property of many of the 20th century’s cultural icons. Not only do these laws stand on the side of corporations instead of the acutal creators (like in DC and Marvel) but the level of protection around these laws keep younger writers and other types of creatives from collecting these characters and worlds from the cultural pool in order to create something new. Like you and Terry (from the comments) point out many times, if these laws had been the norm a hundred years ago we wouldn’t have Star Wars or Indiana Jones or a dozens of other works that defined the last century. I fear works like Gaiman’s Sandman will become harder and harder to come by (and writing them) as long as these laws keep tightening and favoring cultural restriction rather than cultural blossoming, replication instead of reinvention.

        I think you encapsulated my feelings about writing (and I believe the duty of any artist) with that phrase : “to practice honest storytelling”. I was often disheartened when I’d listen to a fellow filmmaker or writer treat their writing (or filmmaking) as purely an extension of their egos. True, in any artistic endevour there a great deal of ego involved, after all in order to create art not only is it important to belive that there is something you have got to say but that whatever that is can be of use to someone. We all want recognition and respect but to only write something in order to win prizes or money, or even critical respect, well it rubs me the wrong way. As a young writer these questions and dilemmas plagued my mind until I came to realization that the only way to write something of worth, to oneself and others, was, like you said, to practice honest storytelling. Which is why I feel films like Creed and Fury Road succeed where other sequels/remakes fail. There was a narrative drive handled with honesty and passion behind them. That’s what made them not only good, but important. I think of movies like Alien and Aliens, which are part of the same “franchise” but are completely different from one another. I consider both films masterpieces and relevant works of science fiction not because they’re “Alien films” but because they’re both “films”. Their writing, directing and acting (and all other aspects) are handled with care and, dare I say again, honesty. They are the films their filmmakers wanted to make. I believe that’s the reason why Nolan’s Batman films are so successful. No one gave Batman to him, he took him as a canvas to talk about the things he wanted to talk about.

        These kind of projects are scarce and that’s a shame. Like you said, there’s no support behind them because the main concerns of the people with the power to make them a reality are concerned with profits. I truly have no idea how to fix this. I have no idea even if it can be fixed. As a writer the only thing i can do (and know how to do) is to keep writing. To keep creating worlds and characters, whether they’re dragons, aliens or ordinary men and women. To keep creating, perfecting my craft with each passing day and to imbued each and every porject I work on with honesty. To infuse them with the questions, dilemmas, passions, fears and hopes that have shaped my identity as a man. Who knows if they’re truly important, smart or transcendent but as long as they can resonate with another human being I’d satisfied. That and not starve to death.

        Carlos

        • Well said, my friend. You ought to consider keeping a blog of your own, if you don’t already…?

          I echo everything you have to say here. (And here’s a funny coincidence: I was just rereading the first volume of Gaiman’s Sandman series, Preludes & Nocturnes, last night, which is such a rich, peculiar amalgam of mythology, history, the occult, and even the very particular folklore of DC Comics; it’s the kind of experimental work of mad genius I’d have a hard time imagining a corporate entity sponsoring today.) Star Wars was the next evolutionary permutation of Flash Gordon, as Indiana Jones was of the old Republic serials. Jim Cameron honored the world Ridley Scott created in Alien, but brought new depth and insight — and his own idiosyncratic flourishes — to it in Aliens, whereas the later sequels really struggled to remain creatively relevant, and certainly by Alien vs. Predator the brain trust behind that franchise had pretty much thrown in the towel. I remember first hearing about Creed and being (understandably) skeptical, because Stallone had ended Rocky’s story so perfectly in Rocky Balboa (right around the same time he revisited Rambo and sent that character out on a high note, as well), but then I learned what a labor of love the project was for director Ryan Coogler, who’d grown up on Rocky and had bonded with his father over those movies, and who went out of his way to persuade Stallone to entrust the franchise to him. And then when I saw the movie — how much heart and creativity it was made with — I was heartened by how it managed a very delicate balancing act between honoring the Rocky legacy while making it relevant for a new generation: You could watch Creed without ever having seen a Rocky movie and still love everything about it, but if you were familiar with Rocky — if you’d been with him on his forty-year journey to “go the distance” — it was an even richer emotional experience. Creed was the best of both worlds — but, also, a rare example of a forty-year-old franchise managing to feel fresh instead of desperate.

          You know, I worked for many years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, pitching to and developing projects with who-knows-how-many production companies around town. And eventually I grew frustrated by the fact that you can’t sell new material anymore (even with “attachments” — i.e., a producer/director/star with a proven track record already committed to the project) — the studios decided during the 2007–08 Writers Guild of America strike that they already own enough intellectual properties to keep them in business through the end of time — and that only screenwriting’s top one percent (J.J. Abrams, Akiva Goldsman, Kurtzman & Orci) get those franchise assignments, anyway. And it occurred to me that even if I could beat the odds and land a spot in that hermetic club (which, to be clear, wasn’t going to happen), the best I could hope for would be an (admittedly lucrative) career writing meaningless crap like Transformers and Fast & Furious, and that isn’t how I want to spend my limited time on this earth.

          And that’s when I realized there is a whole new creative frontier opening up through self-publishing. Yes, it is unquestionably abused by folks who haven’t yet mastered their craft, but for those who have, it is an opportunity to explore new fictive worlds unencumbered by corporate mandates and all the no-nothing shouting voices that make up Hollywood at large. That’s where the voices of the next generation are going to migrate, I suspect. (There are opportunities in independent film now, too, thanks to cheaper technologies.) That’s where I’m headed. And when Hollywood cannibalizes itself, it’ll go digging through those literary treasures for new inspiration, as it already has: Consider the inspirational examples of Andy Weir (The Martian) and E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey), whatever you may think of the latter.

          So, I think the takeaway, ultimately, is to be a disciplined, trustworthy storyteller — which also means remembering that you have an obligation to the culture — and to use the tools at your disposal (particularly the digital pathways now available to us) to get your material out into the world.

          Well, that and not starve to death.

          What genre do you write, may I ask? What are some of the storytelling methods you’ve studied, if any? Just curious to learn more about your sensibilities and practices…

          • I started writing fantasy (and the odd scifi tale from time to time) when I as a teenager but eventually I found myself writing mostly western-influeced dramas. The New Hollywood and the revisionist westerns were probably my greatest influence in my late teens and early adulthood. My first full lenght feature was a crime drama and I’m currently writing a western. I sometimes still write the odd dark fantasy short.
            As of my writing education I started probably with the three-act structure (as everyone I guess) but the writings of John Truby particularly resonated with me. I’ve read Vogler, Egri, Bentley, Mamet, Bradbury, Hiriart, Kitto, (I read McKee and Snyder too but they weren’t my cup of tea) and many others in different degrees. Mostly through teachers and friends that recommended them. I have great interest in mythology (I’ve been reading Robert Graves) and the study of fairy tales (I’ve read some Propp and I’ve been meaning to read Buttleheim). Also I think Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics is an underappreciated jewel about the art of writing.
            Last year two of my teachers took an interest in me and helped me realize I had an unexpected knack for theater. Thanks to them I fell in love with O’Neill, Miller and Chekhov and they’ve influenced my writing quite a bit since then.
            Basically I get my hands on any book or article about writing and storytelling. I don’t read through them as fast as I’d like but there’s always at least one in my (metaphorical) night stand.

            PS: By the way, I’d love any book o author on the subject that you’ve read and that has resonated with you.

            PS: I always wanted to have a blog but somehow in never got around it. However me and I couple of friends from film school started an online magazine last year about screenwriting and I handle the TV section. It’s in spanish though (I’m from Mexico City). The link is: http://www.plotpoint.mx

          • That’s the secret, my man: Expose yourself to as many stories (fiction — and nonfiction — of every type, form, medium, and genre) and as many instructionals on storytelling craft as possible. Had Neil Gaiman only grown up on a steady diet of comic books, his Sandman reinvention would have likely been a very conventional, very forgettable 1980s-era “update” of the Golden Age Wesley Dodds incarnation, but Gaiman brought his interest in history, in mythology, in literature and fairy tales, in magick and the occult, in horror films, and, yes, in superhero comics, too, to the project, and, in doing so, created something of breathtaking originality and enduring resonance. Geddy Lee, frontman for the Canadian prog-rock band Rush, once defined artistic originality as such: “What’s originality? Well, originality is when you have so many influences that you can’t tell which — you can’t tell them anymore; you can’t see them anymore — they’ve all melded. And as your confidence rises in your craft, your personality steps in front of those influences and that’s — that forms your voice.” I’ve never heard it put more succinctly than that. That’s part of the reason why I think it is so culturally perilous to keep feeding young imaginations the same stale, recycled fantasies we’ve been discussing here.

            Truby is very popular among writers I speak to. I read his material years ago — I think I may’ve heard him speak at a screenwriting convention once — and I really ought to revisit his teachings. For mythic structure, Vogler (drawing from the works of Joseph Campbell, of course) can’t be beat. Snyder’s “beat sheet” is really just Campbell’s hero’s journey by another name, but where Save the Cat! is absolutely indispensable is in its genre classifications, which he discusses at great length in his second book, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies. (I’ve written exclusive content for Save the Cat!, like this examination of love-story conventions.) McKee’s Story is very good — his chapter on Scene Analysis is particularly fascinating and merits close study — but it’s also very dense and a bit dry, and not recommended for anyone just starting to learn the fundamentals of narrative (for that, Vogler is a better bet). On the subject of writing for novels, David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist is terrific (better than Stephen King’s On Writing, which is a far more effective memoir than it is a writer’s manual).

            (By the way: Since I know you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings, here’s a great article my mentor David Freeman wrote on the first Hobbit film.)

            I find blogging to be so much more than an exercise in self-indulgence, because it’s one thing to have a notion or an opinion in your head, but to force yourself to have to cogently explain — and possibly defend — that position is to gain a clearer understanding of your own thought process and feelings on a given matter. It was Stephen King (in On Writing, no less) who said: “Writing is refined thinking.” Blogging is time-consuming, but well worth the effort.

            If you ever want to contribute a guest post here, Carlos, even if it’s merely an English translation of something you wrote for Plot Point, send me a note: seancarlinhq@gmail.com. I’d be curious to read some of your insights on popular culture.

          • Thanks for the invitation Sean, I’ll keep it in mind. And I totally agree with you. I believe any book, film, comic book can inspire us and influence our own writing in unexpected ways. And not only books and such, but music, painting and a million other things can become a great source for our next screenplay/novel/comic. I’ll be sure to check out Morrell’s book. Like I said, my policy is to read anything I get my hands on and take what works for me, whether it’s just a couple of sentences or their particular vision about our art and craft. I share your appreciation for Snyder’s book. I personally think it’s full of great insights about screenwrting. I just didn’t see eye to eye to some of his approaches. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t see eye to eye a 100 percent with any writer. I think it’s healthy for every writer to form his own understanding and philosophy regarding our art (and frankly about life too). I loved Geddy Lee’s quote and I think he’s right. We’re after all, biologically, just a huge mishmash of atoms from a hundred million different sources (and genetically too). So it makes sense that one of our great accomplisments as a species, our sense of creativty, it’s an extrapolation of that.

            Take care Sean, we’ll be in touch.

            PS: I’ll be taking up on your invitation for a guest post. When I have something good enough I’ll let you know.

          • Reach out any time, Carlos — I’ll be here!

  4. Interesting article. I believe that one of the causes of all this is the ludicrously long copyright terms we have now. Under the old system U.S. copyright ran for 28 years with an optional renewal period of another 28 years, but due to a series of extensions in the late 20th century (the most recent being the Sonny Bono Act of 1998), copyright for corporate works now runs for a ridiculous 95 years – almost double what it used to. And that’s assuming that it doesn’t get extended yet further – quite probable given that these properties are now worth billions of dollars.

    The result is that comic book characters that under normal circumstances would have entered the public domain years ago are now cash cows that can be endlessly recycled for decades, rather than being allowed to be cannibalized by future generations and used as the inspiration for something new. Why bother creating something new when it’s so easy to keep milking the past forever? Would we have had Indiana Jones if Allan Quatermain had still been under copyright at the time? Far from encouraging creativity these ultra-long copyright terms are killing it.

    • Wow, Terry — that’s a fascinating legal perspective I hadn’t considered, one that I believe has tremendous merit. It points to the fact that we’re in a tricky place right now, what with so much of our cultural folklore under corporate custodianship. Fictional characters are, by and large, meant to be ephemeral: They speak to the ethos and preoccupations of a particular time and place, as, for instance, Dracula did (the subtext being repressed Victorian sexuality). But then Dracula lapsed into the public domain, and inspired new interpretations reflective of new eras, be it Salem’s Lot (Dracula updated to post-Vietnam rural New England), Interview with the Vampire (Dracula as a domestic drama à la Ordinary People), The Lost Boys (Dracula reimagined as eighties teenagers), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in which Dracula’s preferred victim, the pretty, helpless young girl, is recast in the Van Helsing role), and so on. None of those stories would have likely come to pass were it not for the influence of Bram Stoker, but each remade his fundamental concept so as to render it “relevant and sufficient to its times.”

      But, what were once ephemera are now copyrighted corporate assets — very profitable brands, even — and, as such, they are beholden to the corporate prime directive: deliver on a reliably repeatable experience so long as it continues to yield healthy returns. In other words: Franchise the shit out of them. And that’s what Alan Moore (rightfully) objects to: “I particularly don’t like the modern way of comic book-film adaptations, where, essentially, the central characters are just franchises that can be worked endlessly to no apparent point.” It may be good for the bottom line, but superheroes are now like any natural resource that’s been abused or overtaxed in the name of capitalist gain: What’s it doing to the environment (or, in this case, the culture) over the long-term? This quote from A.O. Scott’s review of Batman v Superman is particularly relevant in that regard: “The corporations that produce movies like this one, and the ambitious hacks who sign up to make them, have no evident motive beyond their own aggrandizement. Entertainment is less the goal than the byproduct, and as the commercial reach of superpower franchises grows, their creative exhaustion becomes ever more apparent.”

      Thanks so much for the insightful comment, Terry.

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