In the effort of being honest, I have an admission to make. One that will make the words that follow seem like sour grapes.
I “applied” to work at Cracked.com.
Applied in the sense that I signed up for their developmental workshop message boards, where writers can pitch stories that might one day make the website and get them paid. I haven’t submitted anything yet (and probably won’t after this) because I was trying to come up with the perfect pitch. One that was factually correct, stood up on its own, and made its argument forcefully yet logically.
JF Sargent. No, really.
As it turns out, that wasn’t really necessary. JF Sargent, who just happens to the be the moderator of that above workshop, posted an article on the site last week called, “5 Reasons Superhero Movies Are a Bubble That Will Soon Burst.” In it, he compares the popularity of comic book films to the “New Hollywood” era of film making, the period from 1967 to about 1982 where young filmmakers made a big splash and changed the face of cinema. The five “reasons” are five similarities Sargent thinks he sees between the two eras. His theory is because the “New Hollywood” era of film making flamed out, surely the superhero film era is also on its way there.
On the surface, it seems like it has the makings of a well researched piece of film criticism, one so logically sound that it can not be questioned. I mean, if Sargent proves that one era hit the same number of landmarks in the exact same way as another era did, why, certainly if first era dies, the other one will die in the same way, right?
Well, it might, if Sargent hadn’t made any glaring factual errors, fudged facts and history, and used subjective logic and “proof” all along the way. There are so many glitches that his arguments go from sounding the definitive death knell for the comic book film to being what appears to be a sad bit of “wishful thinking” journalism.
How many? Well, let’s make a list of our own by going through his text. And we don’t have to wait long. It starts with the lead paragraph:
If you’re a lover of comic books, fantasy novels, or sci-fi, you should be in heaven right now. All of Hollywood caters to your tastes. Hell, if you’re under 20 years old, you don’t even remember what it’s like not to have Hollywood throw $2 billion worth of blockbuster movies at you every summer (while the rest of us remember that as recently as 1994 they made a Fantastic Four movie so bad, it couldn’t even be released).
I explained as much here, but let me give you the pertinent graph:
There are two schools of thought over why the film was not released. One was that Constantin never intended to release the film at all, and essentially lied to all parties involved in the production just so the film could be made. Another says that Avi Arad, who would become head of Marvel Studios two years after the film was due to be released and helped usher in the success Marvel has had in recent years, paid Constantin and Concorde to shelve the movie because he didn’t want such a cheap production to taint the brand. Regardless, the film was never released either here or abroad, and only exists in a popular bootleg version you can find at most comic book conventions.
Granted, the film was shot for $1 million dollars, a sum way under what it would take to make a good FF film. It was cheap and it looked it. But the main factors at play seem to be the ones mentioned above. And Arad’s reason for putting the film on ice, as described on the very Wikipedia page Sargent linked to, seems less about how bad it was, but how little money was spent on it.
This might be splitting hairs, but it goes to establishing Sargent’s bona fides. The fact that he just casually mentions that the ’94 FF film was shelved was because it was awful, without even presenting an existing opposing point of view, shows a tendency to present only the “facts” that support his argument. Not a good start.
And while we’re here:
2. Sargent uses Wikipedia as a source. A lot.
Not long ago I was in college. I wrote a lot of papers. Wikipedia was strongly frowned upon as a source of information. Why? Because it is crowd-sourced. Anybody can edit an article there,and you can have it say whatever you want. Therefore, it’s not always very trustworthy to back up your arguments. Granted, some of Wikipedia”s articles are sourced, but in that case its better to use the original source.
Sargent’s list begins in earnest by stating both eras began with a surprise box office hit out of the blue. For “New Hollywood,” it was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. For the comic book era? It was a bunch of films that came out in the early 2000’s that overcame the superhero film-light 1990s. Let me let him tell you:
This changed in 2000 and 2001 when X-Men, Spider-Man, and the first The Lord of the Rings came out. Remember that back then those geek-centric movies were all pretty risky investments for the studios. Not only was this the first time that either of those Marvel superheroes would be seen on screen, but the last superhero movie to come out at that time had been Batman & Robin, which, you know, we’d rather not talk about. As for The Lord of the Rings, the last attempt at an adaptation was a godawful cartoon that was made in the 1980s.
Before you call me a nitpicker, here me out. The reason I make an issue out of this is because it is key to Sargent’s comparison that each era begin with a “big bang” if you will–one or more films that were a surprise success. Now, since the “New Hollywood” era is traced back to just one film, it suits Sargent’s argument better if the three “superhero” films came out in quick succession. But they didn’t. It took three years for all the films mentioned to come out. And really, there were only two that are legit, and they came out two years apart. More on that later. But Spider-Man definitely came out in 2002, even Wikipedia got that right.
4. What about Blade?
If Sargent was looking for a comic book film that fit his analogy to a T, Blade is it. It was the first film where Marvel took a more active role in the production of the film, marking a new attention towards fidelity to the source material that Sargent marks as a trademark of the superhero film era. It was also an unknown property without a huge built in audience, so it was not a lock that it would be a success. But it was, it debuted at #1 at the box office just like Sargent’s other examples and made a sizable profit. If there was a film that ushered in the era of the superhero movie, it was Blade.
Why didn’t Sargent use Blade as the start of the superhero movie era? Perhaps he just didn’t know that Blade was a superhero. Or, maybe, for his point to work, for the narrative he was trying to create to gel, he had to create some distance the “last” comic book film, Batman and Robin, and the comic book film’s resurgence. Blade wouldn’t work here because it was released in 1998 and Batman and Robin was released in 1997. That would have meant the superhero film bounced back just 14 months after it’s nadir. And that weakens Sargent’s point almost completely.
Some of you might argue that Blade is not a superhero. He’s a vampire who fights vampires with his vampire powers. That is totally different than a superhero who fights supervillains with superpowers! Okay, but what about…
5. Frodo Baggins, Superhero!?!!?
Listen, determining who is and who isn’t a superhero is a popular topic of debate in comic shops across the country. Is the Punisher a superhero? Someone will that because he wears a costume, yes. Others will say that he doesn’t have any powers, so no. Then someone will bring up Batman, who wears a costume but has no powers, is he a superhero? Someone will say yes because he fights super-powered villains. But, the Punisher fought super-powered villains…well, you get the idea. If your loved one goes to their local comic shop and doesn’t come back for hours, it’s probably because they got sucked into one of these kinds of conversations.
But if you were to go into that shop and say that your favorite superhero was good ol’ Frodo, all sides of the argument would stop fighting amongst themselves,unite, and start arguing against you.
I mean, granted, Frodo has a ring that makes him invisible, and he hangs out with wizards, but he resides in the fantasy/sword and sorcery genre, not the superhero genre. And while fans of one genre often are fans of the other, the genres are not interchangeable. It would be a huge stretch of logic to consider them so.
But Sargent needs big films and big franchises to provide the tools to work with. So, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Star Wars become superhero movies, even though they really aren’t. For the casual reader, this probably won’t matter much. But to fans of the superhero film, the inclusion of these films invalidates Sargent’s argument from the get go. Because he’s not railing against the superhero film, he’s really railing against a larger target–the geek culture film. But I guess that wouldn’t generate as many hits.
6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Crow, The Mask, and Men in Black all came out in the 1990s.
Sargent likes to paint the 1990s as such:
In the ’90s, all of the major money-maker movies were Die Hard knockoffs (Con Air, Broken Arrow, Face/Off), sober explorations of tragedies (Dances With Wolves, Schindler’s List, Titanic), Adam Sandler being a dumbass, and Tom Hanks doing things that usually didn’t involve having superpowers.
First off, not including Speed in the list of Die-Hard knockoffs is a crime. It was Die Hard on a frikkin bus for goodness sakes!
Second, Sargent intends to show that the 90s were a dry period for the superhero movie. But they really weren’t. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Crow, The Mask, and Men in Black all could be considered superhero films (if Frodo’s a superhero, then so is Agent J). They all came from comic books. All their lead characters fought crime in different ways. And all of them were box office hits in the comic book film unfriendly 1990s. Each one had at least one sequel, which is more than you can say for Sargent’s examples. And, lest we for get, Batman Returns, Batman Forever and, yes, Batman and Robin all were released in the 90s and all made a profit (yes, even Batman and Robin, when worldwide grosses are added in).
So from here, Sargent goes on the the next step:
So next comes the heyday: Geek directors who truly love the source material are suddenly getting the green light to make these movies the right way.