It’s fair to say that tentpole movies have become a bit of a new Mecca for prominent filmmakers.
DC brought in Oscar nominee and repeat mindbender Christopher Nolan to kick-start the Batman franchise. Marvel’s made a habit of filling their cinematic world with filmmakers who have ambition and distinct voices.
And last year we got Skyfall, a James Bond adventure with a full-on Oscar-winner at the helm.
Big-budget genre is drawing the talents of legitimate artists. People who have something to say; who’ve defined their careers by tackling difficult subjects, tricky thematics, and excellent filmmaking. Cool!
But now that these types of movies are entering the arena of artistic significance, it’s time to start distinguishing between the different goals they’re chasing.
The credibility of genre narratives gets questioned a lot, and it usually makes people really irritable. So I’ll tell you what. At no point in this article will I mention a movie I dislike. If you think I’m here to kill sacred cows, or simply stir up a hornet’s nest, I’m not.
What I’m here to do is talk about the tendency of audiences to conflate the value of a well-executed piece of entertainment with that of a well-rendered piece of art. That actually sounds highfalutin, so let me try again.
Great entertainment and great art are not interchangeable. They’re both valuable, and they’re not even mutually exclusive, but recently we’ve made the mistake of talking about them as mathematical equals.
A lot of the newfound respect for big, loud movies seems to be precipitated by the ascent of Christopher Nolan. I suppose the argument could be made that The Matrix was the genesis (and maybe it was), but I’m picking Nolan because of The Dark Knight. That picture was a landmark; the first superhero action movie that almost caused a riot upon missing out on the nomination for Best Picture.
Ever since then, now half a decade ago, the tentpole action movie has gained a bit of a pedigree. They’re not just attracting skilled genre guys. I mean, questions of talent aside, the names Christopher Nolan, Sam Mendes, and Kenneth Branagh carry a different cinematic weight than the names Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, and Wachowski. Yet they’re all playing together in the genre sandbox.
And you know what? That’s awesome. Despite the questions of some, genre movies have all the potential in the world for artistic exploration. Nolan’s Batman movies absolutely deserve to be lauded as artistic achievements.
Or at least artistic attempts.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are a one-two punch of mature storytelling, well-drawn characters, and evocative thematics. Furthermore, though the story structure favors the typical superhero mold to some degree, the questions they raise often don’t have easy answers. Nolan is clearly a guy who puts theme above all else.
So, superhero movies can be art. As can big-budget sci-fi outings (The Matrix), gross horror (The Fly), and nearly every other type of movie under the sun. Genre is just a language, and you can use it to say whatever you want.
I’ll be talking about superhero movies for the time being, though, because the genre seems to be caught in the middle of this debate most often. Also, they’re obviously the big box office phenomenon of the decade. ALSO, I don’t think anybody is mistaking, say, Fast Five for a movie evoking thematic coherence. Nor White House Down or anything else along those lines. Superhero movies have a better reputation at the moment, though they still mainly cater to the needs of the summer action picture.
Even with that clarification, it’s hella difficult to make broad statements, so let’s zero in on the most recent movie to receive the “Best Superhero Ever” label: The Avengers. Here’s a movie positively dripping in Geek Cred. Legendary source material. A narratively ambitious shared-movie universe. Genre wunderkind Joss Whedon writing and directing. Record-setting box office. Critical acclaim.
Shall I go on? I mean, obviously the consensus is that the movie was quality stuff, and I have to agree.
But it gives me pause that so many people were quick to laud it as the “best” superher movie ever. “Best” is a strong word, and it’s only in a few select ways that The Avengers really qualifies for the conversation. Why? Because the needs of spectacle-driven entertainment are at a near-constant war with the needs of an artistically significant film.
I remember Guillermo del Toro — another genre guy — once drew a clear distinction between the way The Devil’s Backbone let him grow as an artist, and the way Blade II let him grow as an entertainer. As a fan of movies, and specifically a fan of del Toro, I doubt he’s saying one is less worthy of his time or labor, but the distinction suggests that art and entertainment might not be entirely compatible goals.
Could we at least agree on that point? If a piece’s highest priority is entertainment, it essentially has to value giving the audience what it wants over anything else. If a movie’s highest priority is an artistic statement, then the values shift accordingly. Art has to value thematic coherence (often with multiple themes). It needs to be relevant. To be good, it needs a well-rounded, nuanced take on its subject matter. The point of the movie — the reason it exists — has to be to express these ideas.
One movie that meets these criteria is actually the other Joss Whedon feature: Serenity. It’s one of the best sci-fi movies ever, I’d say. Not because it’s entertaining as hell, but because it bears all the hallmarks of high art. Themes. Nuance. Relevance. The movie exists to say something, not to provide a fun diversion. It’s speaking the genre language, but it transcends genre boundaries.
If the “greatness” of art takes these kinds of things into account, then I think Nolan’s The Dark Knight is the superhero genre’s artistic king. Even without its myriad technical attributes (acting and so forth), it’s rigorous adherence to theme, focused screenplay, and socially relevant issues transcend the requirements of the superhero genre.
On another day, with another thousand words, I’d attempt to put Raimi’s Spider-man movies and even Ang Lee’s Hulk in this category.* Nolan will do for now. Marvel’s crown jewel lacks the thematic backbone of Nolan’s movies. It even lacks the human element of the first two Spider-man flicks.**
The Avengers is one thing. The Dark Knight, and Serenity, are something quite different.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! A part of cinema — heck, a part of all storytelling — is escapism. As long as we have the power to bring these visions to life, why not do it? Exploration can be its own reward, and genre filmmaking is a form of exploration via light and sound. And as long as our genre products are going to be made, they might as well be made responsibly, by skilled storytellers.
But it’s right here where the issue gets thorny. Words like “best,” “greatest,” and the like… those unwavering words that say this specific thing is the summit of the mountain… often don’t do a great job of defining the terms of engagement. It’s easy to smash a crowd-pleaser like The Avengers up against a challenging piece like The Dark Knight and, to use the cliche, compare apples to oranges.
(Let me also, quickly, mention that the word “favorite” needs no terms of engagement. So if you want to use that one, knock yourself out.)
The Avengers is a great piece of entertainment. But unless the criterion is pure fun or (possibly?) adherence to source material, I’d struggle to accept it as greatest superhero movie of all time. It’s not even the best movie with Whedon’s name on it that came out last year (That would be The Cabin in the Woods). Surely the criteria are broader and more important than that. Surely transcendence is, in some ways, more important.
I know, I know, folks get defensive whenever the attempt is made to call one type of movie more “important” than another type of movie. Often the word “pretentious” is thrown around.***
But then they get mad when The Dark Knight isn’t nominated for an Oscar.
And DID THEY EVER DESERVE TO.
This summer, we’ll see Guillermo del Toro’s newest feature film: Pacific Rim. You guys, I have simply not been more stoked about a movie since… well, probably since The Dark Knight. One of the reasons I’m thrilled to pieces about it, despite its genre/tentpole trappings, is that Guillermo del Toro has proven himself unusually adept at filling the needs of art and entertainment at the same time. It’s difficult, but it does happen.
Hellboy, for example, is a lot of fun. It’s also a sly meditation on the importance of choice, the power of friendship, and the trials of maturation. Pacific Rim looks like it might have similar blood running through its veins.
Also, it’s an effin’ original movie. Summer tentpole or no, Pacific Rim has never existed before. It’s not necessarily hewing to the expectations of fans or a corporate mandate. It’s free to be its own thing. And art demands freedom.
When a movie is simple enough to have black and white “good guys” and “bad guys,” it (almost) always sacrifices something along the way. Superhero movies in particular are notoriously hindered by this issue.
This is probably why David Cronenberg drew the fire and ire of genre fans last year with some offhand remarks that said, more or less, that superhero movies were inherently limited in their ability to be elevated art pieces. Not art at all, mind you, but elevated art.
Having not been supplied a definition for the difference he’s drawing between the two, I think it’s safe to assume that the “elevation” in question is what I’ve been talking about. Themes. Relevance. Nuance. While I don’t necessarily agree 100% with Cronenberg’s dismissal of the genre, I get where he’s coming from. The easy majority of superhero movies are content to follow the aims of The Avengers, simply trying to deliver a quality piece of entertainment. But sometimes it seems like the genre has inherited a classier pedigree because of the aims of a few select movies — most prominently, The Dark Knight.
Then again, the demands of art have been handily met in certain comic books (though not at all in others). There’s a degree to which the cinema of superheroes is still catching up with the literature. Hell, I hope The Avengers 2 will join Serenity as one of Joss Whedon’s great artistic statements.****
But until then, I think it’s important to consider the notion that just because we have two superhero movies (or two sci-fi movies, or two whatever), doesn’t mean we can treat them as equals.
Want to continue the conversation? Speak up! I don’t claim to have said all there is to be said on the subject, by a lot, but hopefully I’ve gotten some sort of ball rolling.
*Yeah. Suck on THAT.
**Heck, even Joss Whedon has said that The Avengers isn’t so much a great movie as it is a great time.
***Rarely is it thrown around accurately, though.
****Random side note: Serenity’s narrative achievements as a film are arguably even more impressive than those of The Avengers. Nobody ever seems to mention that, though…