Criterion Corner # 7: The Secret History of Superhero Movies

Criterion Corner # 7: The Secret History of Superhero Movies

Jun 27, 2011

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Straw DogsAbout 45 minutes into Green Lantern, I had an epiphany. There I was, watching a cosmically strange Van Wilder sequel in which our hero becomes an interstellar space cop who saves the world from a giant yawning fear-fart, and I thought to myself, “Haven’t I seen this before?” I mean, I knew I hadn’t actually seen it before, because every Blake Lively film I’ve seen is about a pair of magical pants rather than a magical ring, and I have them all memorized. I also thought to myself “How can someone dumb enough to trust a dude named Sinestro be relied upon to save our planet?” But I just saw a movie about a jingoistic tow-truck who foils a vast corporate conspiracy, so I think I just have to let certain things slide this time of year.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I was suddenly besieged by a nagging familiarity that transcended our collective fatigue for origin stories. And then -- as Ryan Reynolds predictably struggled to shoulder the burden of his newfound responsibilities -- it occurred to me: superhero films aren’t just repeating themselves, they’re also repeating everything else. A degree of comfort and familiarity is to be expected when seeing a film couched in nostalgia and presaged by 71 years of graphic novels and plastic jewelry -- obstacles will be overcome, a hero will rise. But what struck me about Green Lantern wasn’t that it reminded me of Spider-Man, it’s that it reminded me of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. And I think it’s pretty easy to see why.

...wait, it’s not? At all? Okay, then allow me to explain. Martin Campbell’s perfunctory intergalactic DC adaptation is the story of a man (Hal Jordan) inadvertently endowed with tremendous power via his contact with a seemingly commonplace object. The device -- a ring capable of verdantly manifesting anything its wearer can imagine -- allows Jordan the power to transcend his noxious persona and realize the potential of his will. Use of the ring, however, invites the attention of a malignant force called Parallax, who wants to destroy Jordan and devour planet Earth. This really upsets the aliens from Mars Attacks! (who seem to have unionized at some point since 1996), and the rest is underwhelming box office history.

Brian De Palma’s classic paranoid thriller also involves a man imbued with enormous power via a commonplace device loaded with exceptional qualities, the existence of which is required to purge the universe of a tremendous evil, the use of which requires a great deal of creativity, and the possession of which engenders the owner’s safety and that of those he loves. Jack Terry (John Travolta) is a man selected for his role by fate rather than via his own recognizance, a sound technician who inadvertently records the blast of a gunshot he’ll discover to be the pivotal proof of an insidious political conspiracy. Ultimately, Terry’s unique new material possession is a conduit for his will, and he triumphs over fear in order to complete his metamorphosis from sleazebag to superhero (to tortured sleazebag).

So if Hal Jordan and Jack Terry are equipped with vaguely similar powers and then propelled along analogously intrepid quests, would it be completely unreasonable to suggest that Jack Terry might be a superhero as well? Sure, he doesn’t have a collectible legacy of graphic novels or a signature uniform (although it could be argued that his hair forms a Magneto-esque perma-helmet of sorts), but his trajectory mirrors that of a DC legend, only appearing less altruistic in nature because the threat against which he’s protecting the public is of a subtler, less supernatural variety.

Close-Up CriterionThe fact that the term “Super hero” is co-owned by Marvel and DC hardly seems relevant in age of geek ubiquity, so what makes a superhero film a superhero film? Hossain Sabzian -- the endearing hero of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up -- even more literally uses the light of the cinema to construct a world from his own imagination, freeing moviegoers the world over from the tyranny of “objective” filmmaking, and yet few would regard him as a superhero despite the fact that he practically fashioned a Green Lantern ring out of white lies. Is it because he never had a comic-con panel? Is it because Close-Up lacks a dramatically inert and increasingly cynical tease dropped into the closing credits? Is the divide as arbitrary as that between “narrative” and “documentary” films? How many rhetorical questions does it take to distract from the fact that I have no idea how to properly segue into the list portion of this post?

These days it’s easy to feel as if every other movie is a superhero film of some stripe, and upon returning home from the Green Lantern screening I was thinking about San Diego Comic Con, and what the rather overblown hubbub about studios retreating from the event might mean (if anything) about the suddenly uncertain future of superhero cinema. If such stories were to once again be relegated to graphic novels and Saturday mornings, would the movies lose a certain and inimitable brand of storytelling, or simply its most remedial incarnation? Looking over my Criterion shelf with that question in mind, I was surprised by how many of the most revered films ever made seemed at least tenuously indebted to comic sagas, a possible testament to the pervasive influence of the paneled form. It struck me that comics and auteur cinema have been enjoying an extended conversation in the shadows all this time, the evidence of which can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

So I thought it might be fun to take a few Criterion films that you’d be hard-pressed to find on the shelves of Forbidden Planet and see what sort of connections could be made. Some of these parallels are contrived, other are... slightly more contrived, but all of them suggest that -- through a certain prism, behind masks and on the other side of phone booths -- we’re surrounded by superhero films in disguise.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg, and if recent years had provided us with a wider variety of ostensible superhero flicks, the partial list below could have been that much richer. Regardless, I hope this gives you guys enough to chew on and spark the conversation, and maybe you can come to your own conclusions as to how Carlos plays a bit like Thor, how Vengeance is Mine is a distant echo of The Incredible Hulk, and how Naked is pretty much a Tony Stark biopic, had the weapons magnate been born British and without a silver spoon. Much like Hal Jordan and the creative team at Warner Bros., you’re limited only by your imagination.

Army of Shadows CriterionArmy of Shadows / X-Men

Since 1963, X-Men’s mess of mutants have ready metaphor for any number of social ills and the intolerance such problems engender, and society has seldom been as ill as it was during Nazi Germany. Jean-Pierre Melville’s drably supreme WWII masterpiece Army of Shadows recasts the clandestine French Resistance -- the members of which were undoubtedly superheroes of some stripe -- as X-Men: Worst Class, as Lino Ventura and his fractured band of moribund men (and women) rely on their specialized talents to fight the war beneath the war, their embittered battle for peace and civil progress too often crippled by the betrayals of their own kind. What it lacks in adamantium claws and strippers who vomit cherry bombs it makes up for in impossibly steeled resolves and fedora-ed men who can dodge bullets. More evolved than the fascistic brutes persecuting them but undone by the deadly rifts amongst themselves, Army of Shadows is a haunting reminder that peace can be fought for alone, but must be won together.

For what it’s worth, you could also argue that the friendship and mutual admiration shared between De Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion neatly presages the dynamic between Magneto and Professor Xavier.

 

Black MoonBlack Moon / Catwoman

Okay, so Catwoman is kind of an arbitrary pairing here, but Louis Malle’s proto-feminist fantasia is essentially an entire feature film devoted to the classic montage in which a newly minted superhero calamitously begins to learn of / experiment with their powers. Except in Black Moon the heroine -- Lily -- remains an ordinary teenage girl, her newfound gifts are bestowed to her via a complex process known as “Puberty,” and those abilities include (lactating) breasts and an abstract sexual allure that allows her to successfully negotiate a literal (and very violent) war of the sexes. The last shot of the film provocatively suggests that Lily has mastered and weaponized her endowments.

 

Winds of DesireWings of Desire / Spider-Man

Spider-man’s cross to bear, as I understand Sam Raimi understands it, is that the floppy-haired web-slinger can never be with the woman he loves because their union would jeopardize her safety, impair his activism, and irreparably damage the trilogy they share together. It’s a heavy burden, one that young, ripped Peter Parker has the strength but not necessarily the wisdom to shoulder.

Damiel, the heavenly protagonist of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, is an older soul also longs for a grounded domestic existence that his nature as a guardian precludes him from enjoying. Damiel is an angel, a celestial spirit who has watched over the city of Berlin since time immemorial. The dynamic he shares with the mortals to whom he must always remain anonymous is similar to that of any masked avenger, and he too is tempted to abandon his tenured position for a finite life with an ordinary woman. As a member of a mystical coalition, Damiel has the back-up that Peter Parker lacks, but the sway and security he forfeits suggests a superhero who finally decided to live for himself.

 

Face of Another CriterionThe Face of Another / Watchmen

It’s difficult to determine if the pissed and pockmarked Rorschach is a hero or a murderer, but it would be a lot easier to define him as the latter in a world without the former. He slithers through the streets of New York City from behind the veil of his costume, the shifting patterns of the mask he wears disassociating him from the common folk he regards as filth. That schism -- the result of a disfigured and petrified moral streak -- has a number of violent residual effects, ultimately cohering into a damning portrait of a world gone mad.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another is a rattling precursor to the grimy existence of Walter Joseph Kovacks, a Rorschach reading without the benefit of costumed vigilantes drawing moral lines in the sand. A business man named Okuyama is malformed by an industrial accident, and has an eerie mask grafted to his face in order to maintain his place in society. The thin buffer between Okuyama and the world at large quickly recasts him as the bandaged face of a nation struggling to ignore the horrors of its recent past. Okuyama feels removed from a darkness that only he can see, and it totally consumes him. In a world without a greater threat against which to channel that energy, his fermenting violence is bent back against the helpless public he was uniquely enlightened to nurture. Sex and stabbings naturally ensue.

 

Straw DogsStraw Dogs / Batman

Batman is our popular culture’s most storied vigilante, yet his origins have always struck me as remarkably half-assed, at least so far as they’ve been presented in the various films and television shows devoted to his exploits. His childhood was marked by tragedy, but the role that bats play in that trauma has all the psychological merit of a scene from Spellbound. Ultimately, Bruce Wayne taps into his id as a conduit for retribution because Gotham City has been so perverted around him -- the only way to combat the evils of the bleak metropolis is to embrace and repurpose its own twisted darkness.

In Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, David Sumner -- a man of mild manners and conservative gender norms -- finds his arm likewise twisted into vigilante violence by a place gone mad. After his British wife is raped by a gang of local men in her hometown, David is forced to fight fire with fire and sink to the primitive level of her attackers. By the film’s end (spoiler alert), David is a murderer several times over, the justice he’s taken into his own hands having almost too perfectly allowed him to fulfill the societal role to which he first aspired. 

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