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Monday, May 10, 2010


I really hate to give any more publicity (however minor) to Matt Zoller Seitz' goofball essay for Salon.com. From the essay's first paragraph it's clear that this isn't anything resembling serious film criticism. "Superheroes Suck!" is just a sharp stick designed to provoke the grizzly bear (OK, Pooh-bear) of superhero comics fandom. I wouldn't think twice about seeing such poorly reasoned drivel on, say, the online COMICS JOURNAL site, but its appearance on a site with a considerably better rep surprises me. I have to assume that Salon.com's editors commissioned this mess simply to exploit the debut of IRON MAN 2. Given that the essay currently sports almost 100 responses, I guess Salon.com succeeded in manipulating its audience at least as well as your average film sequel.

So, in order to spend as little time critiquing this rubbish as possible, I'll just sum up my disagreements as "Six Things I Hate About Puff-Critique Pieces:"

1) The easiest shot-- just to get it out of the way-- is one that many people have already jumped on: Seitz starts out talking about the superhero genre in his title but within moments is labelling all films in this genre to be "comic book movies." Granted, that's probably what the average filmgoer thinks as well, not taking time to remember all those great comic book movies of other genres. But a critic with any mojo simply can't oversimplify like that, especially since it means not giving due credit to all those other stellar works-- you know, CASPER and RICHIE RICH.

2)"The comic book film has become a gravy train to nowhere. The genre cranks up directors' box office averages and keeps offbeat actors fully employed for years at a stretch by dutifully replicating (with precious few exceptions) the least interesting, least exciting elements of its source material..." Again, others have pounced on this remark with reference to other "Hollywood blockbuster" film-genres. I'll add that a lot of critics from Hollywood's Golden Age would probably have said the same of most of Hollywood's adaptations of literary prose works, ranging from Lewis' BABBITT to Kerouac's SUBTERRANEANS.

3) "And as a critic who made a point of clinging to my sense of wonder long past childhood, I've tried (too hard at times) to find signs of life in formula." Hollywood Writing 101: the critic with a harsh message tries to prove in advance that he's Not A Snob; He's Just an Average Guy. This in invoked again a little later as Seitz anticipates his being critiqued for being either an "aesthetic turista" or a "snooty killjoy." Don't holler before you're hit, Seitz.

4) "Even at the peak of their creative powers, big-budget comic book films are usually more alike than different. And over time, they seem to blur into one endless, roiling mass of cackling villains, stalwart knights, tough/sexy dames, and pyrotechnic showdowns that invariably feature armored vehicles (or armor-encased men) bashing into each other." I'm not sure what to make of this. Take away the bit about "pyrotechnic showdowns" and this could almost be a description of the panoply of Hollywood's classic film noirs. Maybe he doesn't like the similarities in film noirs either?

5)"The superhero movie too often avoids opportunities to summon tangled feelings, lacerating trauma and complex characterizations -- qualities that make genre films worth watching and remembering for reasons beyond their capacity to kill two hours and change." This statement simply assumes that his preference for trauma and entanglement is obviously a Greater Good, sans proof, than "pyrotechnic showdowns," but he's claiming that there are genre-products that have managed to do These Good Things, so let's see what he's talking ab--

6) "--let's set the most notable modern superhero movies alongside titles from another durable genre: the zombie film."

Pardon me?

The ZOMBIE film?

Not the horror genre as a whole? Not even some genre that more closely resembles the superhero flick's emphasis on heroic violence, like the western, but--

The ZOMBIE film? That's what he thinks has "poetry" and "soul?"

Yes, Virginia Seitz, there are some excellent zombie films out there. But this subcategory of horror films has benefitted in no small way from the rise and advancement of the "adult" horror film. The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a cool little film, sure. But would we have some of the other films in Seitz's zombie-rific "spectrum of moods and modes" had it not been for breakthroughs in horror cinema as a whole? Is there an audience for 28 DAYS LATER in 2002 without the seminal breakthroughs of 1973 (THE EXORCIST) and 1976 (CARRIE)?

I'll make it easy for Seitz: no.

Given Seitz's stated distaste for sameness, the mind boggles to see him write as if there were no important differences between films about zombies (a subgenre at best) and films about superheroes (a distinct genre in itself, albeit allied to a variety of related works in what I've termed the superhero idiom). Clearly, the superhero film has been marginalized as kid-stuff to a greater extent and for a longer period than the horror film. Even going back to Classic Hollywood, one can find critics who swooned at the subtleties of Val Lewton or the disruptive scenarios of Franju while disdaining horror films as a whole.

By contrast, the general popularity of 1978's SUPERMAN notwithstanding, it's not until 1989 that Tim Burton gave critics a superhero film that forced many (though not all) of them to devoting a little more thought to the genre's appeal than your basic "action bad-- drama good" schtick (which Seitz is plainly happy to rehearse).

In a future essay I'll probably have more to say about the genre-components of the superhero genre, and how they impact when adapted into film. But I'm really going to try to make this my last endeavor to bomb Seitz.

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