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What do we want out of comic book films?
It’s a question I’ve been grappling with recently, particularly because so much of my writing revolves around those movies. I don’t have superhero movie fatigue. Not even close. But I am fatigued by so much of the discourse surrounding these movies, the bad-faith arguments, preemptive ratings and tribalism. If these movies are going to continue to be our most popular form of entertainment, which by all indications they are, then I think we need to take a step back and re-evaluate why we even like these movies to begin with and what our expectations are.
The reaction surrounding Morbius has left me somewhat disillusioned by the notions of subjectivity and giving films their fair shot. Morbius is a film I enjoyed quite a lot and think maintains the spirit of the ’90s comic books I grew up reading. I was thoroughly entertained. That’s not the consensus, and that’s OK. The film is currently sitting at a harsh 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with a higher audience score of 64 percent, but I’ve never been obliged to base my enjoyment on consensus.
I’m not troubled by those who genuinely didn’t like it. Though I think “worst Marvel movie since Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four” is severely exaggerated, considering that film was barely a movie. It’s not even the worst Marvel movie in the past five years, but I digress. What I find troubling is the number of critics and potential audience members who’ve been inclined to trash this movie since it was announced, taking to social media to repeatedly voice their disdain at the very concept of a studio other than Disney making a film about a character they’re unfamiliar with.
The delays from COVID-19 only extended that issue, giving more time for folks to sharpen their knives because of some misbegotten idea that the only way to make superhero movies is the way Marvel Studios does it, and sometimes — and I stress only sometimes — how Warner Bros. does it. And I can’t help but wonder if people actually care about these characters, or are they just in it for a cameo from someone more popular or the teaser for the next thing so that they can keep the hype train moving and never have to sit back and reflect on a story on its own terms.
I simply can’t place my faith in reviews and opinions from critics or audience members who have spent their months wishing for the film’s failure, went into the theater looking for things to hate, handed out half-star ratings on Letterboxd while admitting they hadn’t seen it, and are upset that Spider-Man doesn’t show up in a movie that’s not about him. Yet, that hate is popular. It receives social media engagement, encourages hyperbole and turns film criticism into a game of memes, a competition of who can lay down the sickest burns in an age where we think of almost any form of mass distributed entertainment as “content,” rather than something made by people who more often than not care about their work.
So frequently, it feels that any superhero movie that’s released has to be forced into the realms of “best” or “worst.” Every Marvel Studios project that comes out carries the expectation of it being “the best ever!” I say this as a fan, but “best” has lost its meaning in that regard. Take Moon Knight for example, which premiered this week. It’s a good debut, but already it’s being proclaimed as “the best Marvel series premiere ever,” which OK, I’d be more inclined to value if that wasn’t also said about Hawkeye, Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and WandaVision.
The same thing could be said in regards to DC Films “finally finding its footing.” You’d think that after the critical reception to Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam, Birds of Prey, Joker, The Suicide Squad and The Batman that it’s fully stable, but that narrative doesn’t gain as much traction on social media as the idea that DC is chasing Marvel and stumbling in the process. The language through which we discuss these movies has become rote and stale, their value determined through adherence to the source material by a majority too unfamiliar with the source to make that kind of call, and too egocentric to admit it.
There are agendas at play with Morbius reactions beyond simply liking or disliking a movie. Taking pictures of how many seats have been sold to create an idea that no one is seeing it, claiming anyone who liked the movie was paid, hanging the film’s quality on its April 1 release date, and telling folks to boycott the film so Disney can buy Spider-Man and all related characters, have been prominent on social media. That’s not film criticism. That’s not engagement. It’s weird and alarming, and more of us should be talking about how weird and alarming it is.
Beyond getting into the fact that corporate buyouts, not a realistic possibility in the case of Sony and Disney, create joblessness and diminish the industry, why would we want superhero cinema to be uniform? For as many complaints as there are about Marvel Studios’ house style and sameness, some warranted and some not, it’s odd that so many superhero films that try to do something different, tonally and visually, are condemned for it. We saw it with Man of Steel. We saw it with a significant lot of Fox’s X-Men films, to the degree that fans were literally cheering the demise of a studio for the sake of Wolverine being able to call Bucky Barnes “bub.” And we’re seeing it now with Sony’s Marvel films.
Not every comic book adaptation has the same goals. Yet, there’s a Super Bowl mentality to these projects where everything has to be a major event, the experience of the year, and rarely does the idea that something can just be good or fine hold sway. It’s odd to me to see Morbius looked at through the lens of Spider-Man: No Way Home or The Batman in reviews, when that was never its intention. It’s deliberately an entertaining B-movie action-horror spectacle, the kind we used to gravitate to before The Avengers made superhero movies a billion or bust gamble.
A $75 million movie about a lesser-known Marvel antihero was never going to compete against the at-least $200 million Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and it was never trying to. This isn’t to say that Morbius is perfect. There are some pacing issues, underdeveloped relationships, and questionable rules of science and supernatural. But it’s simply a lie to suggest that Marvel Studios has never made enjoyable films with those very same issues. Yet, anything outside of Marvel Studios gets harsher criticisms for the same flaws.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in an age before the MCU, DCEU, cinematic universes, and cooperate conglomerates, but I think most movies are good to fine. My love for genre, superhero or otherwise, was born out of good to fine movies, solid 3-out-of-5s. I learned to love and embrace the flaws in superhero films like X-Men (2000), Daredevil (2003), The Punisher (2004) and genre fare like Pitch Black (2000), Underworld (2003) and Van Helsing (2004), which even when negatively reviewed, those reviews didn’t feel like a quest for homogeneity and the chance to gloat over failure.
Critics and audiences are placing restraints on superhero movies, making the space for these films to simply be “good” or “entertaining” increasingly small. It hasn’t made me less enthusiastic about seeing them, but it has made me less enthusiastic about writing about them. There’s nothing wrong with legitimate criticism or not liking a movie. I’ve certainly done my share of that. But there’s a feeding-tube mentality of critics who want to be tastemakers, and play at having executive power, and audiences who want to fill themselves up on other people’s opinions rather than forming their own.
That is more draining to me than Morbius could ever possibly be. I wish I could say that next time will be different. That we’ll get out of “best” and “worst” lingo, that Warner Bros.’ Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Sony’s Kraven the Hunter won’t have to be seen under the MCU reflecting ray. But I doubt it. We’ve all grown too used to being vampires and feeding on the familiar.
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