Do you know what movie came out 31 years ago on this very day?* Superman: The Movie. What a Christmas present that was for every kid and geek in 1978!
It's a nice anniversary to think about as every print and online outlet races to put up their Best of the Decade lists (and yes, I'm working on a superhero / comic one as you read this). Many are counting up the genre films in amazement, and feeling very culturally aware by labeling it the decade of the geek. But all of this began 31 years ago, except that no one thought to label it "geek" or snicker at comic book fans. Superman: The Movie was just that -- the movie. I wish I could pinpoint the exact cultural moment when Superman and his heroic ilk took about twenty steps back into something that studios were sure nothing but "fanboys" would watch. I'm sure it's possible, and I'm also sure it would be a relatively recent date.
But, this isn't going to be another "geek is chic" column. I've done plenty of those, and I imagine I'll churn out one or two more as the mainstream begins to encompass everything the geek held dear. No, instead I wanted us all to laugh over the fact that 31 years ago the most wholesome superhero in history took flight on the big screen. He thrilled the world with his boy scout antics. And now, funnily enough, we have Kick-Ass, where kids who grew up on a steady Superman diet take to the streets as vigilantes.
I have no doubt that somewhere there's a social commenter ranting about moral decay and violent films. They'll point to Kick-Ass as a prime example, and lament the days of superheroes gone by. Hell, I've made similar arguments myself. But as I look at the span of 31 years of superhero flicks, what strikes me is how long it took to get to this point.
As comic book fans know, 1986 shook up the entire field thanks to Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Dark, mature, and edgy became the standard in comic books from that point on, whereas superhero movies still had a whiff of afterschool special. Even Tim Burton's Batman wasn't willing to go as far as The Dark Knight Returns did, though it was certainly closer in atmosphere than any of the Joel Schumacher attempts. But it's taken a long, long time for comic book movies to get into the same grimy mindset. It's quite inexplicable, really. Revenge thrillers, vigilantes, and loose cannon cops were standard fare throughout the 1970s and 1980s, so why not make a superhero in that mold? Why was it so much safer on the page? Was it just their weird suits?
Well, regardless of the why and how, we finally got there. Yet I feel that audiences are still surprised by the tonal shift, and by what comic book movies are trying to say. I'm not even referring to mainstream, never-heard-of-Alan-Moore audiences. I'm talking about an entire generation or so of movie and genre fans who still seem to equate "comic book movie" with the purity of Superman.
Obviously, I haven't seen Kick-Ass, but all the early marketing suggests that Mark Millar and Matthew Vaughn have offered up a slice of deconstructed superhero. I hope the film follows through, because I think the world could use a little snarky commentary on superheroes. But such criticism seems to be striking many viewers as entirely original. Watching the online reactions to UGO's Big Daddy poster, it was shocking how many people seemed to regard Nicolas Cage's Batmannish suit as daring commentary on Christian Bale.
Yet when the first stills of Watchmen came out, complete with rubber suits and rubber nipples, no one got it. If they hadn't read Watchmen, they thought it was a ripoff. If they had read it, they were furious that the costumes weren't slavishly faithful. The idea that a Watchmen movie would comment on superhero movies was seen as too absurd to be believed. I still hear people complaining about the Nite Owl and Ozymandias suits as being "too Joel Schumacher," seemingly unaware that they were intended to be. How did Kick-Ass manage to do the exact same thing, but without the pages of complaints? Did Watchmen warm people up to the idea of flawed imitations, or did it just come too soon in the evolutionary timeline? After 31 intermittent years of comic book movies, have people just now realized that someone should criticize them using their own medium?**
Perhaps Kick-Ass represents a split that actually began decades ago. As comics moved to film, they became their own universes where mythology was abandoned, and characters became synonymous with actors. Perhaps audiences can only accept deconstruction when it springs not from the page, but the screen. Kick-Ass may have began as a comic book, but Millar's technique has always been strictly cinematic. His books are thinly veiled movies in search of a studio and a director, or borrow liberally from blockbuster movies. (That's not a slam, I enjoy his work.) Alan Moore writes books. His costumed vigilantes came from newsprint, not cinema. People seem to have felt the disconnect. Snyder's versions weren't really commenting on characters people understood. I believe Kick-Ass probably will, and will be hailed as a revolution.
Which brings me back (in a very long winded way -- I'm so very sorry) to Superman and his 31st anniversary. It took a very long time, but Superman: The Movie ushered in every cinematic adaptation you enjoy now. As you giggle over Big Daddy or grip your armrests over that Iron Man 2 teaser, thank Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve. In fact, go back and watch Superman: The Movie again. Because it isn't just that it was the first film to put a man in a cape, it was also the first to subtly comment on him. Though the film is achingly innocent, it has just enough sexual and violent tension to pave the way for every Marvel and DC adaptation that's followed. It's not straight-up kiddie stuff, and it's pretty easy to see how one too many viewings could encourage the characters of Kick-Ass.
*Yes, I wish I had remembered this last year and done a 30 year retrospective. I also wish I had timed my last Superman column better. I'm a master of bad timing.
**I have no idea if Kick-Ass actually does this, but some Twitter remarks led me to believe it does, if only faintly.