Postmodernism: “A late 20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, which represents a departure from modernism and is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mixing of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories”.
Joss Whedon recently commented (rather famously) that he didn’t believe that superhero films should be postmodern just yet. I’m only quoting one statement from an interview where he made some great observations that I do agree with. While I’ve been a huge fan of Whedon since the Firefly days, and still stand in absolute awe of what he managed to achieve in Avengers, it seemed like an interesteing point to debate on (especially given that other projects of his, including Buffy and Cabin in the Woods are often labelled as postmodern): whether going postmodern with super hero films today is or isn’t a good thing?
Pushing the Postmodern Envelope
Comic book movies have been around for decades at this point, and it’s been the better part of the last decade and a half that we’ve seen the more realistic superhero films take the box office by storm. Almost all of them have adhered to conventional narratives; ‘The Dark Knight’ being the only real exception so far.
Edgar Wright’s brilliant Scott Pilgrim Vs the World is another great example of pushing boundaries, and at least in my opinion, remains one of the finest comic book adaptations made, second on to TDK. Whether it worked for mainstream audiences or not is an argument for another day, but if you’re familiar with Wright’s style and his body of work, it would be hard to argue about the quality of this film.
Arguably, the contribution that ‘The Dark Knight’ (a movie-I argue-that would not exist in its current form, had it not been for Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’)has had on comic book movies is not much different from what ‘Watchmen’, and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ did for comic books when they released in the 80s. It made even the most open critics of the genre stand up, take notice, and even be blown away! It proved once and for all that comic book movies can go above and beyond the bounds they are usually constrained to.
Like the two comics, the movie decided to take a postmodern approach to its characters and narrative, rather than settle for a conventional story, which remains the greatest asset for all these works. In my opinion ‘The Dark Knight’ will not just be remembered as one of the best superhero movies, but as one of the great movies of our times.
It's sequel TDKR, however, is another story, and is a movie I would like to think does not follow the cannon of 2 great films that preceeded it.
If we look at the works of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, among a bunch of others, the common thread seems to be unconventional narratives they’ve employed in some of their seminal works, be it Miller’s Sin City series, Moore’s V for Vendetta (stands as probably the best comic I’ve ever read), or From Hell as well, to Gaiman’s Sandman. Yes, most if not all these works came by at a time when the art form was arguably stagnating, and not early in the day.
Let’s also look at some of the more recent examples of postmodernism applied extremely successfully to narratives: Geogre R. R. Martin’s ‘A song of Ice and Fire’, along with HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ are more popular pieces of work than any other currently. HBO’s other show; ‘True Detective’ employed a rather unconventional narrative for a procedural investigation, and has been hailed as one of the best shows on television.
Besides, films like Pulp Fiction, Blade Runner, Fight Club, Ghost in the Shell, and Nolan’s own, Memento, are fondly remembered as great examples of film making more so because of their narrative structure than anything else. An approach, even the makers of James Bond tried to adopt to a certain degree, and very successfully too, with ‘Skyfall’.
So why not have more superhero/ comic book movies with at least elements of postmodernism to them? Does Whedon believe that it introduces a level of cynicism to the story that doesn’t respect the source material? Or is it because Marvel is owned by that Big Daddy of conventional storytelling, Disney?
I ask this because clearly the second act of Avengers was more than just inspired by The Dark Knight: A villain intentionally gets captured, with a plan to escape, thus precipitating the third act. A third act, mind you, that would have made Michael Bay extremely proud.
Whedon quoted “We had just gotten the technology to make it awesome, and I wasn't ready to be post-modern about it yet." I’m not sure I agree with that statement, as it opens up the same Pandora’s box of questions that were leveled against movies like Avatar, and more recently, The Hobbit trilogy; letting technology dictate the narrative of a movie. If movies like 1933’s King Kong and 1954’s Godzilla can push narrative boundaries in spite of the absence of technology, technology cannot be used as an excuse for narrative stagnation.
Not that Avengers had this problem. Whedon nailed each and every character perfectly, and made sure they were front and center throughout. But there was nothing TRULY original about the story itself. I just don’t see how an unconventional movie can be looked upon as “riffing on the genre”- as Whedon said.
The point I’m trying to make is that if audiences are widely hailing new stories that don’t conform to the formula, why not have more of the most popular films today incorporate elements of it already?
Right off the bat, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Anime or Manga. I’ve seen a few animes, but never had the chance to read a manga. But the one thing I have seen is the freshness of these animes. Whether it’s Fullmetal Alchemist, Death Note, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Angel Beats, or any other, one thing you can say about them is they are definitely not conventional.
And the fact that they only grow in popularity year over year goes to show that the narrative even trumps the fact that they aren’t live action. Akira was made in 1988 as an animated film which till date is considered a seminal work. On the other end of the spectrum, another animated film Grave of the Fireflies is commonly referred to as one of the most gut-wrenching movie going experiences there is.
In many ways the west is still trying to catch up with the creative brilliance of the east, whether it is the remakes of their films, or even employing Korean and Japanese directors to helm more and more Hollywood films. It’s no surprise that even the characters of Superman and Batman are inspired by Japanese Kamishibai superheroes Ogon Bat and Prince of Gamma.
Since the approach adopted in the East is clearly working, and even making its way westward, its time Hollywood adopts it into their renditions too.
Marvel’s Tryst with Postmodernism.
The antihero seems to be something Marvel has struggled with, not clearly understanding what mould to make them adhere to, and I believe Hulk is to blame for that. Ang Lee’s unconventional and underrated take on the character was received as nothing short of an abomination back in 2003; whereas Marvel resorted to the more conventional ‘The Incredible Hulk’ when the rights were reverted.
The Hulk as a character is not like his Avenger colleagues; his only motivating factor is rage, which makes him a wild card. Its one thing to have a wild card in a group, but making a solo film on him is a much more daunting prospect, and the maybe reason why Marvel is being cautious about how they approach it. ‘Planet Hulk’, and ‘World War Hulk’ seem like mouth watering prospects to adapt, but do they really fit with Marvel’s current approach?
The interesting thing is that Marvel has a bunch of great darker properties that scream postmodern. Characters like Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and The Punisher and Blade are as grey as they come, and are therefore far less likely to conform to conventional superhero narratives. They have no place in Marvel’s current cinematic universe of the more vanilla Earth savers. Granted that the rights to these characters only recently reverted back to Marvel, but is anyone really expecting to see them appear in movies (not TV) anytime soon?
‘The Punisher’ with Thomas Jane stands as one of my favourite films featuring a Marvel character, one that’s not talked about nearly enough in my opinion. The other films featuring these characters however have all been sheer disappointments. I queued up twice for a Ghost Rider movie, and will continue to do so, hoping that someday they get it right.
I thought Marvel would head in a very different direction with ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, given how far out the group itself is, but the trailers seem to suggest more of the same; a straightforward story, combined with generous doses of humour to make the move more palatable. I could be wrong though, and the movie could be a genuine departure from what we’re used to seeing Marvel brew.
I was extremely excited when Marvel announced Edgar Wright would help Ant Man, because he would bring something new to the table. I can’t say I was surprised at his decision to leave. Saddened- Yes, but not surprised, given the short leash Marvel tends to have all its directors on.
Why So Serious?
People argue that superhero movies shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, that they should be fun and escapist, and that DC’s brooding approach is not the way to go about it. It’s an extremely flimsy argument if you ask me. The common theme in almost all origin stories is a tragedy that motivates the protagonist to use their abilities for good. Even the Avengers were united by the death of Agent Coulson.
It’s also the one thing Sony does not seem to understand with its Spiderman franchise. Instead of using Uncle Ben’s death as Peter’s driving force, it’s always the girl that he has to fight for. So much so that it was the biggest sub plot in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.
Tragedy adds a sense of brevity to the proceedings. I’d like to see more movies ditch the black and white/ Good V Evil shtick for greyer characters and less absolute stories.
Think about this: Which are the truly memorable villains the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced so far? Chances are Loki is the only one you can think of, and Loki isn’t even a conventional villain. He’s probably the most three dimensional character they have.And what wrong with mixing a few darker films along with your biennial Spiderman movie or Marvel offering?
Sure, WB hasn’t produced nearly enough movies to warrant an argument as to how far they are pushing the boundaries with their franchises, but even the little things like naming the movies ‘The Dark Knight’, or ‘Man of Steel’ rather than the characters’ names themselves suggest they have faith in the approach they’re adopting. I liked the approach adopted with Man of Steel, even the notion of the world not being ready to accept Superman went a long way for me. I loved what they did with the end, controversial as it was. I can only hope that the destruction that occurred and its ramifications are incorporated into the story in Dawn of Justice, and it doesn’t end up becoming trivialized like something out of a Transformers movie.
In contrast to my statements on Marvel earlier, lets revisit on of DCs most famous antiheros, John Constantine.
Constantine turned out to be a surprisingly good film, and handled the character perfectly(albeit not totally faithful to the Hellblazer comic). It did great service to not only the antihero, but incorporated the supernatural element quite well too. It resulted in giving the audience a memorable, if nor remarkable, unique comic book movie adaptation.
To be fair though, WB has made horrendous work of the Alan Moore works they’ve adapted. What could have been truly standout examples of postmodern comic book movies, turned out being almost unholy compared to their respective sources, with V for Vendetta leading that race by light years. Watchmen didn’t help much either.
Other DC character adaptations by studios including From Hell and even the Hellboy franchise didn’t add much in the way of freshness. Hellboy 2 set up some great prospects for a third, but till that happens we can’t comment.
Yes, the regular stories will get the job done, and even make truck loads of dough, but you don’t really remember them as individual entities in the long run. 10, maybe 15 years from now, if someone were to ask me the plot of any of Marvels single hero films my answer will probably just be this “Some Bad guy wants to destroy the world, and he needs to save it”
And Spiderman films would be along the lines of “He has to save his girlfriend from the bad guy”
I can only hope that my response for WB films isn’t “I’ll let you know once they get their Universe up and running”
I’m sure a lot of you won’t agree with my view on this, so I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section below.