Monday, October 27, 2008

Superhero Sophistication: Transcending Funnybook Status

In one of my cinema classes last week, I had the privilege of seeing a mostly unknown independent film called Special (pictured to the right). It was a moving story about a man who comes to believe he possesses superpowers as the result of an experimental antidepressant. I left the theater impressed by this more mature, realistic take on the conceit of the costumed crimefighter. More notable, however, was the fact that a superhero film was, for once, a low-budget indie endeavor rather than a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster, and based on an original concept no less. Unfortunately, the movie has had hardly any exposure, save for a few festival runs, and will only be released in a few select theaters in November. While I do not expect Special to perform exceptionally well at the box office due to the limited nature of its distribution, its mere existence reaffirms a suspicion that I have gradually come to harbor based on current industry trends, that superhero films are becoming respectable.

For evidence of this shift into reputability, look no further than to the critical and financial phenomenon that was this summer's The Dark Knight. The film generated Oscar buzz even before its release and will be re-released in theaters this January for the consideration of Academy voters. In addition, Warner Bros. has started campaigning for a supporting actor nomination for the late Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker (whose influence can be seen in the vandalized Oscar poster below), and there is talk of the film garnering support in even more categories. Can the latest Batman installment do for the superhero genre what Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy did for the fantasy genre and elevate costumed crimefighters in cinema to a level of prestige? Only time will tell. For now, it might be worthwhile to examine exactly how and why director Christopher Nolan's interpretation of Batman has gained such high esteem. First, Nolan's masterful casting decisions have contributed greatly to the growing respectability of the superhero genre. His two Batman films are replete with award-winners and nominees like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, and of course, the aforementioned Ledger. Indeed, filmmaker Jon Favreau credits Nolan's Batman Begins with first showing "that you could bring an independent film sensibility and cast to a big movie and transcend it a bit." Favreau recruited equally reputable actors into his own Iron Man series, which was also a critical and financial success this summer.

Aside from the note
worthy talent involved, The Dark Knight and Iron Man share another element in common that has catalyzed the rise in cultural status for superheroes: sociopolitical relevance in a post-9/11 America. The two films deal with the current political climate in different ways. For instance, the villain of The Dark Knight, essentially an anarchist with no morals or motives, brings to mind the enemy in America's war on terror. Batman ponders to what extent he is responsible for the violence he has set out to stop in the first place. As some believe the U.S. has done in Iraq, Batman's war on terror has only fueled the fire, spawning even more radical and dangerous villains than before. In Iron Man, the actual war in Afghanistan is worked into the character's origin story, while the protagonist also battles over his own destructive contributions as an arms manufacturer for the military. In short, superhero films have moved out of the realm of escapist fantasy and started to confront real world issues through metaphor. As a result, viewers are able to take the genre more seriously than before.

Can superhero films keep up this trend of respectability? Well, since Warner Bros. has decided to try and replicate the "brooding tone" of The Dark Knight in future movies based on DC Comics properties, perhaps the studio will also continue to infuse significant allegory. For example, the upcoming Watchmen film, with its political overtones and alternate Cold War history setting, leaves plenty of room for commentary. The Richard Nixon of the graphic novel, who has managed to remain in office well after two presidential terms, could easily provide an opportunity to draw parallels to the current administration. Furthermore, the fact that the United States enlists the brutal aid of superheroes in the Vietnam War might also offer possible analogies for the Iraq War. In addition, the cast of relative unknowns makes the film seem more like an independent movie than a mainstream blockbuster, even more so than the The Dark Knight or Iron Man. The original limited series on which Watchmen is based is already a reputed work on its own as the only graphic novel on Time's 2005 Top 100 List of All-Time English Language novels. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not this high quality will translate in the adaptation from comic to film.

While The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Watchmen share common political themes, I do not think their merit relies solely on the fact that they deal with current political issues. That is to say that reputability and political relevance are not mutually exclusive. Whether addressing grand issues of national security or the personal problems of a single man, as in the aforementioned film Special, costumed heroes have begun to enter a new stage of prominence in both Hollywood and independent cinema. It is my hope that the current surge in popularity of superhero cinema will inspire less adaptations and more original concepts as in past movies like Unbreakable, Hancock, and Special. One thing is certain, that the sheer volume of comic book adaptations being released in the next few years allows more than enough room for experimentation, and plenty of chances to wow casual fans, critics, and, the way things are going, possibly even the Academy. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the token quirky indie comedy is replaced by the token superhero movie in the annual list of Oscar nominees. Move over Juno, here comes The Dark Knight.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Outside the Panel Frames: Exploring the Comic Book Film Community

This week, I investigated the Web to find substantial resources involving the comic book film genre in an attempt to enrich the content of this blog. Applying the criteria of the Webby Awards and IMSA for evaluating online material, I have compiled a number of exceptional sites and blogs that offer valuable news and interesting opinions about the events in the world of comic book films. These sources have been included in my linkroll (right), but I will also assess them and provide links in the post below.

The first website I will address is one of my own personal favorites, known as Superhero Hype (pictured right), which offers daily comic book film news and a professional, aesthetically intriguing interface. It is also impossible to discuss Superhero Hype without mentioning its sister site,, which discusses film and television in general, not just superhero films. This is especially helpful when dealing with upcoming comic book films that might not necessarily involve superheroes. While both sites do provide the interactivity and community of a message board, they each might benefit from an affiliated blog or opinions column, as neither presents any sort of commentary or analytical perspective on the news items. One site that does take a more personal perspective is JoBlo's Movie Emporium, which, like, examines general movie news. The writers often tackle stories with a humorous tone, providing a more entertaining experience for the reader, though this can border on unprofessional at times.

On the other hand, a more authoritative source for superhero news is the movies section at Wizard Universe, an online supplement to the noteworthy Wizard magazine. The design of the page could be improved, however, as most of the news items are tucked beneath two large graphics and are almost invisible without scrolling down a significant amount. This was also the problem with the site Comic Mix, which otherwise features solid news items. Similarly, the news stories at are placed beneath a series of advertisements. Even so, the site is easily navigable, as each item is accompanied with a graphic icon. Another site with equal functionality is the comics section of, which was formerly known as That said, the move to Mania almost seems to be a step backwards from Comics2Film, as the original site is now confined to a small section of a larger website rather than occupying its own main page. Another professional site with limited content is Comic Book Resources, which serves as an excellent resource for comic book news but whose coverage of comic book films is minimal. Still, it is important to watch the comic book industry with regard to comic book films, especially as the two realms begin to converge, as I discuss in one of my previous posts.

Another news site that seems to emphasize comic books over movies is ironically titled, which also happens to exemplify a problem I encountered with several other sites, wherein the main page is merely an aesthetically uninteresting list of news stories. The lack of visual flare makes the experience of visiting these sites seem more like looking at the results of a search engine rather than an attractive main page. Other sites with the same problem included Superhero Flix and ReelComix, although they do include some interesting graphics where Filmfodder does not. The content of these sources are valuable and consistent, yet the absence of aesthetics make for an underwhelming online experience. On the other hand, E.Favata's Comic Book Movies boasts an attractive interface but is slow to post news. The movies section of Marvel's website also demonstrates impressive visual design, but the content is often outdated and rarely updated. For instance, the site still has director Matthew Vaughn as currently attached to the Thor movie, when in reality the filmmaker dropped out of the project months ago. This lack of professionalism is extremely surprising, given that Marvel is essentially leading the current comic book film phenomenon in Hollywood. In general, my search for news sites yielded a range of results that will provide a wealth of resources to inform the content of my future posts.

As for my research into the blogosphere, my favorite turned out to be MTV's Splash Page (pictured left) whose name partially inspired the title of my own blog. Splash Page updates several times a day, always with unique opinions on current comic book film news and links to a variety of interesting external material that enhance the overall experience. Perhaps the addition of an interactive online community, a message board for instance, would improve this already excellent resource. Another noteworthy blog that updates multiple times a day is Geeks of Doom, which consists mostly of movie reviews and the occasional news report. It also displays a visually striking interface that resembles the pages of a comic book. This is also the case with Bam! Kapow!, whose onomatopoetic title and extra large graphics recall the aesthetics of pulp fiction. However, I wish both of these blogs offered more interesting personal perspectives, such as those in Modern Mythology, which examines contemporary pop culture with a critical eye and provokes thought about current news. My only minor issue with Modern Mythology is the simplistic visual design, but it hardly detracts from the content. Similarly, Aaron's Comic Books Blog at presents a minimalistic layout, yet offers a very personal point of view. One thing that sets this blog, as well as the blog Groovy Superhero, apart from the others is that it involves a variety of comic-related topics, sometimes extending beyond just comic books and comic book films. Another blog whose perspective I found to be most interesting was Hero Complex, which focuses on heroic figures in all areas of popular culture. Naturally, superhero films come up quite often, but my only wish is that they were more critically analyzed. Overall, I was disappointed to discover a lack of blogs that consistently scrutinized the goings-on of the comic book film world from an analytical standpoint. That is why I have made it my goal to provide such insight with this blog.
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