A while back I posted a fairly well-received post explaining my struggles with fantasy fiction. There’s certainly a depth of feeling there as it’s a hot genre; and even those who may have disagreed, to a degree profoundly, appreciated that I set out my stall.
Recently my good friend Chris Kenny posted his thoughts on the latest in the seemingly-never ending Avengers film franchise, Avengers Endgame, which even culturally-unaware me has been unable to escape the media buzz about. Chris’s post certainly puts an opinion forward on the matter, which is great to read, but there was one overriding thought throughout the whole post, and indeed some of the other things I’ve read about Endgame…
Simply put, the comic-book wave has simply washed past me, and I think it’s high time (and slightly topical still?) to talk about that. And yes, expect a good deal of Comic Book Guy!
From sticking my finger in the air I feel that the prevailing stance is that a lot of the emotion that derives from comic book adaptations – and I focus mainly on the film adaptations as it is these that have really cemented themselves into the popular zeitgeist – comes from a familial attachment to the characters that really drives investment in the film franchises.
Certainly the Avengers films get people out into the cinema, in record numbers. And for the most part it seems to be an enjoyable romp. But I don’t have any predisposition to any of the characters so I struggle to relate.
Let’s back up with a brief personal history lesson: I didn’t really have any introduction to comic books as a child. My childhood was horrendously vanilla – not unpleasant, indeed I cherish my formative years in the 1990s very fondly; I didn’t have a bad time by any stretch – and I feel that’s almost socially crippled me throughout adolescence and now into adulthood.
But returning to the point in question… I just never developed the interest in comic books that feel is the main driving factor behind the success of film franchises like The Avengers. My dad did keep some comics but they were kept in the loft – indeed they remain in my possession and to my knowledge they’ve not been read by anyone except him.
So where does that leave me in 2019? Quite frankly, bemused and baffled by comic book films – though it probably will help to understand that I don’t have much interest in the cinema as a storytelling form anyway. I rarely visit the cinema; literally once a year at times. And that’s absolutely fine, I recognise it as an art form for sure – it’s simply not one for me. The films I do go to see I enjoy at the time but I don’t give them much thought afterwards.
Looking at the storied history of the Avengers franchise frankly fills me with dread – 22 films over 11 years. Is this particularly accessible at this point? Likely not, especially for someone with little interest in actively working through those films. So it’ll likely remain a cultural phenomenon that will pass me by.
On that point I find myself defending The Avengers films from silly click-bait articles from places like Deadspin that bemoan that films like Endgame do little to ingratiate themselves to non-fans. And indeed I know fellow non-fans who’ve seen Endgame – what’s the point? Even I realise it would be facile of me to sit through Endgame as I would get very little out of it as I’m not emotionally invested in the franchise, characters or story – whereas something like Game of Thrones I did become invested in.
Similarly it’s hard to recommend episodes of Game of Thrones in isolation, especially from the later seasons because you need that investment to really get the full amount of meaning from the events depicted. But like those what harp on about “not watching Game of Thrones”, I don’t want to necessarily be the one who harps on about “not watching Avengers films”. It’s almost too low hanging a fruit to criticise the films on a superficial level for “green aliens and talking racoons”.
Therein we pivot however to what I consider a better way of criticising these films – for their writing.
I’ve watched about one and three quarter films that could be considered from the comic book adaptation lexicon – Deadpool, roughly half of Guardians of the Galaxy and about fourty minutes of Scott Pilgrim – all lauded by fans as stellar examples of the subgenre, and that have performed at the box office accordingly. All of them I found quite deficient in terms of writing which marred my enjoyment, despite my best efforts to go in with a clean-slate open mind.
So where do we start? Deadpool was the best of the three to my recollection (I made it to the end) – with a self-aware main character who’s very much the deadpan snarker and, crucially I found, didn’t take the enterprise entirely seriously. The self-awareness of Deadpool the character was somewhat endearing to me; however I learned only after the film’s conclusion that it is indeed a comedy film. Without sounding like an old bore… none of Deadpool’s jokes – a lot of which were indeed very laboured – hit home. Why is that? The writing for Deadpool assumes the audience is 15-year-old guys and treats them accordingly. The humour was very juvenile and immature and while I don’t expect every film to be Schindler’s List it did seem a bit too juvenile and facetious to really take seriously. The story seemed fairly solid but the overarching theme seemed to be going from one crude joke to the next.
I found my experience with Scott Pilgrim largely the same but I had to turn the movie off after about fourty minutes as I suffered a fatal flaw to my immersion – I simply didn’t care about the protagonist’s journey. I didn’t care whether Scott “got the girl” – an original story arc if ever I’d seen one. But it was the lack of seriousness that I felt the film exhibited, combined with a similarly-juvenile writing standard that made me realise I had better uses of my time as it became apparent this film would tick none of my boxes.
And last in line is Guardians of the Galaxy which I tried to watch twice and ended up giving up on at roughly the same point an hour in – and I realise this is a fairly extreme position to take – and I would describe it as the worst film I can recall seeing. The reason? Not because it’s “green aliens and talking trees” but because I felt the story was particularly deficient.
A resource I use and view quite frequently in my own writing is TVTropes, which is a fascinating resource dedicated to identifying the use of “tropes” in fiction. Tropes can be narrative, plot or character devices that can be categorised; usually on TVTropes it is done in quite a dry humorous way. It’s important, also, to note that tropes in and of themselves. Some tropes are indeed indicators of poor writing, but the lesson from TVTropes as a writer is not to avoid tropes in my own work but to work to mask them in layers.
A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell. [TVTropes] collects them, for the fun involved.
Tropes are not the same thing as cliches. They may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. It’s pretty much impossible to create a story without tropes.
The reason that I bring up TVTropes is that when watching Guardians of the Galaxy, the writing felt so poor and one-layered that the tropes that comprise the plot and characters shone through so blatantly that I couldn’t help but notice it at every instance. Chris Pratt’s character is a one-dimensional juvenile who failed to endear himself to me (I suspect it’s akin to Deadpool, the “douchebag” characterisation wore thin rapidly) as one example. I only got as far as the first hour – wherein the titular Guardians are escaping the prison space station before my irritation forced me to cancel watching the movie, the tipping point being the convenience of their miraculous escape – of course the controls would start working at just the right time, and of course the talking raccoon would just happen to have the skills needed by that specific situation. Everything was telegraphed across far too readily.
Perhaps my writing background makes me more susceptible to anticipating and identifying these plot weak points but I think Guardians of the Galaxy actually stands as an exemplar of what I think does the comic book genre a massive disservice. The plot and characters from my recollection is particularly weak, simplistic and one dimensional. Does the film rely on the rose-tinted nostalgia glasses that the intended audience is expected to wear, having been ingratiated to these characters and tropes for a long time.
As an outsider I felt that Guardians was especially insular – it appealed to a particular type of fan. And I can understand why those people would enjoy it, and this isn’t a slight against them. I’m sure it’s a fun film. But I found it to be poorly-written and lightweight and it just didn’t endear itself to me; the opposite, in fact – I found myself actively irritated throughout my attempts to watch it. It just doesn’t seem to take itself seriously enough; but unlike, say, Deadpool, it doesn’t have the sense of being self-aware to satirise itself. Deadpool was savvy in its own way in that it almost knew it was a movie from the inside out and that helped it a lot in terms of holding my engagement and I recognise the merits there, while the writing choices seemed the low side of juvenile.
But that said, this is more about “hating on” Guardians of the Galaxy, which was a very commercially-popular film. It would be senseless to be that contrary for the sake of being contrary. But it does make me wonder if a film like Guardians does the comic medium – and its filmic interpretation – a massive disservice. Guardians is flagged as an exemplar entry in the comic book movie canon for its apparent quality – but it has no real substance.
It seems to strive to be the classic summer blockbuster – a flashy, impressive affair that doesn’t resonate once you leave the cinema. Which, I hasten to add, is absolutely fine. Indeed watching Guardians as an outsider I already felt that the film was more interested in catering to a particular kind of fan – perhaps it’s not so inclusive after all? I didn’t feel included when watching it, even though I’d been advised it’s a good film to start with, which only added to the feeling of disappointment when I gave up on it, twice at the same point.
Can comics deliver more than that though? I realise I’m perhaps in danger of doing the medium a massive disservice of my own through basing my opinion on three particular entrants; however I feel they’re good, and well-regarded examples. I’m sure that comics can and do – both in print and film form – tackle really tough, adult and nuanced stories. But if Guardians, Scott Pilgrim and Deadpool (though on writing I feel Deadpool’s only real flaw was the juvenile, 15-year-old-male joke writing) are the shining stars of the category, those examples that can have some narrative weight seem drowned out in the white noise of those that make a big bang but little impact.
Like I said earlier, I don’t expect a binary choice: Guardians of the Galaxy to Schindler’s List. But is there the diversity of storytelling – and arguably quality writing – in comic books to bridge that gap toward the centre more readily? As while a lot of this discussion is exposing the narrative flaws I feel a litany of exist in comic book movie adaptations, it’s also based in a sense of deep disappointment that an art form that can and is enjoyed by millions isn’t setting its sights higher. As I said, it’s not a binary choice between hard-hitting cinema or stories like Schindler’s List or narratively paper-thin glitz-fests like Guardians; I feel that there is a root of decent storytelling to be found, but on my superficial experience with the Marvel movie juggernaut, and others of that ilk? I’m not finding it readily available, and that is simply disappointing.
Indeed, in drafting this post I was made aware of this video in the Honest Trailers by Screen Junkies. It’s a biting, witty and humorous dissection of over a decade of films into arguably their constituent parts. The fact that a great number of these films seem to have, especially when laid out sequentially, so many plot or trope similarities that they can be grouped to me is an indicator of weak narrative development and an over-reliance on the tropes that have come to be expected almost. For me with my albeit-limited experience of the films myself, I can attest to this – the tropes the writers use are barely-concealed and repetitive. Without my prior understanding of the franchises (ergo, a lack of intrinsic affection for the intellectual property, which I feel allows a lot of these narrative “sins” to be excused or fly under the radar).
An interesting point made in the Honest Trailers video is that technology is magical. It’s also in line with Clarke’s third law – that “any sufficiently-advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” Indeed, in my post about fantasy I made the following observation:
Magic in fantasy should have clear and specific boundaries and limitations, otherwise why have a story with conflict, tension and jeopardy if a well-timed wave of a magic wand can solve the problem? It’s a deeply dissatisfying thing to experience when executed poorly and mishandled magic leads to many a deus ex machina.
And that’s exactly what happens in these movies, isn’t it? And just like with the tropes and trappings of high fantasy it is a trait that I find extremely narratively underwhelming. Quite simply, hand-waving problems that the plot throws at the characters with suspiciously-timed revelations about technological abilities is a bit of a cop-out isn’t it?
To reiterate: I’m no scholar of comic books by any means – but the Honest Trailers video is a dissemination of common tropes across these types of stories and films, is it not? And once we strip away the auspices of how the technology is treated – in effect, it’s reskinned magic – we’re presented with the same narrative boobytraps that befall high fantasy, in my opinion. And that’s a shame – because science fiction, and I’m sure comic books in general, with their filmic adaptations certainly too – can do so much better in terms of storytelling, but from my vantage point I can’t see it through the cloud. To highlight the point the Honest Trailers makes about cookie-cutter plot elements across the films… even the posters are eerily similar!
And while I realise a lot of this post is talking about comic book film adaptations, it does inexorably reflect back on the source material which seems to have entered the cultural lexicon throughout the years. Are these stories being judged now on their merits as pieces of writing or because the reader (or the reader’s parents) have imparted that sense of rose-coloured nostalgia that deafens them to issues and faults.
The more I think about it, the more I feel that there’s certainly some truth to the idea that the memory cheats – people recollect things from their youth that they revere with pleasure as being better than they might otherwise be given a more rational or objective assessment. It’s an argument that was controversially applied to the early episodes of Doctor Who in the 1980s against a perceived drop in quality of contemporary productions and I can’t deny the logic’s there. This notion on its own is worthy of evaluation in quite a bit of depth.
Certainly with long-running cultural franchises like Doctor Who, comics that have run since the 1940s and without question Star Wars there’s the danger that the nostalgia rubs off to insulate these properties from… not overt criticism but critical thinking and evaluation. It does nothing to the art form to excuse what’s frankly poor writing because it makes those immersed in nostalgia, with a connection that plucks their heartstrings, feel warm and fuzzy. Ultimately what we’d end up with if this is maintained is a sense of cultural rot that will only get bigger, and then the patient will be too late to save, if you will. Once the bug bites, as a character in a shining example of great video game writing says, you’ve already lost the patient.
Honestly, I’d really like to be proved wrong. This post is not intended to pooh-pooh comic books/movies – indeed these movies and the associated stories have become part of the public cultural lexicon, and I don’t begrudge at all those legions of fans that genuinely enjoy these stories, films and franchises. This is not intended as a high-handed essay sneering derision upon those people. I’m not here to “hate popular things” for the sake of it – the purpose here has always been to analyse objectively and then reflect on my own thoughts.
Speaking of reflection, as I write this, I can’t help but think how this seems almost endemic on the modern spin of comic book movies. But my own personal experiences as an outsider with films that I’ve been told are easy to get into just left me feeling more out of the cold, and more disappointingly, really, more feeling like I’m not missing much.
A few notes before we finish:
- Yes, I realise a lot of the movie adaptations to which I refer or talk broadly about are Marvel movies. Aparently DC Comics exists also, but is a lot less promiment. It’s all Pepsi/Coke to me.
- I realise that having watched virtually none of the films discussed it puts me at a massive disadvantage; ergo this post is a lot of “sticking my finger in the air and seeing how the wind is blowing” and painting in broad strokes. I accept that criticism readily but I wasn’t prepared to watch twenty films; I apologise if in your view this leads you to believe I am being intellectually dishonest in my approach
- If it wasn’t clear this is not an attack on fans of these popular films by any stretch, so please don’t take my contrasting/differing opinion on something that is enjoyed by many as my being unduly contrary. This post has been on my mind for a good while! And it’s good to criticise and evaluate items in the popular lexicon as objectively as possible.