Gilliam, You’re Wrong! – In Defense Of Superhero Movies

by Oliver MacNamee

Reported widely around the world wide web recently was Terry Gilliam’s response to a reporter from CineNando upon the subject of superhero films, which went down something like this:

I hate superheroes. It’s bulls**t. Come on, grow up! We’re not going to be teenagers for the rest of our lives…It’s great to dream of great powers. Superheroes are all about power. That’s what I don’t like about superheroes. They’ve gotta beat the other powerful superheroes. Come on, a bit of peace, love, and understanding is what we need.

But, Gilliam, you’re wrong!

Now, given that Gilliam was the first director linked with a movie adaption of Watchmen, and one of its biggest cheerleaders too, back at the tail end of the 80’s, I would say these more recent views are both sweeping and uneducated, coming from a man who has possibly not experienced too many superhero films if he holds this damaging belief. And here’s why…

Genre development – Genres go through a number of stages of development, starting with the shaky, early, informative years where experimentation is the order of the day, and codes, conventions and tropes slowly form to create a coherent set of common conventions we all recognise. Remember, that the superhero genre was, essentially, a sub-genre of sci-fi, developed form the kind of action sci-fi heroes like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Hell, the classic sci-fi narratives are all present and accounted for in such stories, whether these be in comics or on the silver screen. Time travel? Yep. Science Gone Wrong? Definitely. And the rest too.

Certainly those golden years of early Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and so, so many other colourful characters are a good reference point for this experimentation to be seen first hand. Now, the lost loved one, the secret identity, and the gaining of superpowers are the norm, but the genre is not only very well established but has been – at least in the comics –  a more postmodern experience. It has matured like so many other genres. Genres, such as the superhero genre, are so familiar and recognisable that many writers, and directors, can experiment, parody, or play on audience and readers’ expectations in a way that offers something more than the child-like experience Gilliam claims for these films. Look at the animated film Megamind (2010) and the rehabilitation of the eponymous villain. And that was, arguably, a kids’ film. And it still had something original to offer its audience; both young and old.

Diversity – Marvel vs DC? Which is the best film-producing money machine is a question often asked, because of their perceived rivalry in the world of comics where they dominate as the Big Two publishers. But, this is Hollywood and a direct comparison can surely not be viable. Not when we are in danger of forgetting about the variety of post-modern superhero flicks that are out there. Films that do not necessarily adhere to Gilliam’s claims of a narrative wherein the heroes “gotta beat the other powerful superheroes”. I mean, is he still reading Justice League of America comics from the 60s, where the members buddy up and battle one another under some misunderstanding that will eventually see them unite against the real foe? This is but ONE narrative, albeit a very, very well treaded one. But, what films do not rest on confrontation, conflict and resolution and a new status quo? Isn’t that what Todrov taught the world in his narrative theory? But, even this can be played around with and given a different dimension.

Look at Birdman (2015) if you want further proof. Okay, okay, not the most obvious example and, some might say, NOT a superhero film? With the ending suggesting something otherwise – depending on your reading of that final scene – it could fit into this genre. It was certainly reported upon as a superhero film of sorts when it was released, by some. A meta-textual film that was also a magnificent experiment in film making and technical success too, being essentially one large tracking shot. Technically this is a film that challenges the audience, rather than treats them like the kids and kidults Gilliam claims are watching these films. I’ll have you know, Mr. Gilliam, I have both a degree and a Masters. You telling’ me I ain’t grown up yet?

It might seem that we are given the illusion of choice when some only see Marvel and DC and the repetition of a safe formula, but if you look further, there’s a lot out there that doesn’t fit with Gilliam’s generalisations.

The Ramblings of a Madman – Well, not quite, but his comments, no matter how flippant they may be, are dismissing a whole swath of the movie going public, including me, as adults in a state of arrested development. Try telling that to fellow fanboys J J Abrams, or even Oscar Award winner, Steven Spielberg and see how far you get. And, Gilliam, don’t forget you once illustrated for MAD Magazine, remember? Again, it shows little in the way of understanding how far the genre has come in a considerably short amount of time. Are you really telling me a film like Josh Trank’s ‘found footage’ movie, Chronicle, is for kids?

Not with a 15 rating, beating Deadpool by several years to that all important rating which, Deadpool argued humorously in his recent cinema outing, Deadpool 2, allowed film like  Logan to be made. Are you telling me Logan is for teenagers? I wonder, does Gilliam even watch films, or is he one of many critics who throw stones without first seeing the very same films he has collectively slagged off? With only a handful of superhero films now showing success with a higher, more mature rating (and, yes, I haven’t forgotten Blade), we are only beginning to see what can be achieved with this new(ish) development.

Hybridity – Using both Chronicle (also a 15!) and Logan as good examples of this (although Deadpool being the laughfest it is also opens up the debate on comedic superhero film too, to which Thor: Ragnarok, must surely be a part of) both are superhero films but both couldn’t be any more different. Like The Blair Witch Project before it was narratively a horror story, the narrative of Chronicle is clearly a superhero origin story, but with a number of original takes on the conventions. Good guys turning tragically bad and unexpected heroes rising from the dust. Of course, it still managed to follow the good old fashioned convention beloved by much of Tinseltown, regardless of the genre, of having the black character die first. But, hey, that’s a column for another day, methinks.

Technically, Chronicle messes with audiences expectations, because of the format; hand held cameras and high school drama. Riverdale with superpowers, done on the cheap. But, again, I would argue this is a great example of both the diversity of the genre and also where we are now. A genre so well established it can be mash-up with others to form hybrid genres and challenge audiences as a result. Logan is a Western. No doubt about it. But, merged with super heroics and enough shocks and surprises to make it something that fans will speak about in decades to come.

And finally…

Escapism – I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the world is a very dark and depressing place at the moment. Not exactly like it was during WWII, but it’s still a place that needs the escapism afforded to us by such films, if we refocus on the Marvel/DC films that Gilliam is clearly taking aim at. I honestly believe that after 9/11, America especially looked to their spandex saviours, and the rise of the superhero film could well be attributed (as one of many many factors) to this collective, subconscious desire for a solution. And, fiction gives us just that. Even if it is superheroes beating the cr*p out of one another. And sometimes, why not? What’s so bad about losing yourself in 2 hours of pure, adrenaline-laced action!