I had a strange and disconcerting experience in a darkened Soho screening room in late November, in the year 2000. It was barely 30 minutes into a preview of M Night Shyamalan’s downbeat thriller Unbreakable when it happened.
Here, Samuel L Jackson’s Elijah Price, a comic-book enthusiast with a leather trench coat and brittle bone disease, was browbeating an anonymous-looking everyman (the actor, Firdous Bamji, is almost hidden entirely in shadow) into purchasing one of the many hand-drawn superhero panels that were hanging in his downtown Philadelphia gallery. “It’s a classic depiction of good versus evil,” began Jackson, doing the hard sell in deadpan, while staring intently at the drawing, a conspicuously shoddy and sophomoric rendering of a caped crusader battling a hirsute man-beast with ill-shapen claws.
Nice one, I thought. Good gag. It’s, like, a satire on comic book geeks. But on he went. “The thing to notice about this piece,” continued Jackson, channelling the same lugubrious tone that has since become writer-director Shyamalan’s narrative trademark (think The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth). “The thing that makes it very, very special, is its realistic depiction of figures.”
Finally, I thought. We’ve got to the joke. This is a joke, isn’t it? For the comic panel on screen, a fictitious imagining from Unbreakable’s art department, featuring a fictitious superhero, “Slayer”, and his fictitious arch-enemy, “Jaguaro”, was an ugly mass of grade-school scribbles, backward limbs and confused perspectives.
But no. Jackson just kept going, blabbering away undaunted, about artistic exaggerations, square jaws and vintage images until finally, and somewhat hysterically, and only after he’d discovered that the precious comic-book doodle would eventually be delivered into the arms of a four-year-old boy (as a birthday gift), he aborted the sale and threw the bemused everyman out of the premises with the admonition, “One of us has made a gross error and wasted the other person’s valuable time. This is an art gallery, my friend. And this is a piece of art.”
No one at my screening laughed. No one stood up and screamed, “What? It’s not a piece of art, it’s a piece of shit!”
Thus, it was at that point, in that respectful silence towards the lunacy on screen, that I knew we were all doomed. As did I know that cinema, as we then regarded it, would die. For what the scene really said, and what the subsequent narrative (Bruce Willis accepts the fact that he is a comic-book hero incarnate) confirmed, was that comic books were the new high art, that comic-book geeks were running the show, and that anyone who didn’t agree with the new orthodoxy would be shut out of the shop.
Seriously, look around you today. It has happened. Hollywood studio output has fallen dramatically (and in the case of actual releases from Disney and Sony, over the last decade, has almost halved).
Risky, heterogeneous projects (aka cinema for grown-ups, such as, say, 1999’s Fight Club) have been swept away in the clamour for the global geek dollar (it says something about our new appetites that this year’s biggest heavyweight Oscar contender is a gee-whizz space adventure called Gravity).
Instead, what remains is a plethora of geek-friendly franchises (Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Men) and the sense that everything in movies right now is dominated by a small number of comic-book megabrands, including the Warner Bros-backed DC Comics (home to both Batman and Superman) and the Disney-owned Marvel. The latter is the brand behind The Avengers film franchise, and its separate spin-off iterations, Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man, which together can claim a cumulative box-office total of $5.5bn in the US alone.
Elsewhere, in Hollywood, geek cheerleaders such as JJ Abrams (Star Trek, and next up Star Wars: Episode VII), Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), and Joss Whedon (The Avengers) have risen to the status of cinematic demigods. hey speak about their material with the kind of hushed reverence normally reserved for the Lascaux cave paintings or the Magna Carta. And they tell us, year-in, year-out, in a seemingly cowed attempt to pacify the legions of geek fanboys, that they are, yes, faithful to the source material.
Say it again. Faithful to the source material. I love that one. Christopher Nolan promises that Tom Hardy’s The Dark Knight Rises villain Bane, though wearing a slightly different face mask, will be faithful to the source material.
Joss Whedon assures fans that his Hulk, although boasting a hitherto inexplicable ability to control his rage, will be faithful to the source material.
When did this happen? When did being faithful to the source material suddenly become the ne plus ultra for a cinematic adaptation? It is almost mind-blowing to me that when the late American director Joseph Strick adapted Ulysses, arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century, for the screen in 1967, he felt free to excise enormous chunks of narrative, manipulate entire chapters, and drop several key characters completely (his screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), yet when it comes to adapting the juvenile scribblings of some pre-Oedipalised mama’s boys you have to be, by pain of death, faithful to the source material.
And they are that, these comics. From The Dark Knight Returns, to Sin City to Watchmen and beyond (I try my best, every few years), they are scribblings that simply don’t justify the panegyrics and wasted praise on original artwork, narrative elan and genre deviations in the darkest chapters of brand-leaders Alan Moore (From Hell) or Frank Miller (300). They are juvenile. And they speak of some sort of frozen and confused pre-sexualised state, which is often mistaken by geek spokesboys for innocence, idealism and enthusiasm.
Listen, for instance, to local-geek-made-good Simon Pegg on the subject. “Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and demonstrating that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you enjoy something. It’s a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level, rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is liberating.”
Pegg also revealed, in a recent interview, “All the film directors making the really big movies now are essentially film geeks in positions of power deciding what gets made in Hollywood.”
Read the statements together and it’s not hard to visualise a picture of a mainstream film industry shrinking back in horror from the complexities of adult life (note the scoffing, “supposed adult” in Pegg’s first statement).
Of course, not all film-makers have swallowed the Kool-Aid. When I spoke recently to Peter Weir, director of iconic film dramas Witness and The Truman Show, he seemed genuinely appalled by the current culture’s obsession with superhero narratives and geek branding.
“I read comic books as a kid and I loved them,” he said. “But I left them behind with my childhood toys. I am fascinated that adults go out and find this stuff diverting.”
He went even further, in fact, and down the Freudian route, adding weight to the idea that geek culture is essentially a retreat from layered, difficult and sexualised reality.
“I wonder, is it that cinema becomes for some, a return to the safety of the pre-adolescent era,” he began. “Where life was so much simpler, and so all of that popcorn, and those drinks that become bigger and bigger,
is actually a sucking on the breast as you lie back in the nice warm enclosing arms of the theatre seat. Sucking away, while the comic unfolds.”
This retreat from reality is repeatedly sold as “escapism” by geek apologists. Best-selling sci-fi writer and soon-to-be produced screenwriter Ernest Cline (author of sci-fi sensation Ready Player One) recently demanded, “You can’t disparage people for celebrating escapism. It’s an essential part of how we live now… Escapism is part of being an integrated human being.”
But it’s more than that. There’s something ugly about comic-book escapism when, as in the case of X-Men, it roots itself firmly in the US’s past, pretends to speak for the outcasts and the dispossessed, yet is positively allergic to the very idea of addressing the civil rights movement, even though it would seem like a natural fit. (This is because, I would guess, the majority of the geek elites are white, middle-class boys whose concepts of repression and exclusion go little further than the removal of wi-fi rights, or the weekly run-in with the school sports jock).
It’s hardly surprising that Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times, noted earlier this year, “The world has moved on – there’s an African-American man in the Oval Office, a woman is the secretary of state – but the movie superhero remains stuck in a pre-feminist, pre-civil rights logic that dictates that a bunch of white dudes, as in The Avengers, will save the world for the grateful multiracial, multicultural multitudes. What a bunch of supernonsense.”
And yet, if geeks, and comic books and superhero movies are such trifling nonsense, how did they become so popular, and so dominant? Or, more importantly, why? The answer, typically, goes back to that ill-fated Unbreakable screening of late 2000.
That was the year when it began. Yes, there had been geeky comic-book movies before then, such as Richard Donner’s Superman, in 1978, and Tim Burton’s campy studio-bound Batman in 1989 (followed by three even campier sequels). But what Unbreakable seemed to be channelling was a dramatic shift in tone away from Day-Glo optimism towards gloomy, nightly shadows, and one that was demonstrated explicitly, several months previously, in the summer hit of 2000, X-Men.
Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner (wife of Superman’s Richard Donner), and directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), X-Men would also mark the first associate producer credit for a little-known 27-year-old New Jersey-born comic book obsessive called Kevin Feige, whose only claim to fame, until that film, had been the curious fact that as a student intern he taught Meg Ryan how to use email for the movie You’ve Got Mail.
Feige – known amongst industry personnel as a super-geek, and a super-Marvel geek especially – was hired by Donner to make sure that everything in X-Men (such as the strange swooping style of Wolverine’s hairdo) would be, yes, faithful to the source material. Feige proved to be a natural and, within just seven years, would be named president of the newly-formed Marvel Studios, and thus become, without doubt, the most powerful producer in Hollywood, perhaps even the world (his films, cumulatively, have taken $8.3bn).
However, the revolutionary trick in X-Men was not the perfect proportions in Wolverine’s bonce, but the opening scene. Set in Auschwitz, and featuring a young Magneto (Brett Morris) being torn from the arms of his wailing mother (Rhona Shekter) while telekinetically buckling some prison gates into the bargain, it suggested a game-changing new approach to a previously derided genre – to remove the comical from the comic book. It was an approach that would reach its apotheosis with Christopher Nolan’s insanely self-important Dark Knight trilogy, featuring Christian Bale’s tight-lipped and brutally charmless Batman.
Meanwhile, beyond the world of geek movies, the internet was making the world of geek movies possible. Adapting Princeton ecologist and biology professor Simon A Levin’s work on animals in social groupings, the writer Garth Sundem, author of The Geek’s Guide to World Domination, has suggested that geeks all over the planet were separately pursuing their love of Spider-Man, Batman and The Avengers, but when the internet started reaching viable speeds at the turn of the millennium, it furnished a geek revolution.
“What the internet did was to allow these pods of geeks to connect,” he explained.
“There was always the potential for the geek uprising, but it needed some way to coalesce. The pump was primed, the geeks were there. So, with the internet they coalesced extremely quickly.”
Thus, while Silicon Valley start-ups were becoming the sexy new business model, geek industry figures such as Jobs, Wozniak and Gates were regularly celebrated in news weeklies, and while so-called Geek Chic fashion was championing trainers, hoodies and letterbox spectacles, the comic book geeks were marshalling themselves into a formidable online force. Their poster boys were Kevin Smith and Ain’t It Cool News critic Harry Knowles.
Their god was Christopher Nolan. And they imagined that they had the power to decide the commercial fate of any movie made in their name (I once encountered a focus group of movie bloggers who were meeting with a film company to discuss greater access to product and, my God, the misplaced pomposity was astounding).
At least, that’s what they thought. For repeatedly, throughout the decade, online geek support for cherished adaptations, such as Hellboy or Blade: Trinity, failed to transform them into global smashes, while ostensibly reviled adaptations, such as Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (reviled because, yep, it didn’t stay faithful to the source material) still managed to scoop a healthy $460m at the global box office.
Elsewhere, entire geek-centred projects, such as the 2006 thriller Snakes on a Plane (film-makers were in online contact with fans, even reshooting scenes to appease the geeks) died upon release. And yet, despite the fact that, when it came to commercial realities, the underlying William Goldman rubric (“Nobody knows anything”) still held true, the new Hollywood myth that grew through the decade claimed that the online geeks had the power.
And they did, in some ways. They bullied, hectored and occasionally threatened with physical violence those who didn’t accept the geek way. At best, noted A O Scott, another New York Times film critic (vocally decried online, with some help from Samuel L Jackson, for criticising The Avengers), any dissension from the ranks is greeted with contempt.
“A critic who voices scepticism about a comic-book movie – or any other expensive, large-scale, boy-targeted entertainment – is likely to be called out for snobbery or priggishness, to be accused of clinging to irrelevant standards and trying to spoil everyone else’s fun.”
And maybe that’s the fundamental flaw, and the real chromosomal crisis, in the geek revolution and in the movies that define it. For at their heart, these entertainments are simply about revenge. Hectoring, bullying, brutal revenge. A skinny science geek gets bitten by a spider and becomes a high-diving ass-kicker.
Another skinny science geek messes with gamma rays and becomes a giant, green ass-kicker. A skinny soldier geek is injected with army medicine and becomes a, er, shield-wielding ass-kicker. Two millionaires, one called Tony, one called Bruce, invent different costumes and different gadgets to become bullet-proof ass-kickers. It’s relentless. It’s cruel.
It could only have come from the shallow imaginings of whimpering self-regarding teenage boys. And in its weakness and simplicity it denies the richness and strength of its opposite, namely, 2,500 years of Judeo-Christian art, classical narratives, and a belief in dramatic motors such as empathy, character, and catharsis, combined with an innate understanding of everything from the bombast of Homer to the derring-do of Buster Keaton, from the hard-won compassion of Dickens to the giddy allure of Bogart, Garbo, Hitchcock, Brando, Spielberg, Weaver (Sigourney and Dennis!), Washington, Pitt, Fincher and Norton.
Although, here, even the memory of Fight Club will clearly not remain intact, as we learn that original author Chuck Palahniuk is writing a long-awaited sequel to that bracing tome. This one, however, will arrive in the form of, yes – Holy Cultural Armageddon! – a comic book!
On the positive side, the comic-book movie, already in the second phase of rebooting (with a rebooted Spider-Man and rebooted X-Men), is really scraping the barrel for original material to which it can be faithful. And mega-franchises such as The Avengers and the upcoming “Superman and Batman” movie are tilting at the limits of the genre – you can swallow the sight of an Iron Man here or there, as a zany aberration from normal life, but when the conceptual world becomes over-burdened with superheroes (the implications, for instance, of Thor’s existence alone would reorganise the belief systems of all humanity) it all starts to feel a bit Star Wars Holiday Special (see – there’s a geek in me yet!).
In the meantime, as you wait for the demise, and you find yourself watching a movie about an avenger in a unitard that claims to be a piece of art, don’t be afraid to stand up and say, no, this is not a piece of art. It’s a piece of shit.
Illustration by David M. Buisan