Superhero Movies Can’t Get No Respect: Snobs, Slobs, James Gunn And BIRDMAN

The director of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY speaks out on superhero hate during awards season.

It was destined to be an awards season heavy on superhero hate when Birdman became the front runner. After all, this movie starring some people who were bankable enough to get the film made because of their work in superhero movies was all about the idea that the bad side of Hollywood - the blockbuster side - was killing art. Or something. I'm not really sure what the movie was trying to say about that stuff, except that it's bad. Superheroes are bad, and Birdman proves it by making one of its best scenes an action battle and another a flying sequence. 

Who cares? When I was younger I was obsessed with the idea of comics - and superhero comics in particular - being taken seriously. I'd read about some college having Watchmen on a curriculum and I'd be all excited that my favorite storytelling medium was getting the respect it deserved. Finally people would understand that the money I spent on drawings of people in skintight outfits punching each other was not a waste but a serious pursuit! Finally I would get some respect. But then I got older and I realized: who cares? Did I really want respect from these people anyway? Would a formal celebration of Kraven's Last Hunt actually make the story any better? I liked this stuff, and that's honestly enough. Let people make jokes and be condescending - most of them were fucking idiots anyway. The rest were tedious snobs who were generally unloved. 

The actual irony is that with the explosion of superhero movies I've seen my beloved form and genre of storytelling invaded by a lot of meatheads and jocks and assholes, which really proves I should have been careful what I wished for as a kid. Sometimes being mainstream ain't so great. 

But back to superhero movies: they get a lot of shit, and they're not taken seriously, and they're seen as a symptom of Hollywood's decline, etc etc etc. I get it. There are a lot of people who are my... well, the polite word is colleagues, but that may be giving them a lot of credit - who think my unabashed enjoyment of superhero movies is a sign of my general lowbrow, stupid nature. They make a lot of condescending remarks about these films and their supporters to the hundreds of people who read their sites/follow their Twitter accounts. I love that! I wouldn't want these people to think highly of me. They're bores. I will say that at the very least they're quite open with their condescending disdain, which is sort of refreshing. 

That's all James Gunn wants from critics of superhero movies - a little openness. Writing on his Facebook page Gunn addressed the awards season-spanning, Birdman-inspired narrative of supehero movies as the Great Doom upon Hollywood. I really like his attitude about the whole thing, from Jack Black's bit on the Oscars to Dan Gilroy comparing superhero movies to a natural disaster:

Whatever the case, the truth is, popular fare in any medium has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite. I've already won more awards than I ever expected for Guardians. What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films.

I've made B-movies, independent films, children's movies, horror films, and gigantic spectacles. I find there are plenty of people everywhere making movies for a buck or to feed their own vanity. And then there are people who do what they do because they love story-telling, they love cinema, and they want to add back to the world some of the same magic they've taken from the works of others. In all honesty, I do no find a strikingly different percentage of those with integrity and those without working within any of these fields of film.

If you think people who make superhero movies are dumb, come out and say we're dumb. But if you, as an independent filmmaker or a "serious" filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken.

What a great attitude. And a correct one. Being into 'serious' cinema doesn't make you any more pure than someone who is into/makes superhero movies or populist film. There are very bad popular films and there are very good popular films. There are very bad indie films and there are very good indie films. I have been covering the movies long enough to know that Gunn is right - there are plenty of people working in the 'serious' or 'arty' side of the business who are just absolute assholes driven only by the very base desire for recognition, to be the big fish in their particular pond and to make some money. And there are lots of people like that on the populist side as well! They just make more money. But there are also people who honestly give a shit, and all of my interactions with people like James Gunn or Joe and Anthony Russo or Zack Snyder or Matt Reeves or JJ Abrams have proven to me that there are a lot of people making populist movies who legitimately care about what they're making. 

Are those people stuck in a system that often fights back against them? Yes! Which is why I think dismissing these people is even more wrong. It isn't just that Guardians of the Galaxy is a good movie, it's a good and unique movie coming from a studio system that is largely designed to squash movies like Guardians of the Galaxy. Should it have been nominated for Best Picture? Maybe not, but what Gunn accomplished is no less impressive. 

In the end I'm okay with the stuff I like being a little disreputable. I rag on anime all the time because it's clearly intended just for deviants, but if I was 13 today and coming up in the world that exists I would be all about the weirdest anime stuff, at least partially because it's perceived as a low form. All the stuff I love - comic books, scifi and fantasy, rock n' roll and punk - have been seen as low forms. And honestly, the movies themselves are a low form. They began life as a novelty and became immediately populist. It took decades for any sense of authorship to be attached to the movies. But those low origins are what I love about the cinema and what has made the movies great, from very early in their existence, is the tension between the economics of show business and the desire of artists to express themselves. Just because the form is low doesn't mean the people working in it take it any less seriously, and that's when the condescension rankles - when it discounts the hard work of smart people simply because they're doing that work in a form some snob thinks is worthless.  

If we just throw away populist cinema we're essentially throwing away cinema, and I don't want to do that.