Alyssa Rosenberg's take on fanboyism and the summer blockbuster is pretty damned good, and a welcome counter to those of us (me included) who like to inveigh against the horror of Hollywood's marketing of geekdom. Forgive me for quoting at length:
Despite that financial success, the critics are growing restless. The New York Times' A.O. Scott declared that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is "the latest evidence that the superhero movie is suffering from serious imaginative fatigue." Slate's Dana Stevens announced that "I'll be holding comic-book-based blockbusters to a more robust standard" this summer. And Anthony Lane, a film critic for The New Yorker, took a nasty shot at comic book enthusiasts in his review of Watchmen earlier in the year, saying the film "should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex."
It's easy to dismiss sci fi flicks as clumsy and loud, but the critiques miss a key virtue. Unlike other genres, fanboy blockbusters are a constantly innovating form, with an important message about the present even as they outline visions of our future. In romantic comedies, the scene can shift from the Civil War to the Los Angeles real estate market as long as boy meets girl amidst the bayonets or billboards. Horror movies can switch weapons with no fall-off in audience long as there are coeds to dice. Come Oscar season, World War II films are such a reliable source of nominations that Kate Winslet's turn as a sexy Nazi became a simultaneous joke on the genre and a lock for the Academy Award.
Science fiction and superhero movies don't have the luxury of simply finding the latest neighborhood where attractive singles are settling or the flashiest car on the market and plugging those accessories into a formula. By nature, those films have to imagine the future, to put something on screen that audiences would never see in their everyday lives. Sometimes, those visions are farfetched, unrealistic, paranoid, immature, or deeply cheesy. Of the four major sci-fi movies being released this spring and summer, two feature vengeful giant robots. Another centers on a guy who metalizes his skeleton, and the fourth plants spaceships in Iowa cornfields. They'll vary in quality, and plausibility, but at least they have something to say about the perils and opportunities of the future.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first of these movies, is a perfect example of the power of a bad fanboy movie. The film is far too full of cheap-looking special effects and dialogue that seems ludicrous outside a cartoon bubble to be really absorbing. But Wolverine has far more to say about its chosen subject, the scientific manipulation of the human body, than, for example, the romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past has to say about relationships between men and women.
I think Anthony Lane has constructed three or four of my all time favorite sentences. (Of Yoda's tripe ramblings in the Star Wars prequels, he once quipped, "Break me a fucking give.") But I think Rosenberg makes a great point here. At some point critics (once again, including me) will have to start judging these flicks on their own terms.
And with that, I guess I now have to go see Star Trek. Damn. I thought I'd be able to worm out of that one.
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