If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Continuity is a series of events tied together over a larger and ongoing narrative, plot, or theme. It lies at the heart of all geek media. Out of all the major forms of continuity out there, comic book continuity, superhero comic continuity to be precise, is the most infamous in how convoluted it is. By rigorously maintaining canon, DC and Marvel have undermined their continued survival by alienating new fans.
Comic continuity isn’t an inherently bad thing. On the good side, it can be used as a source to expand on the central premise; creating new stories, characters, and dynamics. On the bad side, comic continuity has become little more than an institution. A wall to separate the core audience from new readers which would deny the generational zeitgeist the exclusive pandering DC and Marvel have been giving them for years. The status quo is continuously restored within comic books no matter how many major changes are made. Comic creators won’t let characters stay dead and are afraid of portraying an established, well-known character as anything outside of male, Caucasian, and heterosexual; lest they face the wrath of angry, negative fan response.
We’re seeing comic book continuity encroaching superhero films. Thanks largely in part to the success of Marvel Studios’ The Avengers and the preceding, independent films starring its protagonists. Geek critic Bob “Moviebob” Chipman discusses the implications of comic continuity manifesting into film in the episode of his show The Big Picture, “Future Assembly”. The main argument for comic continuity in film is a shared universe where characters and premises are non-exclusive and free to interact with eachother.
But Bob and the rest of the fanboys fail to see the logical extension of The Avengers success in the greater scheme of things. Or, more precise, they are so in love with their fandoms that they are ignoring the fact of The Avengers and it’s precedence: intellectually deficient, formulaic team action-fests with too-cool dialogue and little consequence.
I didn’t review The Avengers but after re-watching it the Monday before The Dark Knight Rises was released, I can with full confidence give my opinion on the film. This film was no different than The Expendables.
Now I know comparing the first superhero team-up film and the most successful superhero film to date to an ensemble tribute to the Me generation action flicks celebrating jock-culture machismo is tantamount to sacrilege in geek circles. But the comparison is apt. The Expendables is an ensemble-action film where the actors are characters onto themselves. When watching this film you’re not seeing Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Jason Statham: we’re watching John Rambo, John Matrix, John McClane, and Frank Martin shooting the same enemy soldiers. And most importantly, there’s little consequence of their actions to themselves or to the environment and people around them. In The Avengers, we’re watching super-human individuals possessing either superpowers or super abilities fighting aliens in a rather empty New York. There were only a relative handful of people running on the streets of Times Square in that film. Much like how The Expendables features generic soldiers from a generic enemy nation to detach ourselves from them, The Avengers has a depopulated New York to detach us from the thought and distraction of some civilian actually dying from the wiz-bang action.
My strong distaste in The Avengers and the preceding films by extension stems from there being a superior film series and method. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy as character analysis and socio-political metaphor. Nolan dares to do what most directors are too scared to do: use a well-known character and premise to analyze the real-world consequences of recent crises such as terrorism and class warfare. But most importantly, it was a character study of what it means to be a vigilante and the real-world consequences. Bruce Wayne is not an untouchable guardian but a human being. Through these films, his body is broken to the near point of disrepair and his actions drive those he cares for away from him. All consequences of his actions and for his cause of bringing justice to Gotham.
The films were also a colossal gamble. After Batman and Robin, Warner Bros. took a chance by hiring a relatively unknown director whose works were only thematically similar to Batman. And it was a giant success as it transcended past the superhero genre like Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Nolan’s films managed to skirt past fanboy ire because Bat-continuity facilitated the kind of gothic and grounded pulp-detective premise his films were based off of.
Woe to the creative team who dares to break current comic continuity in order to reach a generation outside of comic fandom. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man was a breath of fresh air. A Spider-Man film with a Peter Parker who acts like a real teenager and a romance with Gwen Stacy that was every bit awkward and wonderful as high school. The film wasn’t a power fantasy justifying itself but beating us over the head with the meaningless “With great power comes great responsibility”, but an organic story of personal responsibility and conviction.
Outside of the legitimate criticisms, most of the negative response was fanboy ire and vitriol. “How dare they appeal to a demographic outside mine! I don’t want my Spider-Man films to be about real-world problems and responsibilities: I want my vicarious power fantasy! I want to see Spider-Man beating up jocks!” Even the reviewers at Red Letter Media who regularly spite geeks resorted to the same sort of pissing in their review of the film.
The Avengers was considerably more successful in its opening weekend then either The Dark Knight Rises or The Amazing Spider-Man. The Avengers has become for worse the trendsetter for the superhero genre: directly emulating the crisis crossover format of its comic origin. We’re going to see more superehero films sharing the same universe leading up to a giant team-up. Mediocre action films done by a geek favorite director in order to appeal to the demands of the masses with constant action, explosions, while pandering to the gen-x zeitgeist: all free of any human connection or intellectual worth. In short, a less insulting and more coherent take on Michael Bay’s Transformers films.
What disappoints me the most is what comic continuity in film will deny me and audiences. Like Captain America reacting to the War on Terror or Iron Man confronting the military industrial complex he helped maintain. I want to see Tarsem Singh direct Wonder Woman as a Greek-inspired epic. I want to see Brad Bird redeem Green Lantern Hal Jordan. I want to see Stephen Spielberg’s take on an alien superhero through Martian Manhunter.
But I won’t. Instead I’ll see the ugly reality of comic continuity corrupt and stagnate the genre, and look back on Nolan and Webb’s films as the shining beacon of what could be done if the studios dared to shatter paradigms and reject the demands of fanboys.