The Superhero Film Has Failed Us

This is going to be a much more melancholy column than it usually is, and I’m sorry for that. The reason for the change of tone this week is that Darwyn Cooke died of cancer on Saturday, May 14, 2016. He had entered palliative care the day before.

For those of you who do not know who Darwyn Cooke is, let me give you a quick rundown. To be as simple as possible, Darwyn Cooke was quite possibly the greatest artist of superheroes that ever lived, and certainly the best of his country—Canada—and of his generation of artists that entered the field in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Spare me your protestations for Jim Lee—technically great, but boring—your passion for George Perez—great in many ways, but terribly aged—your insistence on the skills of Todd MacFarlene and Rob Liefield—which are wrong and I will not argue otherwise. Cooke was a breath of fresh air in the age of anatomically correct drawings of muscles—which quickly became meaningless as the men got beefed up more—excess cheesecake cleavage drawings—not that Cooke himself was not guilty of indulging in the male gaze—and hyperrealistic violence of hands going through chest cavities. His work was inspired by Art Deco and the 1950s-’60s aesthetics, which were key reasons why he was one of the architects of the DC Animated Universe of Bruce Timm with Cooke’s opening title credits animation for Batman Beyond remaining a high water mark in credits, worthy of the best of Saul Bass. His work was universal in how he could adapt to colorings—he was able to be in four color newspaper strips or black and white without losing any charm or power. He was, unlike many artists who come to think they can write, also an accomplished storyteller, with his masterpieces “The New Frontier” and the adaptations of the first Donald Westlake’s Parker crime novels a master class in how to use everything the present can offer in literary and comics storytelling to create something utterly unique. He was a nostalgist in an industry that often spends most of its time looking back instead of forward, but he was able to take what he loved and make something beautiful out of it.

Now as I write this it is Sunday, March 15, 2016, and Darwyn is dead. Right now, I am sitting here after having read Cooke’s contribution to Solo, a brilliant anthology where a single artist would get 50 pages to show off. Cooke’s is brilliant, with a framing story that acts as an epilogue to his wonderful run on Catwoman with Ed Brubaker—Cooke designed the costume Anne Hathaway wears in “The Dark Knight Rises” during this run—as well as tales that are ‘50s pastiches, as well as a wonderful bit of memoir of how he became an artist. It is a wistful, melancholy, and brilliant issue, while at the same time full of laughter and happiness, capable of all his gifts.

Then I look at Rotten Tomatoes, and see that “Captain America: Civil War” has so far grossed almost 200 million dollars here in America, a large chunk of that during its opening.

“Deadpool”, which was released this February, has grossed almost 76 percent of a billion dollars worldwide. “Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice”, has grossed about 800 million worldwide. Right now we can expect the following superhero movies to come out before we hit 2016: “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Suicide Squad” and “Dr. Strange.”

If you had told me when I was thirteen years old that all six of these movies would be coming out in the same year, much less that three of them would be hugely profitable—if not exactly well-liked, as we all saw with the “Batman Versus Superman” fiasco—I would have said you were out of your mind. Then I would have asked: “Are they anything like the comics?” and I would have had to say “No.”

Here is the thing—I love superheroes. Even when I hate them I love them. I am not a Mark Waid or a Kurt Busiek, but a great superhero story is a taste like almost nothing else. Darwyn Cooke, in his years at DC—he had a falling out with Marvel after he poured a beer on one particular editor’s head—also loved superheroes, embodying them with a playfulness, grace and nobility with every stroke of his pencil.

I am not a purist, but none of the superhero movies that have been made are anything like Darwyn Cooke’s work, and this is a bad thing.

Now, do not get me wrong: There have been those that have come close—the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies are like this, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films capture this, but since the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I think it is fair to say that for the most part superhero films have stopped becoming authorial visions. They have become product, something that you go to as a cultural event rather than a movie. Did you know China has become where a huge chunk of superhero movies get their money? It is not from America—international focus has become how Hollywood has chosen to fight piracy. So every film becomes the equivalent of a roller coaster, from set piece to set piece to set piece, all carefully coordinated by a committee of producers and executives who will not have a single person be alienated by a strange directorial choice.

They are beginning to sound the same, too. “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” have essentially made wry quips the default form of communication in these movies, and heaven knows what “Deadpool” adding curse words to that formula is going to do. The news that David Ayer, director of “Suicide Squad” and mastermind behind projects like “Training Day,” “Fury” and “End of Watch” has been told to reshoot parts of his film to make it more lighthearted frankly depress me. Even though Zack Snyder with “Man of Steel” and “Batman Versus Superman” turned in a bleak, nihilistic, almost absurd take on the two most iconic men in tights ever, at least he was going for something that was uniquely himself.

That is my real grievance here—there is no room for a unique viewpoint. All of the Marvel films are uniform, DC is following in their example, and the X-Men franchise is stuck in the hands of Bryan Singer, who emphasizes the same people over and over and whom isn’t going to let go of the franchise as long as 21st-Century Fox has the rights. Is there no room for a diversity of tone in these several hundred million budget tentpole films? Is it possible for us to get a movie that feels like it was the voice of the person who wrote it?

Spider-Man, from when it was first written by Stan Lee until its current run by Dan Slott, has undergone a number of unique tones even while his character has stayed the same. You can be truthful to the material and still create a great film everyone can like if you trust the right people. Look at what happened with Nolan, or with Raimi. Even Ang Lee’s “Hulk” was a unique film. People still argue about that one. Who cares about the version Marvel did five years later?

Right now, superhero films have failed us with what they promise, being regulated to becoming events rather than individual stories. Were that the same for the industry, we would not have a talent like Darwyn Cooke, who brought joy to thousands of readers and will go down as one of the greats in the medium. Why deny talent?

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