WHEN DID WE STOP ‘GROWING UP’?
Until 2009, Jerome Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris. He had much to say about Hollywood, such as “We’re the country of movie stars because the stars, like ourselves, represent a kind of extended infantilism, beauties waiting for the big chance.” The beautiful infants needn’t wait any longer; their dream comic book Hollywood is up and running.
Prior to the tragedy of 9/11, about three superhero films per year were produced, such as Superman and Batman. That figure has increased to 20. The effects of 9/11 would reverberate throughout the movie industry during the first decade of the 21st century. On September 11 2001 cinemas were running a trailer for Spider-Man, due for release in May 2002.It featured Spider-Man spinning a web between the Twin Towers, trapping a helicopter of criminals. This promotional clip and accompanying posters, featuring the towers reflected in Spider Man’s eyes, was quickly pulled out of circulation. Yet since the advent of comic books in the 1930s, superheroes had come to mean something therapeutic. They were the very opposite of the evil which had crashed planes into New York’s skyline. Superheroes appear as our much-needed saviors, wrapped in the stars and stripes. The plotlines of the new wave of movies reflect a safe resistance to sinister modern threats, a protection acted out in capes, spandex and helmets by a breed or human we may aspire to be; fair, thoughtful, considerate and invincible. As well as a growing creative infantilism, they also represent the largest profit figures ever for the film industry.
The highest paid millionaire screenwriters today, men like Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, have 24 movies between them. Most of the titles tell it all; Avengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil War (plus 2 more in the franchise) Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Infinity War and more of the same. Like George Lucas, the author of the limitless Star Wars franchise, these well-heeled scribes specialize in superhero fantasy; American heroes punishing the sinister enemies of the American Way. Comic book men (and women) in tights are big business. In 2020, such films including Wonder Woman 1984, The Birds of Prey, Joker, Black Panther and Iron Man brought in immense box office revenues[i]. Marvel Comics lead the way with high production budgets. Avengers: Endgame (2019) cost 356 million U.S. dollars, earning nearly 2.8 billion dollars worldwide – over seven times its budget. Some box office takings for Marvel movies such as Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3 can reach a billion dollars. DC Comics have also reaped rich rewards with films such as Aquaman and Wonder Woman, which grossed over 410 million dollars.
Of course, we’ve always had childish movie-going. For children. Walt Disney led the field and today the Disney Corporation owns Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. Today superheroes dominate tinseltown’s output whilst grown-up stories with texture and character are more likely to end up streamed via Netflix, Amazon or Sky on TV.
On November 17, 2018, the US comedian Bill Maher, an astute and often acerbic critic of US culture, on his HBO show Real Time[ii], in a feature entitled ‘Adulting’ commented, “twenty years or so ago, something happened — adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” Of course, the outraged Twitterati villagers lit their torches and chased him off the cliff, accusing him of disrespecting Marvel Comics hero Stan Lee.
Perhaps we can’t entirely blame men who wear their Y-fronts on top of their tights for our dumbing-down. Since 9/11 the Smartphone, no longer a device of simple communication, has blotted out the brains of vast swathes of humanity who wander zombie-like through the world, permanently transfixed by this expensive device welded to their outstretched hand. Along with the unhinged platforms of batshit conspiracy web sites and the increasing nastiness of social media, it’s a wonder if any meaningful thoughts pass through addled craniums at all. Once again, America’s Bill Maher succinctly sums things up:
“I’m not saying we’ve necessarily gotten stupider. The average Joe is smarter in a lot of ways than he was in, say, the 1940s, when a big night out was a Three Stooges short and a Carmen Miranda musical. The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff.”[iii]