It was silly of me, I suppose, to hope that a follow-up to WandaVision, Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home would be anything but disappointing; I just didn’t expect it to be as disappointing as this. I guess sometimes green means stop.
And as General Zod sinks slowly in the west, we bid farewell to successful superhero movies for a while. If I’m going to cover the entire history of superhero movies, then that means taking the bad with the good, so I’m about to enter the string of disappointing comic book movies of the 80s, including Swamp Thing, Supergirl and Howard the Duck, which convinced everyone at the time that making movies based on comic books was a dumb idea.
Meanwhile, way over here on the other side of history, we live in a world where making as many movies based on comic books as possible is the only logical course for every single movie studio to pursue. You can tell that the nerds have won because a movie about a minor Spider-Man character comes out, and the entire pop culture discussion around the movie is about which Marvel movie “universe” it belongs in. This is not normal pop culture behavior.
At this point in the blog, Superman II has two current plot tracks. In one thread, three powerful, untouchable people drop from the sky, and immediately start exploiting and gentrifying, destroying both the environment and the economy of a struggling rural town. Meanwhile, nerdy Clark Kent finally gets a date with the girl he’s been crushing on by revealing to her that he’s secretly rich and famous, and now he’s driving that point home by whisking her off to the ice mansion party palace that his dad built for him.
In other words, this is a movie about white people.
Now, obviously, that’s not unique for the genre. It turns out that big-ticket superhero movies tend to be produced by rich white people, so they’re usually about an individual or a small group of people who become immensely powerful, often from birth or by accident, who then battle the forces of disruption and social change, in service of the status quo.
And then there’s The Batman, which is all about how terrible white people are. And I have to say, it makes a compelling case.
I’ve been writing about the first Superman movie for several months in this blog, and I’m just reaching the end of his first date with Lois Lane. And if you want to know how superhero movies have changed from their relatively humble beginnings in 1978 to the frantic blockbuster factory of today, consider this: Superman: The Movie just spent a full twelve minutes entirely focused on the two main characters getting to know each other. I can’t imagine a superhero movie in the 2020s spending twelve minutes focused on anything; they can’t even make one movie at a time.
Just the fact that I can think of Superman as a “humble beginning” is insane; in 1978, they spent 55 million dollars making it the biggest and most exciting film that they could assemble. But as of this weekend, the film seems impossibly small.
This blog is a history of superhero movies, but I don’t want to be stuck entirely in the past, while the rest of the world moves forward. So when a new superhero movie is released, I’ve been writing special weekend popcorn posts looking at what the current film tells us about where this history is going. So far, Superman: The Movie has held up pretty well in comparison to Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Eternals, but the scale of Spider-Man: No Way Home is a different universe entirely.
Spider-Man: No Way Home assumes that the audience has spent the last fifteen years watching superhero movies. To fully appreciate it — or even just to follow what’s going on — you need to have watched at minimum eight other movies, with bonus points for following several spinoffs, including TV shows on two different streaming services. In the normal world that we inhabited not that long ago, that level of pre-release homework assignment would kill the picture; you can easily imagine the scathing reviews, saying that this movie is too complex and self-referential to appeal to mainstream audiences. But it looks like No Way Home is on its way to the 2nd best opening weekend of all time, with a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Anyone who’s been tut-tutting about the future of superhero movies needs to reconsider; the lonely echoes of the singing cowboys calling across the prairie have never seemed so far away.
“It is forbidden for you to interfere in human history,” Jor-El says, and to the limited extent that means anything, he’s sincere about it. In Superman: The Movie, we’re supposed to admire the crystal palaces of Krypton, but the point of the film is the development of Superman’s connection to everyday life on Earth. Sure, there’s a galaxy-spanning backstory in there, but ultimately, the thing that’s really important is Earth, and real people. And then there’s Eternals, the new Marvel Studios movie that has kind of a different take on that question.
In this blog, I’m telling the story of how blockbuster superhero movies developed into a dominant cultural force, starting in 1978 with Superman and moving on chronologically from there. So far, I’m about an hour into the first movie, and there’s a long way to go. But out in the real world, that history is still going on, so when a new movie is released, I take a look at what’s happening in popcorn world, and what it has to do with the movie I’m currently writing about. Last month, I wrote about the Spider-Man spinoff Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and this weekend, the latest movie is Marvel Studios’ Eternals.
Honestly, I can’t think of a movie more appropriate for this treatment, because Eternals asserts that all of history was influenced by a set of gorgeous extraterrestrial cover models, who are responsible for every good idea in human civilization, specifically including Superman. Apparently, I’ve been writing about these people all along.
So here’s the thing: I’m currently telling the story of the development of blockbuster superhero movies in chronological order, and at the moment, I’ve only gotten as far as 27 minutes into the genre’s first film, 1978’s Superman: The Movie.
But while I’m doing that, the world is moving on, churning out new superhero movies at an unbelievable clip, and leaving me even further behind. Out in the world, this history is still unfolding, and if I ignored what’s happening right now, then this project would be a dusty museum piece, rather than a living story that’s connected to who and where we currently are.
So when a new superhero movie is released — which at this point might as well be every couple of weeks — I’m going to write a weekend popcorn post, comparing the new film with the movie that I’m currently writing about, to draw connections between them, and explore where this genre is headed. As of this weekend, the latest release is Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff Venom: Let There Be Carnage, which as far as tone is concerned is about as far away from Superman: The Movie as you can get.
Here we stand, on a family farm in Smallville, Kansas, where Jonathan Kent is about to deliver some inspirational words of advice about restraining our darker impulses in order to find our true purpose in life, and then along comes Venom, who encourages us to do exactly the opposite.