I caught both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 this week on a whim. At one point an avid comic book reader, I’ve become a glutton for punishment when attempting to reconcile a childhood hobby with a more critical cinematic eye. But the significant depression in the quality of these genre blockbusters is a recent phenomenon. There was a point when a superhero film maintained a measure of spectacle without being inundated with shoddy production, inept direction or categorically befallen to a type of sameness discussed at length by Matt Zoller Seitz (more on that later). I look at Tim Burton’s Batman Returns as the ideal example of a director understanding his source material and coalescing that material with his own visual acuity and directorial tendencies. The effort reflected the finer qualities of cinema and comic books and packaged them into one condensed two-hour effort - essentially where artistic integrity and commercial product meet at a satisfactory median.
Placing the auteur label on directors can be tricky proposition, with Burton perhaps scatting by given his visual and stylistic eccentricities. I hold even more reservations for Christopher Nolan, a director of considerable technical ambition but one who’s stunted by a problematic and ill-defined approach to framing and compositions – this compounded with his struggles to translate source material on a visual level. But if his films have displayed any particular trend, be they his Batman films, Inception, or Memento, it’s that he’s an aggressive storyteller hindered by this visual medium. He strikes me as someone who could tell a very quippy story filled with gesticulations at a party. In spite of my reservations, both Burton and Nolan were capable of producing some fairly interesting interpretations of superhero mythology: their virtues essentially the result of their polar approaches to the Batman pathos. But contemporary superhero films – particularly of this new decade - are plagued by the absence of strength found in their predecessors. Their visual ineptness and directorial anonymity promote fleeting experiences at the cinema. These new films attempt to make statements on contemporary living in such a blanketed manner that they often times register as absent components. And problems arise when the deluge of superhero films rely on the need to create spectacle, effectively stripping away any sense of humanity that would otherwise seem to be written in the DNA of what a superhero strives to be.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier appeals to the sort of Nolan aesthetic found in his Batman films. It’s composed of a fast-moving tracking shots often times scaling miles at time, usually followed by a spinning camera accounting a conversation between multiple people. A visual pattern can be derived, though the overarching tendency here is that the camera rarely, if ever, remains unmoved. It’s when a sequence deviates from this norm, particularly when the picture avoids grandiose spectacle that the film actually seems to offer something more to its audience. But ultimately, it’s another addition to Marvel Comics’ attempt to unite their pictures through a hyperactive and increasingly bland visual design. Narratively speaking, the film is a potpourri of superficial contemporary topics – NSA surveillance, Americanism, the arms race, social media, etc. – though the shallowness in which writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus probe these items are ill-advised for a comic book, let alone a feature film.
Anthony and Joe Russo directed The Winter Soldier, but it’s hard to commend anything about their style beyond being an exercise in constant movement. And this isn’t purely reflective of how the Russos’ handle their characters or the perpetual movement of their camera, but rather the complete absence of reflection at all. This was a significant problem in Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel as well, where death is treated as a collateral damage. This development in superhero pathos is a particularly annoying new attribute. In something like Batman Returns or The Dark Knight, death served as a critical tool in shaping a worldview. In films like Man of Steel and now The Winter Soldier, death is treated without a sense of gravity. Superfluous characters are causalities, with their deaths treated as minor bumps in a narrative motivated by movement. And for characters capable of breaking through the narrative, mortality is exploited as a false dramatic device, thereby reaffirming how simple dramatic technique is rendered disposable.
Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shares a particular kinship with Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, at least in its acknowledgement of comic book tropes and the general artificiality of the world that’s rendered from a superhero’s myth story. It’s anchored in a realm of comic sensibility that’s sorely missed from the overly serious The Winter Soldier. And it has a cast of actors who understands the fundamental tone that ought to be cultivated for a balanced picture.
Webb attempts to balance the overt comic book narrative of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with a sense of sweeping romanticism. Depending on the natural chemistry of his performers – in large part because his screenplay is a poorly devised amalgam calling for histrionics – Webb’s film succeeds on the basis of his performers. Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, and Dane DeHaan coalesce as a functioning new-guard of Hollywood actors capable of keeping afloat a major blockbuster film.
But like The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is derided by its dependence on spectacle that overwhelms any sense of visual acuity. While Webb’s film is more predisposed to utilizing a brighter palette of colors to realize its visual design, it’s also hindered by an extreme overreliance on digital effects to see these visions out. Thankfully, most of these efforts bare some thematic importance – a Times Square sequence that utilizes slow-motion effects is horribly executed but in theory works to establish some measure of humanism that courses throughout the film. And while a hasty final sequence serves to only reinforce how terribly blundersome these effects can be, the performers manage to overcome these obstacles and actually develop some moments of true intimacy. Whereas the forward momentum for The Winter Soldier streamlines much of its efforts to create a wholly forward and propulsive picture, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 displays less finesse in pacing, providing a cumbersome and emotionally clunky experience but one that registers a modicum of personality.
Returning back to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece: while we have fundamental disagreements on the quality of these pictures - the sheer force of The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s performances aligns itself more closely with its bombastic source material than the muted coolness of The Winter Soldier’s absent personality - his comments regarding the increasing sense of commercialization among these pictures are precise. With each subsequent superhero film from these major studios looking to exceed $200 million domestically with every go, the need for artistic liberties or changes of the guard may seem unnecessary. Yet the treatment of these superhero films as a novelty to be exploited will eventually lead to their rejection as a genre. Genre filmmaking, from the Western to the romantic comedy, were each the most prevalent types of filmmaking during their time before a public consensus grew to reject them. What accounts for longevity, though, is a sense of variation between films. As Seitz notes, there’s clearly very little difference in the way these films are constructed, leaving it up to performance eccentricities to compensate for this perpetual sameness. The concept of “superhero fatigue” is prevalent not just for the consistent string of films that these studios churn out, but because of the lack of difference between each subsequent installment in these types of films. Personality goes a long way to define and establish a film without the collective consciousness. Films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are products of a studio system that do not require artistic risk. It’s when these films actually possess a measure of novelty and differentiate themselves from the norm – the chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield or the close-quarters elevator sequence in The Winter Soldier – that any sense of satisfaction is earned. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that these brief moments of satisfaction are becoming less prevalent.