It has now become rather predictable that when a critic walks out of a superhero film feeling less than enthused, someone will accuse him or her of, in some way, doing criticism wrong. If the critic in question is a her, the reaction can be particularly furious. Such was the case with Stephanie Zacharek’s review of “Guardians of the Galaxy” for the Village Voice, and the comments took on a tone that prompted film editor Alan Scherstuhl to respond.
“We’re happy to have you here, just as we were when you made similar complaints about our pre-release reviews of ‘Man of Steel’ and that one movie where Batman cried in a hole for an hour. You were absolutely right about those, of course — both flicks are undisputed masterpieces,” he told the angrier commenters. “So, please, fire away at us! But maybe do yourself and your fan community the solid of actually responding to Zacharek’s arguments rather than just spewing sexist hate.”
Such kerfuffles always make me curious. What defines victory for these sorts of fans, and what does it mean they want from critics like me or Zacharek?
Is it consistent 100 percent ratings on Metacritic (where the score for “Guardians” stands at 76 percent as of this writing) and Rotten Tomatoes (where the number is a bit higher, at 89 percent)? Is it for everything else that has the misfortune to arrive at the box office the same weekend as a superhero picture to declare preemptive surrender and prepare to be crushed? Would an Academy Award suffice? Or does this ethos require a program of total conversion, a sense that the victory will not be won until everyone acknowledges the greatness of superhero movies?
“[T]hese particular dudes — this tiny but vocal subset of angry crybabies for whom near-total dominance over the direction of popular culture is not enough to make up for the time their mom threw out their complete, Mylar-bagged run of ‘Cloak and Dagger’ — are the worst imaginable ambassadors for the fandom they purport to defend,” wrote the critic Sam Adams in response to the Village Voice dust-up. “They make every male fan who’s kept a place in his heart, and on his shelves, for comics while maturing into a fully functioning adult look bad.”
I would argue that this attitude does worse than simply represent nerd culture poorly. It is a betrayal of the very idea that made that culture so powerful in the first place: a sense that the dominant culture does not tell all of our stories, and that it does not meet all of our emotional needs.
I understand that after years of yearning for the kind of big-screen extravaganzas that now seem so routine, and for the respect that so often accompanies them, it may be difficult for some people to make this mental shift. But nerd culture is the dominant culture now, and it is folly to deny it. Superhero movies are perhaps the most secure genre on the planet, though Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise and James Cameron’s “Avatar” movies deserve recognition, too.
The magnanimous — and consistent — position for true geeks would be to acknowledge that while their needs are being met at the box office, plenty of others’ are left unfulfilled. And if they want to make an actual case that superhero movies, science fiction and fantasy are genuinely the most engaging, supple storytelling genres, they need to be open to innovation.
Female leads, variations in tone, stories that do not have to involve the destruction of metropolitan areas (or even action sequences at all) should all be things comics fans and other nerd culture affiliates welcome. Superhero action movies may continue to find new markets overseas if they continue in their current form, but they are unlikely to win new converts among those who have already been exposed and found themselves immune. Resenting people who do not respond the same way to art that you do, particularly when their lack of enthusiasm cannot possibly threaten the future production of things you like, is foolish.
The existence of Marvel’s Netflix’s projects, which will be smaller-scale, New York-based crime shows, does not mean there will be fewer rock-’em-sock-’em big-screen extravaganzas. The profits of superhero movies mean that these production companies do not have to make choices between projects with female leads and movies with male heroes at the fore. Giving someone else what they want or need to see does not mean you will be forced to surrender what you love.
Not everyone will be convinced, but that is fine. It is the dissenters that keep the action going. But when it comes to those pockets of resistance, superhero and geek culture fans might be well advised to remember that not everything is a battle for the end of the world.