' ' Cinema Romantico: State of the Superhero Displacement

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

State of the Superhero Displacement

“Hi, thanks for waiting.” This is what Monica says the first time we meet her in “Mystery Men” (1999). She has no last name, just Monica, easily affixed to a nametag, like a server at a greasy spoon, which is where Monica works, and is why you might not think anything is out of place if you just saw her. But, of course, you don’t just see her; you see the people on whom she’s waiting. They are all dressed in absurd costumes and call themselves nutso things like The Blue Raja and The Shoveler and Mr. Furious. This is because it’s Champion City and Champion City is home to all manner of superheroes, like if Metropolis was the Olympic Village rather than a bustling New York-ish city. In that way, Monica is the one who stands out; Monica is the one who doesn’t seem to be in the right place; Monica is the anomaly.

When I was first introduced to the superhero movie way back when with “Superman: The Movie”, there was really only one superhero, the Man of Steel himself, Kal-El. He had the stage all to himself. When I became re-familiarized with the superhero movie in 1989 with Tim Burton’s “Batman” there was still only one superhero and one super villain, no one else. I could really get a handle on those dudes. It was with “Batman Forever”, which I loathed, that I noticed the soundstages were getting a little more crowded; someone could have been sacrificed to give that much more face time to the main dude, and Chase Meridian too (biased). But that was nothing compared to now.

Superhero movies are fastly and furiously becoming victims of overcrowding. In my review of “The Avengers” (2012) I noted the gang’s resembling a rock group. And not a power trio, mind you, but a sprawling multi-part ensemble like The E Street Band. But that, as A.O. Scott notes in his review for the new “Captain America” movie, was nothing. He writes that the whole affair is “like the last number at a big benefit concert, when a mob of pop stars squeezes onto the stage to sing ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ or whatever. Some performers sing a whole verse. Others shake maracas for the cause and stare off into the middle distance.” All that’s left is a Cecil B. DeMille-ish superhero movie with a cast of a thousand superheroes, all jockeying for close-ups in a five hour box office bonanza.

There are so many superheroes these days overrunning so many different movies, often with parallel movie universes, and sometimes not, that the state of superhero cinema is beginning to resemble Champion City, where there are so many costumed crusaders and heavies running to and fro that when you actually see a regular person, it’s shocking. I always wondered what brought Monica to Champion City. How did that work? How an ordinary josephine becomes drawn to a place where everyone is fronting so superhero hard? I thought that perhaps she moved there with dreams of becoming a superhero, only to have those dreams go bust, or that maybe she moved there with a boyfriend to support his superhero dreams only for the relationship to fall apart. But I’m not sure that’s right anymore.

I think maybe she’s been there all her life. I think maybe Champion City wasn’t Champion City. I think maybe it was Rockville or Rosedale or Rutland before it was overrun by superheroes, and the villains that followed. I think it’s an exemplar of the destinies of Gotham City and Metropolis, and every other movie city too, places where everyone will become a Monica, off to the side, paying fealty to their superhero overlords.

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