Jodie Foster, winner of two Academy Awards, recently gave a dismissive appraisal of comic book films. Speaking to the Radio Times she said, “Going to the movies has become like a theme park.” Adding, “Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking — you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth.” And in case her opinion wasn’t sufficiently clear, “It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world.”
Foster explained her personal stance on filmmaking, “I feel like I make movies because there are things I have to say in order to figure out who I am or my place in the world, or for me to evolve as a person.” She went on to say that she wasn’t interested in making “$200 million movies about superheroes,” but that she would consider a superhero protagonist if they had “really complex psychology.”
Though Foster is a very talented actress and director who obviously has an insider’s perspective on the movie industry, portions of her comments seem out of touch and misinformed. There’s an argument being thrown around that superhero films are sucking up all the oxygen in the room—be it the studio boardroom where decisions are made about which films to produce, or the cineplex where multiple screens are devoted to a single blockbuster offering, pushing out lower-budget fare.
There might be some merit to this point.
However, there are several things to consider when making this case. Studios are in business, and will therefore continue to make movies that will garner the best financial results. That said, it’s a stretch to claim that they actually set people’s tastes: Do people like superhero films because Hollywood makes them, or do the studios produce them because people like them? A well-made film resonates with quality regardless of genre, just as a well-told story engages, no matter its style. Are the five or six superhero films being produced per year really overwhelming the balance of the entire industry?
Despite how much money these films generate, overall box office continues to trend downward and studios are producing fewer films each year. Tentpole films cost more to produce and market, but when they succeed they prop up the production of other smaller movies. Comic book themed movies aren’t the only event films released, yet they’re the ones most often denigrated because their subject matter is considered juvenile. When Pixar took a more complex approach to animated movies, critics lauded the studio. Cartoons were allowed to grow up. Not everyone is prepared to admit comic book movies have done the same.
As for going to a theme park: Most families can’t afford to go to the theater every week, so they save up for those special cinematic experiences they believe demand a big screen viewing. In a tight economy, where people are watching their budgets closely, theaters face serious competition from pay cable and streaming services which offer increasingly high-end production values, first rate writing and acting, and instant gratification—all at a lower price point. Foster herself recently directed an episode of the acclaimed Netflix series Black Mirror; it’s a bit disingenuous for her to bemoan the damage to the industry when she’s working for the competition. Not that I fault her for doing so. There’s a place (and yes, it’s a marketplace) for any quality product. There should be enough of an audience for theatrical releases to continue to thrive alongside their homebound competitors.
However, the most off-putting element to the critique, is how Foster lumps all superhero films into one homogenous ball of vapid, taste-shredding, world-destroying dreck. The problem with blanket statements is that they are sometimes dangerous and nearly always misinformed. Is Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho on par with Rob Zombie‘s Halloween? They’re both slasher films that feature a protagonist with mommy issues: Why is one universally recognized as a classic to be studied and analyzed by aspiring filmmakers, and the other dismissed as schlock? Are Zombie’s version of the story and John Carpenter‘s original equal as cinematic achievements or statements? Who’s to say Rob Zombie’s film should be dismissed at all, simply because it isn’t to everyone’s taste?
Not all superhero films have been fluff, guilty of destroying the public’s taste for denser fare. Claiming they are, Foster comes across as either elitist or misinformed; in either case, the validity of her opinion suffers. It’s easy to dismiss a genre by picking at the worst examples of its type, but it requires distorting the facts.
Having a protagonist who happens to have powers will neither guarantee a film’s box office success nor doom it to be cotton-candy garbage. Every culture throughout history has had its myths and hero stories, and superheroes are simply a modern expression of the same. People who want to denigrate these films, or at best dismiss them as a fad, are missing the point. These stories aren’t likely to go away any time soon.
Though many present their arguments on the basis of this being a new genre, the majority of these characters have endured in other media for decades. They have proven their enduring qualities. Rather than disappear, they’ll simply evolve over time to suit our cultural narrative needs.
The ancient Greek myths provide an interesting comparison. There’s a world of difference between the ancient tales of Herakles, and Disney‘s animated Hercules (with the sword and sandal Steve Reeves epics, and the TV show from the late ’90s etc. in between), but each served its needs and pleased its audience. Perhaps they won’t all be equally remembered, but we still treasure the character and the gist of his stories: There’s something at the core of the story that resonates with audiences throughout eras and across cultures.
For young viewers, Superman is now the Henry Cavill iteration (with a zip past the Brandon Routh experiment), though once upon a time he was the Tom Welling version, and before that Christopher Reeve, and George Reeves well before that… clearly it isn’t about the actors, or the films or shows. It’s about the character himself and what he embodies. Each generation may have their particular ‘man of steel‘—but there is always a Superman who endures and evolves as needed.
Whether it’s Herakles or Clark Kent, creating and sharing the best of these stories has always been about defining our own place in the world, as Foster herself alludes to in her takedown of the genre. Superman is intriguing because even though he has the powers of a god, he strives to be an everyman. His struggle contrasts the everyman’s, and therefore lends itself to interesting explorations of the human condition: If god wants to be like us, what does that say about us wanting to be like gods?
Foster claims that she makes movies because there are things she wants to figure out about herself or her place in the world, yet doesn’t recognize that’s the genesis of nearly every hero myth and every superhero story. It’s not about their powers or supposed infallibility, it’s about their journeys and evolution. The best of these films still touch us on a human level, regardless of the presence of the superhuman.
The motion picture industry has always been propelled by fads and copycat formulaic approaches to creating and selling its products. Action pictures, disaster films, science fiction yarns, western oaters, biblical epics, detective stories, film noir, screwball comedies—the list of genres, fads, styles and tropes is long and the production trends are cyclical. But great movies withstand the test of time, regardless of what’s in fashion.
The superhero film is actually no longer even limited to one genre. Creators don’t want to repeat themselves ad nauseam, so we’ve seen political thrillers, comedies, buddy pictures and soon horror films and epics, all featuring powered protagonists. Should they be classified as superhero films or some other genre? Do labels matter? These films will either be good and endure, or crap and they’ll be forgotten.
People won’t be harmed—lets not sell them short. There’s room for all sorts of movies, just as it’s all right for there to be a broad diversity of tastes. We don’t all have to like the same films. A film doesn’t have to be deep to be enjoyable, and not all that are deep are well made. For a film to endure, it must resonate with the audience at some elemental level. Some of these films have achieved that and will therefore age well and be remembered as more than “bad content” on par with the destruction wrought by “fracking.”
Maybe some of Jodie Foster’s peers who’ve made great superhero films will send her examples to enjoy—and study. Perhaps after realizing that many superheroes do actually have a “really complex psychology,” she’ll pitch a story to the studios and make a superhero movie herself.
I’d pay to see that.