Friday, May 13, 2005
revenge of the nerdish
Apparently, comics are more important in our culture than we'd like to admit, even to ourselves.
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: May 8, 2005
ONE of the few memorable moments in Chris Rock's bridge-burning turn as host of this year's Oscar broadcast was his observation that while Russell Crowe is a bona fide movie star, Tobey Maguire is "a boy in tights." This remark was taken, and was probably to some extent intended, as a cruel put-down of a fine young actor, but it nonetheless illustrated a basic axiom of popular culture that has nothing in particular to do with Mr. Maguire's masculinity or Mr. Crowe's clout. Simply put, a superhero is not a movie star, and vice versa. Indeed, one might go so far as to say that as a cultural figure, the superhero is the opposite - the nemesis, the secret alter ego, the evil twin, the Bizarro-world double - of the movie star. And in their battle for world domination, notwithstanding Mr. Rock's mockery (though implicitly reflected in it), the superheroes are winning.
Their ascendancy in Hollywood is a triumphal chapter in a 70-year epic during which comic books have moved from the disreputable, juvenile margins of pop culture to its center. And not only pop culture, but upper-middlebrow literature, too, as young middle-aged novelists like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem have found in the realm of boyhood fandom a rich store of ready-made myths, mysteries and moods.
The cachet of comics - and I mean the old, cheap, pulpy kind, not "comix" or "graphic novels" - is all the more remarkable given that for most of their history, they could count on provoking the disdain of literary intellectuals, the panic of moralists and the condescension of mainstream show business, which saw them as fodder for cartoons and campy kid shows. The days when a film critic could wish that comic books would just go away - as Robert Warshow did in a brilliantly ambivalent 1954 essay on his young son's fandom - are long gone. The superheroes demand to be taken as seriously as they have always taken themselves.
For one thing, they command some very serious money. The ostensible point of Mr. Rock's riff was that only a handful of certified movie stars can guarantee box-office success, and that the studio executives should bear this in mind when casting their would-be blockbusters. But the numbers tell a somewhat different story, since the movies featuring Mr. Maguire in tights, "Spider-Man" and "Spider-Man 2," had two of the biggest opening weekends in movie history and have outgrossed Mr. Crowe's entire catalog so far. Credit for those huge numbers, needless to say, belongs more to Spidey than to the person in his costume, and it is the web-slinger and his ilk who currently dominate the box office. [...] Comic books are the foundation of a fan culture once derided and now celebrated as the province of nerds, misfits and losers - young men, like their idols' alter egos, who could compensate for their social marginality by coming to the rescue of the society that had spurned and mocked them. Their origin stories are tales of shame, victimization and abandonment overcome by lonely discipline and endless self-sacrifice. (Batman, the orphaned heir to the Wayne fortune, and Spider-Man, a working-class orphan from Queens, share not only secret identities but also a penchant for solitude and melancholy.) Stars, on the other hand, are the society's most cherished winners, congratulated for being themselves, drawing attention in the way that the masked, disguised and anxious supermen never do.
Or so we're told. Within the confines of their narratives on page and screen, the superheroes will be perpetual underdogs - the paradox that has kept them going throughout their history. But as any comic book reader knows, their victory is never final, and the vanquished movie stars will never vanish altogether....
On the one hand, it's likely that if Spiderman keeps making money, in the near term at least, Tobey Maguire will make considerably more money per picture than Russell Crowe, Oscar or no Oscar. On the other hand ... if what Maguire wants is to be seen as an actor rather than as a star, then he's in a somewhat problematic position. In the end, he might rather have something that looks more like Russell Crowe's career, but that's not going to happen for him for a long time.
As for the comic book characters, the article may only be partially correct. For characters that spend most of their time masked, it may well be that anyone can play them; in that case, the mask may be what's important. For other characters, however, you may wind up with a different result. Both George Reeves and Christopher Reeve struggled throughout their professional lives with being indelibly associated with Superman -- and if he's any good at portraying the character, I'd wager that Brandon Routh will run into the same problems. It may work to start out without a recognizable name or image, but you'll wind up with one pretty quickly, and then spend a good deal of your career trying to shed it. Similarly, although it's not quite the same, it would be difficult to imagine anyone but Ron Perlman playing Hellboy; they just seem meant for each other. (And if there's really going to be a Hellboy 2, then Guillermo del Toro had better get a move on and start making the damn thing. Ron Perlman may be in absolutely incredible shape, but he's still 55, and it may not be long before he's too old to make the character work on the big screen, heavy red makeup or no.) And I'd be willing to bet that unless they start rotating actors into the characters, certain of the people in the X-Men franchise are going to find it difficult to deal with type casting and people's mental associations as well.
Or, to put it all more tersely: it might work best for the role to cast an unknown, but what works best for the actor if the role makes them a star?
Posted by iain at 06:37 PM in category things comickal