Monday, February 15, 2021

Twilight of the Spandex Idols

 It's over.

The golden age of superheroes, that began with the first X-Men movie and reached critical mass with Iron Man and The Dark Knight, then peaked with the Infinity War movies, is now winding down and wrapping up. The Zack Snyder movie isn't going to revive the genre, because the genre is exhausted and can't be revived. 

Not only is the genre exhausted, but the very-costly CGI these films live and die on doesn't look nearly as impressive on a TV screen-- even a large TV screen-- as it does on the silver screen. In fact, the CGI looks kind of dopey and silly, and makes everything look like a 90s video game.

Superheroes getting meta and self-parodic -- like The Boys and Wandavision -- is always a strong indicator of a cycle's end. Marvel began publishing a self-parody in 1967 after the so-called Silver Age had peaked creatively and began to ebb. Superhero parodies were big in the mid-to-late 80s as Watchmen and The Dark Knight put the Canonical Age of Superheroes to rest. 

Parodies -- often unintentional -- rose up again in the mid-90s after the market crashed and the first wave of self-cannibalizing retread superheroes that rose in the wake of the Canonical Age's end crashed on the rocky shores of a pandemic of retailer insolvency.

Comic book sales have gotten so catastrophically bad that no one releases their sales figures anymore. Mind you, those figures have been artificially inflated for a very long time, to cover for the fact that there were never more than 250 thousand active comic-book fans in the US at any given point since the mid-70s. But the nature of the specialty market -- which cushioned publishers against losses by eliminating returns of unsold product -- was enough to sustain a brisk and profitable industry for quite some time, even when you consider the periodic market crashes.

The class of TV superheroes aimed at a young female audience (mainly on the CW network) was never entirely healthy but the shows are all cratering -- hard -- now. The writers and producers of these shows are like the FAS-addled heirs of old money fortunes, selling off the carpets and silverware to support their bath-salts and clown-porn addictions. All they've really done with their careers is burn down the mansions that reared them and salt the fields that fed them. 

Publishers and producers alike are showing signs of panic and desperation in the face of encroaching economic oblivion, hence Hail Mary moves like arbitrary race/sex/gender swapping in hopes of finding new demographics to hawk their sloppy seconds to. You also can't help but get the feeling they -- and anyone signing off of these sure-fire failures -- are just trying to burnish their CVs with PC points for when they inevitably hit up Netflix for a pity deal.

The fact that so much hope is being placed on Zack Snyder's Justice League shows just how desperate things are getting. Joss Whedon's Justice League was a miserable failure that cost a lot of top execs at Warners their jobs. And surprise of surprises, Whedon's long-whispered assholery is finally getting real exposure, just in time to clear a social media path for the premiere of Snyder's version. 

Longtime readers know I'm a huge fan of Snyder's Watchmen (sue me), which I think underperformed at the box office for the same reasons his other DC movies did: his sensibility is too 90s grunge-dark for the mass market, especially for families. So I'm not necessarily expecting his Justice League to suck. I'm just expecting it to be too dark for the audience HBO Max needs to pump up its subscription numbers. 

Whedon took the reins on Justice League when Snyder suffered a family tragedy, in what was one of the weirdest moves in showbiz history. Kind of like if Soundgarden replaced Chris Cornell with Weird Al Yankovic. Whedon ballooned the budget by reshooting like a drunken sailor, and it all came out like the sauerkraut ice cream sundae you'd expect from such mismatch of sensibilities. I'm sure the Snyder cut will be a lot better-- and a lot more coherent-- I just think it's too late.

The stench of failure is now wafting from the genre, a stench that's very hard to wash off. Wonder Woman 1984 was a flop at a time the studio could least afford it. The new Batwoman series is an absolute catastrophe, its latest episode barely squeaking by a half-million viewers. A planned Wonder Girl series was killed in the cradle. Supergirl was canceled, Black Lightning is about to follow, and Swamp Thing was axed before it could find an audience. The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow sputter on with absolutely no effect or impact on the culture.

Marvel seems to be very gun-shy about releasing Black Widow, not exactly a vote of confidence in a picture that was finished some time ago. And they're pinning their "Phase Four" hopes on a clutch of characters with no constituency or track record. In fact, they're following in the footsteps of Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and adapting a lot of the characters launched to reverse the company's fortunes after the superheroes of the 60s-- the same ones who made billions for Disney in the 2010s-- began to sputter in the sales department. It didn't work then; why should it work now?

I can speak to this with some authority, having created artwork for Marvel characters as a freelancer for 25 years. I was also a huge fan of The Eternals, Shang-Chi (AKA Master of Kung-Fu) and -- of course -- Doctor Strange as a kid, but I was a weird kid. None of these characters had much of a following back in the day, and they've had series relaunch after relaunch over the years without much success.

Even this Justice League project harkens back to those decline years: the film frontlines Darkseid and Steppenwolf and the rest of Jack Kirby's 'Fourth World' milieu. Kirby created these characters when he left Marvel for DC, and despite the endless revisionism from his apologists, they were miserable failures, sales-wise. They've since been given chance after chance to find an audience and they just never could. They're just not very interesting characters. 

Jim Starlin, a death-obsessed Vietnam vet who borrowed heavily from Kirby for his Infinity Gauntlet/War stories (Thanos is a shameless knockoff of Darkseid), finally figured out a good use for the Fourth World-- as Justice League supporting characters-- in the Cosmic Odyssey miniseries in 1988 and set the stage for their exploitation from that point on.

It's interesting to see the same characters launched after the Silver Age/Avengers characters crossover event "The Kree-Skrull War" was published in 1971 slated for "Phase Four" MCEU movies. "Kree-Skrull" was the prototype that gave rise to The Infinity Gauntlet twenty years later and eventually reached its apotheosis with The Infinity War/Endgame films. 

Of course, all of the friggin' lockdowns are just making everything worse. Comic book stores were already gagging for air before them, and I have no idea how they're keeping afloat now. Conventions-- pathogen incubators in the best of times-- have all been shuttered and I doubt many will resurface even if all this bullshit ever does end. An open question, at this point in time.

I hate to see anyone suffer but I can't say I'm feeling too sorry for these people. Most of them -- and ALL of them under the age of 30 -- are mewling Party bootlickers, and accept everything the corporate media feeds them with a degree of quasi-religious submission the Taliban would find excessive.

So after dodging the Reaper more times than I can count, I think superheroes are finally finished as a cultural force. At least for the foreseeable future. Superheroes belong to nations, not empires. They're the big brother who sticks up for you when you're getting picked on in the schoolyard. They first arose amongst the poverty and urban violence during the waves of mass immigration in the early 20th century, and went mainstream in response the rise of organized crime in the Prohibition era. 

They got a makeover in the run-up to World War II, with all the campy, fetishistic costumes (most of the first wave of superheroes wore regular street clothes, more or less). You had the whole Nazi-punching business in the early days of the war which bluechecks on Twitter love to post on their timelines, conspicuously ignoring the more problematic racist caricatures of... well, pretty much everyone else in pretty much all of the other comics. 

And those same bluechecks don't dare mention all the Commie punching, which you saw on those same comic book covers for the next couple of decades after the war ended. Same way they don't dare mention in their Boomermemes the inconvenient fact that those Antifa forefathers who stormed the beaches at Normandy were fighting in racially-segregated militaries.

We won't talk about all the Klan-level grotesque racist caricaturing from those same heroic Hitler-punching purveyors (racism which seems to getting memory-holed on search engines), nor will we talk about all the blatant pedophilia, either. Actually, psychologists like Josette Frank and Frederic Wertham and cultural commentators like Gershem Scholem were talking (more like screaming to the rafters) about the rampant pedophilia in comic books, in the 40s, 50 and 60s, respectively. And people listened, which is why Congress cracked down on the industry. That's gotten memory-holed, too. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it's nearly impossible not to get a snootful of pedo-ick looking at all the "boy sidekicks" of the Golden and Silver Age of superhero comics. It was particularly icky at DC, which Scholem might have been referencing when he declared the entire industry to be made up of kiddie-fiddlers. Of course, you can say the same thing about whoever came up with all the ancient myths superhero creators were lifting ideas from. The more things change and all that.

I'm certainly not saying superheroes are going to disappear entirely, but I am saying their moment has passed. Nothing really ever goes away anymore, so they'll stick around in some form or other. Me, I largely stopped reading superheroes (conventional superheroes, certainly) after The Dark Knight and Watchmen first came out, because I didn't see the need for new stories. Frank Miller and Alan Moore had put the final touches on the archetype and there didn't seem to be any need to say anything further. And no one really has. 

Nothing really new has been said about superheroes since the mid-1980s because nothing really new can be said about superheroes  Same way nothing really new can be same about Westerns. They're both relics of a long-dead America and exist only as nostalgia (Westerns) or as spectacle (superhero movies). And the mind-controlled minions streaming into the entertainment racket with cultural studies degrees are literally incapable of saying anything new or interesting about anything. I'm not even saying that as a dig, it's just the way it is. Creativity -- and basic, rudimentary talent, for that matter -- runs counter to their programming.

In the end result, superheroes got a good century to speak their piece, same way the cowboys did. But they don't mean anything anymore, they don't matter anymore and they only exist to generate revenue for multinational corporations. And once that revenue finally dries up - which it's starting to-- they'll retreat to the margins just like every other spent cultural force has. The process has begun in earnest and there's no stopping it. 

Just like there's no stopping the impending collapse of the American Empire that reared them.

Come recite your eulogies in the Den.