Today, we discuss three different kinds of comic book movies. The first kind will mostly be represented by Man of Steel, although that’s hardly the only example — there’s both Hulk movies, for instance. These are superhero movies that try to be realistic, which is cool and interesting, but these are also movies that downplay their comic book roots. They’re apologizing for being superhero movies in the first place. Man of Steel famously never even says the word “Superman.”
That could be an interesting choice, sure. Shows like Arrow and Daredevil are following similar paths. The difference is that Man of Steel and movies of its kind seem to think we might not like them. “I’m terribly sorry… I know this is a superhero movie… Yes, yes there are some aliens and there is a caped costume, but I swear you might like it, just give it a chance… we won’t make a big deal of anything silly. Please watch it.” It’s no coincidence that the movie didn’t do all that great critically or financially.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, on the other hand, is the great success of comic-book movies. It takes a similar approach, going for a certain realism while maintaining some craziness, but it succeeds. It achieves emotional depth while maintaining a level of continuity with (or acknowledgement of) canon, a playfulness and understanding that we love these characters. They actively do not apologize — they give you a movie about a space raccoon, and KNOW you’re gonna love it. The trailers may joke about what a terrible idea the whole thing is, but they don’t act like they’re worried. The MCU has occasional missteps, cluttered movies, overly-changed origin stories and the like, but they know exactly how to skirt the line between realism and fantasy.
And then there’s Flash Gordon (1980), a comic-book movie of an different order entirely. Not only does it not apologize for craziness, it makes no attempt at realism at all. From start to finish, every last bit of it is comic-book craziness. It hits that beautiful balance of doing crazy things but playing them straight. It enters a comic-book world where everything is stylized and people are simplified, without tipping over into naivete and idiocy. It shows a good and virtuous hero, who’s not annoying or childlike or pompous. The science works on comic-book logic and nobody cares. It’s totally committed to its dreamlike space opera, the sheer number of settings is impressive, and the costumes… oh, the costumes. It’s an entire aesthetic, with a soundtrack and plot to match. No half measures. I saw it for the first time last weekend, and for this nerd, it was a revelation.
Not everyone is going to like space opera or superhero movies or comic-book movies of any kind. That’s fine, we all have our preferences. I don’t really like war movies. But that just means I’m not going to watch very many of them. The target audience for a movie is people who will like that movie. The hordes of people who are seeing these movies aren’t apologizing for it! Some comic tropes are certainly problematic, and some movie choices troubling. Some movies are higher-quality than others, too. But before we can talk about those things, we need to get past the idea that comics are shameful material, and Flash Gordon demonstrates just how much that’s possible.