Comics · Sci-Fi · TV & Movies

No Apologies: Man of Steel, the MCU, and Flash Gordon

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… Rocket_Raccoon_GotGwe 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 cflash-gordon.19324hildlike 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.

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13 thoughts on “No Apologies: Man of Steel, the MCU, and Flash Gordon

  1. A movie with a serious tone like Man of Steel could be good, but if you’re going to go that rout, you’d better make sure your storytelling is brilliant. Man of Steel completely fails in that regard. I hated the movie for a number of reasons, but the serious tone isn’t necessarily one of them.

    I think it’s good that DC’s going a different route than Marvel with their movies, taking a generally more serious tone, but with the suggestion that most of their movies will be devoid of humour of any kind, it sounds like they’re taking it too far. Even Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies had a touch of humour every now and then, and it did wonders to break up the overall bleak tone of the movies. It doesn’t hurt that the first two movies are masterworks of storytelling (I didn’t like the third one nearly as much – it felt like a crowded mess).

    Marvel’s movies feel a lot more balanced. Sure, they’re mainly created to entertain us, but they also have their deep, dramatic moments. Guardians of the Galaxy is the perfect example of this. It’s fun, bright and colourful, and it has some of the most memorable jokes of 2014’s entire movie world. Yet at the same time, there are several moments that brought audiences to tears. If a movie can make you cry with a raccoon who’s holding a stick, you know the cast and crew have done something right.

    As for Flash Gordon, I really have to see that movie sometime. Another completely non-serious superhero movie would be Batman 66. That won’t be for everyone, but I like it, and it’s part of the reason Superheroes have become so popular over the years, so we should be thankful for it.

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    1. Yes! I loved the Batman movies. But they had good storytelling and they knew how to pace the mood. They used jokes to make it more intense using those little flashes of humor, and it kept them from being offputting. Their current focus on NO JOKES NOTHING FUNNY THIS IS SERIOUS misses the point, and it’s another way of saying “This isn’t silly like OTHER superhero stuff…” when that’s totally the wrong thing to say.

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  2. I also think part of the problem is the lack of humor in DC movies. Everything. Has. To. Be. Dead. Serious. And. Melodramatic. 😀 They did their best in The Flash, where they embraced the complete ridiculousness that is… well, the Flash 🙂

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      1. Green Lantern was awful, except for the one line where she was like “we grew up together, you thought I wouldn’t recognize you because I can’t see your cheekbones?”
        (And then they had the green cheekbones, dead serious, in Arrow. DC doesn’t know a win when it sees one.)

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  3. Yes, I think you are right: the DC movies have no confidence in their storyines. Nolan’s Batman movies are depressing and the third makes little sense at all. The MCU movies and Flash Gordon told its audiences: “Let’s have fun!” The TV show THE FLASH is an audience pleaser just because it says the same thing to the viewers. Great post. 🙂

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    1. Thanks! 🙂 Part of it is certainly that the MCU contains high-quality movies, and many of the pre-MCU movies, including those from the same company, are not of the same quality or they don’t offer enough fun with their seriousness. And I think part of why they DON’T offer that sense of fun is that they’re worried they won’t be taken seriously.

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  4. Now I definitely need to watch this movie! I think my first inclination that the Marvel Studios films were going to be great was when the first X-Men came out, even though it occurred before MCU. Wolverine and Cyclops making all the cracks about spandex and other stuff from the comics made me really happy. It let me forgive a not-so-religious adaptation of canon, and just have fun with it.

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    1. Yes, the X-Men are another great example of creating a coherent world and not holding back or apologizing for it. That first X-Men was my first superhero movie, come to think of it!

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  5. I find that a lot of non-MCU movies of recent years are failing for the reason you mention above. They try way too hard to convince non-comic fans that the movie “could be okay if you’d just give it a chance, and we swear we’re trying our very, very hardest to appeal to you!” Meanwhile all they’re accomplishing is to alienate the millions of ACTUAL comic fans who would have loved the movie to begin with if they’d just accepted the fact that they’re making a damn comic book movie. 😛

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    1. Yep. I didn’t want to be too MCU-heavy, they’re not the only successes and other movies aren’t the only ones lacking, but there’s a lean in that direction. 🙂 The MCU, and before that The Dark Knight, proved that mass audiences dig GOOD superhero movies.

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