‘Superhero Movie’ Review by Michael H. Price
The superhero, and I don’t mean sandwich, has been a staple of the popular culture since well before the Depression-into-wartime beginnings of Superman and Batman. Those characters’ nascent comic-book adventures of 1938-1939 served primarily to focus a popular fascination with superhuman struggles against extravagant menaces – but similarly conceived protagonists had existed all along in ancient mythology and mass-market popular fiction. And how better to explain the superior heroic intellect of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Seabury Quinn’s phantom-fighting Jules de Grandin, or the beyond-normal escapades of Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel?
People need heroes, he said – if I may adapt a thought from Mike Gold’s recent Hope Versus Fear commentary at ComicMix. Such characters spur the imagination to assume hope in the face of fearful real-world circumstances, even if their activities and abilities (and allegorical antagonists) seem patently outside the realm of possibility. And the spiritual generosity of superheroism is such that people are willing to fork over either hard-earned cash or Daddy’s Money to experience the fantasy: Hence the proliferation of super-hero comic books in the immediate backdraft and long-term vapor-trails of Superman and Batman, and hence those characters’ fairly prompt leap into motion pictures during the 1940s.
Many people regard the superhero movie phenomenon as a fairly recent development, traceable as “far back” as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man breakthrough of 2002, or maybe to the perceived “antiquity” of Richard Donner’s Superman pictures of 1978-1980. Not by a long shot.
Nor are the inevitable superhero parodies – as seen in David Zucker’s collaborative production of Superhero Movie, due March 28 – any particular innovation. Just as there is something awe-inspiring about some guy in long-john tights, hurdling buildings or piercing the veil with a blast of X-ray vision, there also is something innately ridiculous about such a spectacle. Even some of the earlier superhero films, such as Columbia Pictures’ Batman serials of the 1940s, emerged as unwitting parodies despite (or because of) their more earnest aims.
The formal parodies are a rarer breed. Zucker had proved himself a capable spoofer with 1980’s Airplane! – a well-received lampoon of the large-ensemble disaster-movie genre – much as Mel Brooks had parodied such genres as the Western epic and the Gothic horror film (1974’s Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) to pleasing effect. Both artists were springing from the influence of Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad magazine of the mid-century, with its recurring demonstration that a parody must harbor an affectionate understanding of the story it intends to spoof.
Zucker has suffered the occasional lapse in recent years, and his involvement as director of two Scary Movie sequels (2003-2006) – with their skit-like pageantry of send-ups, as opposed to a sustained narrative – suggests a general decline in Hollywood’s ability to turn a popular genre inside-out with laughter. With Superhero Movie, co-producer Zucker and writer-director Craig Mazin have recaptured a vibe very much like that of the original Airplane!
Recalling the genre-savvy sensibilities of Kinka Usher’s impressive Mystery Men (1999; from Bob Burden’s comic-book stories), Superhero Movie re-exaggerates the stock-in-trade exaggerations of such recent comics-based hits as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and Batman movies to an extent that one Web-log reviewer at www.aintitcool.com likens to “watching Spider-Man in a fun-house mirror.” A sturdy basis in sustained storytelling – Drake Bell’s Norman Normal leading character develops superhuman powers, which render normalcy irrelevant – recalls the tribal-memory story-arc of the Spider-Man series but leaves room for references to various other costumed-hero franchises. Mazin’s screenplay bespeaks a tremendous fondness for the idiom in its natural state.
A well-cast ensemble follows suit. Sara Paxton appears as a spirited romantic interest for Bell’s costumed Dragonfly. Chris McDonald makes a suitably absurd surrogate for the first Spider-Man picture’s chief villain. Brent Spiner takes a mad-scientist role beyond madness. Leslie Nielsen, a Zucker-troupe mainstay since 1980, steals the show as an arrogant big shot.
Technical credits, too, are up to snuff, particularly in a jaw-dropping what-the-hell-next? set-piece built around a runaway train and the obstacles in its path. Jerry Zucker’s long-term influence is sufficient to validate his career; that influence is particularly evident in recent films by the English parodists Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, notably Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. But it is especially rewarding to find Zucker reasserting his mastery with Superhero Movie.
The film is as funny as its generally flagging subgenre needs it to be. And heroically so. High time an Airplane!-caliber example got itself put forth.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.