May 7th, 2005
Heroes vs. Stars: Revenge of the Nerds
By A. O. SCOTT
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.
While the number of movie stars is dwindling - are there 8 now, or still 10? Does Brad Pitt count? - the ranks of big-screen costumed crime fighters is growing. On June 15, Batman returns - I mean "Batman Begins" - since he already returned 13 years ago, in the second installment of the newly reset series - and the Fantastic Four step out to join their successful Marvel colleagues the X-Men. A new Superman and an updated Wonder Woman are on the horizon, and the conventional wisdom of the moment is that there is room for all of them and more. Even the B- and C-list do-gooders - the Hellboys and Punishers, the Blades and Elektras - get their chance and earn their money. The occasional failure - whether ambitious and flawed like "The Hulk" or extravagantly awful like "Catwoman" - only seems to sharpen the appetite of the public and the eagerness of the studio executives. Unlike movie stars, superheroes do not have agents, weight or drug problems, controversial political beliefs or outrageous salary demands, and their box-office power has yet to find its deadly kryptonite.
Further evidence of the rivalry between movie stars and superheroes can be found in the early pages of "Men of Tomorrow" (2004), Gerard Jones's fast-paced and informative retelling of the origins of modern comic-book culture. In an opening set-up, from which the rest of the book flashes back, Jerry Siegel, one of the Cleveland teenagers who dreamed up Superman back in the Great Depression, is reading an article in the trades about the impending movie based on his creation and contemplating another skirmish in his endless campaign for recognition and compensation. The anecdote, which takes place sometime in the mid-1970's, dramatizes both Siegel's bitter exile from the comic-book world he had helped to invent and also the multimedia juggernaut that comic books had become. Warner Brothers, having recently acquired National Periodical Publications, parent of DC Comics, was gearing up for an exercise in what a later era would call synergy, and it had big plans for "Superman." There was a 300-page script by Mario Puzo and candidates to play the Man of Steel reportedly included Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman.
Those names, appearing on the first page of Mr. Jones's prologue, are at best incidental to his tale, but they do catch the reader's eye, providing a passing glimpse of a strange alternative history of Hollywood. Needless to say, none of those stars got the part. And to picture any one of them in tights and a cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, requires superhuman powers of imagination and results in images of nearly monstrous absurdity. Could we really have had a squinting, sneering Superman ("Do you feel lucky? Well do you, Lex Luthor"), or a scowling, nervous, diminutive Clark Kent ("Ms. Lane, are you trying to seduce me?")? And what about Al Pacino, another hot movie star of the 70's whose name pops up later on?
The very idea - hoo-wah! - seems as much a violation of the laws of nature as X-ray vision, spider sense in humans or unassisted flight. There may have been specific reasons none of these actors wound up attached to the final project, but their collective nonparticipation established a rule that has rarely been flouted. By the time the first "Superman" picture was cast, the title role went to Christopher Reeve, who had the chiseled features, the height and the hint of mischievous self-spoofing that made him seem, at the time and in retrospect, perfect for it. What he did not have was a well-known name or a recognizable image, and that was also perfect. Reeve, an impeccably trained, reasonably talented actor, did interesting work in other pictures, but his stardom was delimited, even as it was enabled, by his most famous character. And like the artists, inkers and writers who brought Superman to life in his original, pulpy incarnation, Mr. Reeve did not own the character, but rather inhabited him, gracefully and with good humor, for as long as the franchise lasted.
Now the franchise is being revived, with an unknown Australian named Brandon Routh stepping into those red midcalf boots for "Superman Returns" next year. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the DC/Warner universe, the moribund "Batman," begun by Tim Burton and run into the ground by Joel Schumacher, has been made over, with Christopher Nolan at the helm of "Batman Begins" and Christian Bale as the young caped crusader. Mr. Bale, like Mr. Maguire - and like Eric Bana ( the Hulk) - is a relatively skinny, serious actor with enough charisma to embody the role but without the kind of excessive individuality that would overshadow it.
The earlier Batmen - Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney - are perhaps the exceptions that prove the rule. Each one had already made - or would subsequently advance - some claim on genuine movie stardom, but their one-shot impersonations of Batman did not do much to elevate their standing. And their intense, unpredictable screen personalities - the very idiosyncrasies that would have formed the basis of lasting stardom - seem to block our access to the fantasy of superheroism, which is based on psychological transparency. Movie stars are glamorous creatures we dream of meeting someday, while superheroes are the people we secretly believe we really are.
That dimension of secrecy is crucial. 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. They can always find work playing villains, as Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger did in the first and last installments of the earlier "Batman" series. So perhaps Mr. Maguire should take heart. When he outgrows his tights and is cast as a misfit with a diabolical plan to destroy the world, rather than as a misfit with a mission to save it, he will at last have proven Chris Rock wrong.
Current Mood: chipper