Anthropologists say you can measure the progress of a civilization by its superhero movies. For proof of this, go grab any film in the genre up to the first few years of the 21st century. Whether it's cringe-worthy jokes or jarring shifts in tone, there are moments that are so out of place that they feel like they're from another era entirely. For instance ...
The 2002 Spider-Man film is a revolutionary superhero movie in the sense that it's not embarrassed to be a superhero movie. Just two years before, we'd gotten X-Men, a sterile flick that showed open disdain toward the fact that its titular team once wore something other than black Matrix-esque leather. But Spider-Man was cartoonish, yet still warm and empathetic toward its characters and its roots. It was also the first film to ever make over $100 million in its opening weekend, proving that the superhero genre hadn't died when a fucking Batman movie made less than its budget.
And not much traps this movie in a specific time period, with the exception being a homophobic joke that Peter Parker quips during his iconic wrestling match. Bonesaw, played by a "Macho Man" Randy Savage who looks like he's made completely out of veins and hot dog meat, is trying to get Spider-Man to come down from the top of a cage. In response, nerdy underdog Peter replies, "That's a cute outfit. Did your husband give it to you?"
It's a stark reminder that until very recently, "Haha, are you gay?" was all the punchline that a joke needed, even if the joke was coming from the hero of a kid-friendly franchise. It's also weird because Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man isn't really known for his quips, and the ones that he does make in this film are stuff like "It's YOU who's out, Gobby. OUT OF YOUR MIND!" and this shit. It was a weird intersection of homophobia as a comedy staple and writers wanting to remain "comic-friendly" but still not being quite sure what that meant yet.
That this joke would sound insane coming out of Tom Holland's mouth is a pretty cool indicator of how far we've come. Luckily, the scripts for Spider-Man 2 and 3 would cut the lame jokes and play much more to Maguire's strength as Peter Parker, which was being a clumsy dude who convinces Kirsten Dunst to leave her fiance at the altar so he can be emotionally distant with her instead.
The first Superman film seems even more like it's from a different universe. It's so gentle, with Superman never throwing an actual punch at someone and most of the runtime revolving around Christopher Reeve smiling and reminding citizens that everything is gonna be OK. Even the recent Justice League film, which tried to "course correct" from the path that the DCEU had taken with Man Of Steel and Batman v. Superman, couldn't help but include copious scenes that did nothing but illustrate how hard Clark Kent can fucking sock dudes.
But there is one scene in Superman that feels out of place even in that context, and it's during Lois Lane's first flight. Superman meets her at her apartment (one with a rooftop garden that implies she must have been trafficking cocaine on the side). After some light chit-chat, he picks her up and takes her soaring around the city. She then composes an internal monologue that nearly ruins the scene's magic:
Imagine a 2019 superhero movie in which a character stops and, in a voiceover, says the following with 100 percent sincerity:
Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is that you do to me?
I don't know who you are. Just a friend from another star.
Here I am, like a kid out of school. Holding hands with a god. I'm a fool. Will you look at me?
Quivering. Like a little girl, shivering.
You can see right through me. Can you read my mind?
Can you picture the things I'm thinking of? Wondering why you are all the wonderful things you are.
You can fly. You belong in the sky. You and I could belong to each other.
If you need a friend, I'm the one to fly to. If you need to be loved, here I am.
Read my mind.
I know this is supposed to evoke a sort of fantastical whimsy, because 1) Lois Lane is flying, and that's neat, and 2) in 1978, it was still really powerful to see two people zooming around the sky, whereas in modern superhero films, "zooming" is about the only setting an Avenger has. But in a movie that so beautifully toes the line between sincerity and corniness in a way that modern superhero films seem afraid to, this scene crosses that line and then flies screaming over a cliff.
Tim Burton's 1989 Batman was a marketing extravaganza, with so much hype surrounding it that even if it was two hours of Tim Burton slowly taking a dump on your mint-condition comic collection, it would still have probably made $251 million. But it's mostly pretty good. Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne is unhinged, Jack Nicholson seems to be having the best time any person has ever had, and the set design is unmatched in blockbuster cinema.
But this was also the late '80s, and that was an era when you could have Batman knock Vicki Vale unconscious in the Batcave and nobody would bat an eyelash.
After rescuing her from the Joker, Bruce takes Vicki to his basement, where they have some light conversation about the state of his sanity. Then Bruce says that she has something "that I want" and flashes his cape across the screen while Danny Elfman's triumphant score erupts, even though it would've been much more fitting to use one of the many songs that Prince wrote for the film.
This is cinematic shorthand for "OH, THEY FUCKIN'," but we then see Vicki waking up fully clothed on her bed. As it turns out, surprise, Batman just took the film from her camera, as she had taken an unmasked picture of him earlier. Silly us, thinking that Batman could physically pull his wiener out of his suit when he couldn't even turn his head. But the alternative isn't any better. Batman knocked Vicki out somehow, either with some kind of spray or with a fist to the back of the skull. Is that ... better than the sex thing that the movie tricked us into thinking was happening?
Again, can you imagine that happening in, say, a 2019 MCU flick? Iron Man has to explain to Pepper Potts that to keep some secret, he had to beat her to sleep. It then makes no sense in Batman Returns when billionaire ninja Bruce Wayne hurts Catwoman and is like, "Oh, I'm sorry," when one movie prior, he couldn't figure out how to end a scene, so he just rendered a woman unconscious.
In Superman II, Superman gives up his powers so that he can be with Lois Lane and not, I assume, smush her pelvis into gelatin when they do it. This turns out to be the worst idea, because three evil Kryptonians descend on Earth and begin to start a general ruckus. It also sucks because while visiting a diner, Clark Kent gets beaten up by a truck driver. And since Superman is an inspirational figure who teaches you how to be the bigger person, he goes back there after he's regained his powers to break that trucker's spine.
But this is not only a weird scene because it kind of defeats the purpose of Superman's whole ideology of not being a smarmy dick -- you could easily see that part in a Zack Snyder movie. It's that the whole thing is played as weird slapstick. Superman spins the trucker around in his seat and then pushes him into a pinball machine, all accompanied by goofy sound effects and Three Stooges expressions from the trucker.
It's really just one baffling moment after another. A guy moves his plate from the counter so that he can keep eating as the trucker flies by him. Clark Kent says, "Gee, that's funny. I've never seen garbage eat garbage before." Good one, literal savior of the planet.
It's a reminder that filmmakers in that era were still fumbling blindly to strike the right tone for a superhero movie. So we got Superman's most exciting plot, followed by Looney Tunes hijinks and food humor that wouldn't even pass the cut in a Weird Al video.
Comic book movies never make it totally clear how much of their universe overlaps with ours. They usually have a fictional president, but it's also assumed that at some point, the presidents and history were the same. There's still a Lincoln Memorial in the MCU, and they seem to have fought all of the same wars. It takes a light touch to, say, weave the Red Skull in to real history without making things weird.
So then you have the 1990 Captain America, a direct-to-video affair that barely exists. The plot is pretty standard: Steve Rogers gets turned into Captain America with a special formula, and then has to fight the Red Skull. He gets frozen in ice and comes back in the present day to fight the Red Skull again, because why write a third act when you already have a first act? But while the Red Skull of the MCU runs a fake branch of the real Nazis, the Red Skull of the 1990 film has a few more ties to history.
In the film, Red Skull had been hired by the American military-industrial complex to take care of anyone who opposed them, which included John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. In one scene, Mr. Skull sits at a conference table with other evil types and bemoans that the assassination of King cost their organization $22 million to arrange, only to backfire by making him a martyr.
Yep, they rewrote actual history so that MLK was killed not because of his activism for racial and economic justice, but because he knew too much. So ... we all owe James Earl Ray an apology? Or did they pay him to do it? Or brainwash him? I'd keep running through all of the questions this raises, but I've already thought about this more than the screenwriters did.
It's the kind of thing you could get away with on a movie that was destined to make about $700,000 on a $10 million budget. Nearly three decades later, another movie featuring Captain America would open and exceed that film's total gross every ten minutes on its first day. So yeah, times have changed.
Daniel Dockery is probably listening to those Prince Batman songs right now, and he's probably talking about them on his Twitter.
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