It’s still somewhat difficult to believe that superhero movies—once a deeply risky proposition in Hollywood—are now the genre to rule them all. Even movies that are not explicitly about capes and doomsday superweapons clearly wish they were—just look back at Universal Studios’ abortive “Dark Universe” and Lionsgate’s ignominious flop Robin Hood, which the few commentators who bothered to watch it have pointed out was dangerously close to plagiarizing The Dark Knight (whose dance steps were already lifted in part by flicks as diverse as Star Trek Into Darkness and Skyfall).
2018 gave us the usual boatload of better-than-okay comic adaptations, but two of the near-universally adored superhero films are notable for two reasons: They’re aimed at younger viewers, and they even had the good sense not to patronize that unjustly overlooked audience.
One Genre’s Journey into the Grimdark
The comic art form was made for kids, and plenty of digital ink has been spilled over the years about how it went from a harmless way to blow a couple bucks at the newsstand to a costly hobby that busted the industry in the ’90s. We’re still living in the long-term aftermath of that bust. Without its looming bankruptcy, Marvel would not have sold off film rights to its heaviest hitters to outside studios, and without the relative success of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies that resulted from those deals, it would not have embarked upon a quest to build its own mega-franchise in the Avengers movies. Without those same films laying the groundwork of audience expectations, Warner Brothers’ Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films might never have enjoyed the level of studio support they got (though, to be fair, Batman had exhibited cinematic legs long before Marvel got its act together.)
What’s notable about the stories of all of these films is that they came to us in the shadow of the comics industry that first Alan Moore and Frank Miller, and then Todd McFarlane and his former-Marvel insurgents gave us. This was the age of grimdark: Hard violence, moral ambiguity, heroes more likely to sneer at Superman than realize he’s an aspirational hero and not a labored Christ allegory.
It’s why Marvel movies, fun and zippy as they are, have only recently started to abandon a muted color scheme and staid plotting in favor of wilder visuals and looser tones. The films we’ve gotten from this movement are often memorable and fist-pumpingly fun to watch, but their more adult theming is a step away from the anything-goes spirit of the colorful books that grab the eyes of young people at the (nation’s few remaining) newsstands.
Teen Titans Go! to the Movies Goes There
I want to be clear that I’m not just happy there were any superhero movies specifically aimed at kids at all. I’m also grateful they weren’t patronizing, cynical exercises in brand hype, but actual stories with actual stuff to say. In that regard, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies was a much-needed satire that spared no expense and left no stone in the wide field of DC fandom unturned. It was also, I should say, damn funny: After one shockingly dark gag involving time travel and Batman’s parents, the tweens in the theater were laughing hard enough to pop.
If it were merely some good action and some hilarious sight gags, that would be a perfectly fine movie. As it turns out, it was satire aimed at anybody of any age who has any love in his or her heart for a comic adaptation of any kind. It is tempting for adults to believe kids just don’t pick up on any of this stuff—that parody or satire are above the heads of the middle school set—but it’s simply not true. When my five-year-old brother went to George of the Jungle, the 1997 live-action vehicle starring Brendan Fraser that nobody really remembers, he was laughing at the jokes embedded in subtitled languages and in shots that spoofed The Lion King.
If we accept the premise that satire is a coping mechanism for the inane in life (and in art), then if anything more satire should be aimed at kids, who put up with more inanity now than in any point in history. It’s certainly warranted in the case of DC properties, which have steered full steam into grimdark territory following Nolan’s Batman films, which were rightly lauded and met with great success, but which were solidly their own thing and really were never intended to set the tone for an entire studio’s slate of interconnected storytelling.
Teen Titans Go! to the Movies splits the difference between the superhero action that characterized the 2003-2006 series and the comedic faffing about that thus far has characterized the present series. Robin and his cohorts want badly to be famous superheroes with their own blockbuster movie, and begin to go to extreme lengths to garner the Hollywood cachet necessary to headline their own projects. (In one hilariously spot-on gag, Robin discovers that the Batmobile is the lead star in a project, and he isn’t. Black Widow certainly could relate.) The drive to get them to throw all other superheroes under the bus and abandon their friendships and principles for fame is all a plot by the villainous Slade (who for some reason I’ve never been able to figure out is not just called “Deathstroke”).
For the movie, it’s also an opportunity to deconstruct the largesse of the superhero film as the dominant genre. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, based on a property that sits largely ignored as Marvel and DC fire shots across one another’s bows every summer, has the actual stones to suggest that the genre is overstuffed and could stand to take itself less seriously. It spoke to kids rather than at them while doing so.
Into the Spider-Verse Breaks into New Territory
There have been seven Spider-Man movies with four different actors portraying Peter Parker since 2002, and too many of them have been legitimately bad or merely mediocre. We were in very real danger of lurching into Zombie Franchises territory on this one. If Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse had been merely the visual feast and stunning showcase of coherent action that it is, it would’ve been a triumph. If it had been a movie that touted a Black protagonist and then basically relegated him to the sidelines while the legacy characters stole the show, people would’ve probably sighed and accepted it as a step in the right direction.
As you’ve already read, Paste’s own Michael Burgin said it warrants consideration as one of the best Spider-Man films. I’ll go one better and argue it belongs in conversations about the best superhero films ever, for all the reasons he wrote and because it features the debut of new (to the silver screen) protagonist Miles Morales. Somehow, Shameik Moore’s rookie wall-crawler manages to be the unquestioned leading man in a film that also featured Chris Pine. In a movie that finds time for a grizzled (and color-blind) Nicholas Cage to talk about how he fights Nazis, Miles gets to come into his own through a grounded story with wrenching emotion that ends in one of the most imaginative and ass-kicking finales of the year.
It managed all of this with a PG rating. As of this writing, it’s pulled roughly $130 million in box office off a $90 million budget. I’m earnestly hoping word of mouth puts some hot air into its webbing-armpit-wing thingies and lifts it high enough that we see more animated superhero features that treat a PG audience with respect and remember that these affairs are supposed to be, you know, fun.
It’s a relief to me that I was able to take kids to a pair of movies like that this year, for their own sake and because I hate it when fantasy fiction disappears up its own rear end in a bid for artistic legitimacy. I am one who argues that The Dark Knight Rises was a good movie that I enjoyed, but while sitting in my third screening of it, I was a few rows ahead of a young boy who was too young to understand the concept of whispering. Some 35 minutes of twisty intrigue and brick-laying into that movie, he kept demanding to know when Batman was going to show up in a movie about Batman. It’s seems safe to say he wouldn’t have felt that impatience while watching these movies.