There was a debate all over my Twitter timeline a while ago about something Ethan Hawke said about how superhero movies get overpraised and that Logan is a fine superhero movie, but not a great movie. And regardless of my feelings towards Logan specifically, I think this betrays the typical genre elitism that does more harm than good by preventing excellent works from being recognized as excellent and thus keeping standards from getting higher.
There are countless counterexamples to Hawke’s point. So instead of listing all of them, let’s focus on three main points: the literary merit of commercial entertainment, the dismissal of the superhero genre, and the pretentiousness behind the idea that literary fiction is its own category.
Meaningful Stories In Popular Media
If you pick out any member of the Animorphs fandom and ask them about the series, I doubt you’d find a single one that would argue that it isn’t kind of trashy sci fi aimed at children. Because it is. They were cheap paperbacks pushed out at a breakneck pace to sell toys to kids with a lot of lighthearted, funny scenes largely centred around fish-out-of-water comedy. No one will deny that. But that absolutely does not preclude them from having literary merit.
It’s a story about child soldiers and trauma and galaxy wide imperialism. Sure, there are moments where the lead characters argue over Teletubbies and an alien eats chocolate off the floor, but that doesn’t negate the themes of genocide, slavery, and depression. They coexist. They work together to build multifaceted characters. Anyone is free to not like it, or think it’s not well written, but if your argument for why it doesn’t have merit or why those themes aren’t meaningful is it’s about kids turning into animals, you’re not making a good case.
“It’s written in a simplistic style targeted at children and lacks the sophistication necessary to appeal to me” is a fair enough statement. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same way about a novel – sure, I like things that sound good, pieces of literature that can flow over me where how it makes me feel is somewhat more important than what specifically is happening, but I’ve always felt that that is best suited for poetry and short stories than for a full length novel – but I can understand why someone would feel that way. I don’t agree, but it’s an infinitely better case than “it’s not a great book, it’s a fine adventure story, it’s still about kids turning into animals”.
I don’t have much use for media that doesn’t tell me a compelling story. Characters, plot, themes, and style all work together to create a story. No amount of interesting style or themes or both of them put together is enough to make up for boring characters or a nonexistent plot. Animorphs? It does a great job handling all of them together. The books take themselves just seriously enough. They’re a perfect example of how meaningful and pretentiousness don’t have to go hand in hand, how there doesn’t have to be a trade off between developed characters and a developed plot, how themes in children’s literature can be handled more subtly than by dropping an anvil over the reader’s head, how a blunt style isn’t inherently worse than anything else. Most of all, they demonstrate how it doesn’t even matter what the plot is – any plot can be the plot of a meaningful story.
Dismissal of Superheroes
I genuinely don’t understand this need to be all it’s not a superhero story, it’s a whatever story with superheroes! “Superhero” isn’t a genre, it’s an archetype. A wide range of stories can fall into the superhero category. It comes across as people trying to separate something they enjoy from other things with similar elements, not for the sake of describing what it is, but for the sake of making it sound more “high brow”. This extends far beyond superhero stories. Like, what does the phrase “genre fiction” even mean? Nothing. It means nothing.
It becomes a vicious cycle. People expect superhero movies to be straightforward, so people go watch them when they want some shallow entertainment. That results in those that try something new not doing as well, which in turn results in less creative movies, which solidifies people’s belief that superhero movies should be straightforward entertainment. Then you have Batman v Superman, which is a whole different thing altogether.
Never once does it shy away from being a superhero story, because there’s no denying that’s what it is. It’s based on a comic book. It’s about the most iconic superheroes of all time. But that doesn’t preclude it from being a layered story, filled with allusions and themes. It’s the most high budget arthouse movie ever made. All the political themes are interwoven into the story. It’s more than just pseudo-deep quotes, all the themes are rooted throughout the movie. That the characters are public figures and heroes matters. It’s thoughtful and unique. But critics expected they didn’t have to pay much attention because it’s a superhero movie and didn’t get nearly as much out of it as people thought about what they were watching.
If our expectations for superhero movies included that they must mean something, and critics actually thought critically, the reaction to Batman v Superman would have been hugely different. If you took the same movie and didn’t tell them it was directed by Zack Snyder – because critics clearly have something against him – it would have just as much action and bombast, but critics would be more receptive to the themes and quiet drama of the whole movie. They’d call it – rightfully – a work of art and a political statement. They might even go so far as to make the mistake in saying it’s not a superhero movie, it’s a drama about our relationship with power. It is that. But it matters that it’s told using superheroes. Pretty much the only reason that critics didn’t analyze it through that lens is because it’s a superhero movie. This goes back to the “superhero movie” as compared to “movie with superheroes” issue. If you extend that further, you get the frequent argument that something is not part of a given genre, it just has elements of that genre. That takes us to the “literary fiction” debate.
Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction
Perhaps the reason a certain demographic claims “genre fiction” is a lesser art form than so-called “literary fiction” is that they’re constantly redefining the best works in any genre as something other than what it is – especially in retrospect. Consider – The Book Thief has beautiful characterization and striking prose. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, and it’s widely considered to be an excellent book. It’s also narrated by Death – that makes it a fantasy. But I’ve seen multiple critics ignore that fantasy aspect and focus solely on the historical setting. Similarly, I saw an article once about literary fiction that claimed All the Pretty Horses is not a Western and 1984 is not sci fi. I think most of us can agree those claims are absurd. Style doesn’t change the genre. Being well written or memorable or having literary merit for whatever reason doesn’t stop something from fitting the conventions of a given genre.
It especially irks me when it comes to the topic of science fiction, because some of the core tenants of sci fi have always been questioning the world and society. It’s a weird kind of self-importance to suggest that only literary fiction addresses those themes, and even weirder to pitch your work as literature, as if that’s something you or critics get to decide and not time. There are lots of movies and novels that have literary merit. But that doesn’t change the fact that they belong to different genres. It reminds me a bit of the way some Game of Thrones fans try to talk about how much it transcends a genre. There’s a line about it in Parks and Recreation that’s something along the lines of “they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world”. Is there something about fantasy which means fantasy writers don’t tell human stories? No, because that’s stupid. Everyone tells human stories. Saying that it’s not a fantasy story, it’s something else in a fantasy setting doesn’t actually mean anything.
Hawke had a very valid point in that when it comes to superhero movies, most aren’t very good, and they’re praised for being mindless entertainment. But the reason for that has nothing to do with what they are. It has nothing to do with “people wearing tights” or “having metal coming out of their hands”. I’ve been vocal about my issues with Logan as a movie, but something I will never say is that one of the problems with it is the fact it involves people with metal claws. You can make anything sound silly if you talk about it like that – Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man who gets put on display in an alien zoo.
With live action superhero movies, we’re talking about a fairly small sample size. Sure, that’s expanded a huge amount in the past fifteen years, but we’re not talking about anything so broad as “fantasy” or “science fiction”. So we can say things like most superhero movies are lazy without generalizing, because a lot of people have seen a significant percentage of the movies that fall into that category. If that’s what Hawke meant, that’s what he should have said. But what he did say was dismissive of entire genre based on what the genre is, rather than what it’s produced. We have to judge people’s statements for what they are, not bend over backwards trying to find a way to justify them as correct because we agree with something kind of relevant to what they’re talking about.
Logan isn’t a great movie and most superhero movies are overpraised and carefully calculated to sell rather than actually make a point. Yeah. True. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction and fantasy elements of those stories.