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Why I’m Sick of Superhero Movies

May 22, 2018


When I was a kid, I loved superheroes. I was born the same year as the Batman TV series, and it was such a formative influence on me that I’ve got a tattoo of Julie Newmar as Catwoman on my arm… but that’s another story.

As an adult, I’ve seen most of the movies based on the Marvel and DC comic books I collected as a kid, and in a few cases, directors with superhuman gifts like Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 1 and 2… let’s forget 3) and, most recently, Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) have elevated the genre into art.

But Rotten Tomatoes be damned, most superhero movies have been pretty mediocre. Sure, the first Iron Man was fun, but did we really need three (not to mention his many appearances in the Avengers movies, etc.)? The reverse goes for Thor — the third one was charming, but I could’ve done without the first two. And don’t get me started on DC’s myriad big-screen injustices. The wildly overrated Wonder Woman was a masterpiece only by contrast to, say, Suicide Squad, but that’s not much of a feat.

The truth is, I think I’ve finally outgrown superhero movies, and it was Avengers: Infinity War that broke me. I hated every second of this overlong, unsatisfying mishmash. Too many one-dimensional characters and too much butt-numbing exposition, punctuated by bursts of random, mind-numbing “action.” And after 160 minutes, there isn’t even an ending! It’s like a trailer for what will probably be another longer and more boring sequel. (Nothing against trailers — I write about them for The New York Times — but they’re better at 2 1/2 minutes, not 2 1/2+ hours).

So I skipped Deadpool 2. I tolerated the first one, if only because Ryan Reynolds, whose face I’ve always instinctively wanted to punch, wore a mask through most of it (and because I love Leslie Uggams, who stole the movie as Deadpool’s pal Blind Al). But the prospect of paying to support anything involving the deeply unpleasant T.J. Miller was just too much for me.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one fed up with costumed crusaders: Deadpool 2 made a “disappointing” $125 million in its first weekend. That’s still a lot of dough, but maybe it’s a sign we’re approaching peak superhero. Or at least peak Josh Brolin, who plays key roles in both Infinity War and Deadpool 2.

Perhaps, like me, a few people are hungering for stories about real people without superpowers. I’ve seen a pair of such rarities in the past few days, and I’d urge anyone suffering from caped-crimefighters burnout to check them out when they reach theaters early next month.

The first is A Kid Like Jake — a terrible title for a not-terrible movie. Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play subtle variations on their best-known TV characters (Homeland‘s unstable Carrie Mathison and The Big Bang Theory‘s unemotional Sheldon Cooper) as Brooklyn yuppies—is that still a thing?—who nearly come unraveled after their four-year-old son (Leo James Davis) starts engaging in “gender expansive” behavior.

The movie gets more interesting as the couple grapples with whether to exploit their child’s diversity as they navigate the city’s supercompetitive private-education system. The always-welcome Octavia Spencer grounds the movie in reality as a preschool director whose own sexual orientation becomes a complicating factor.

One of the best things about A Kid Like Jake in this summer full of overstuffed shlockbusters is its brevity — it runs barely over 90 minutes, yet it takes all the time it needs to tell its small-scale story. The same holds true for Nancy, a fascinating character study of an emotionally bereft woman (Andrea Riseborough) who poses as the long-lost daughter of a grieving couple (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi).

Written and directed by the profoundly talented Christina Choe (full disclosure: I’ve supported her projects on Kickstarter ever since I saw her charming short The Queen in 2010), Nancy often views its protagonist through blurred surfaces. Riseborough, who’s gone full chameleon for films like Birdman and Battle of the Sexes, hollows herself out physically, yet she communicates the pain at her character’s gaping center.

Smith-Cameron’s role echoes her achingly beautiful work as the mother of an exonerated ex-Death Row inmate on the remarkable Sundance TV series Rectify (if you haven’t seen it, go binge on it—now!), and Buscemi matches her note for heartbreakingly perfect note.

Nancy and A Kid Like Jake are tied together by the seemingly omnipresent Ann Dowd, who plays different versions of the mother from hell in each. Ever since her mid-life breakthrough in 2010’s chilling Compliance, Dowd has become a hallmark of quality in indie gems like Captain Fantastic, Norman and St. Vincent. Best of all, you won’t likely see her in superhero spandex anytime soon.

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