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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

September 10, 2006

Hollywoodland and Superman:
...has pulp fiction gone mainstream?

Has pulp fiction (and its off shoots like super heroes and SF/fantasy in general) become kind of, dare I say it, respectable? Mainstream?

Well, no. Not really. But it seems to be making little unexpected in roads.

All the time I was growing up, super hero movies and TV shows were largely influenced by the 1960s Batman series -- y'know, BAM! BIFF! POW! A lot of them followed the same formula of being campy...or at least squarely aimed at juveniles. So much so that there was often a feeling the filmmakers themselves were struggling to fit themselves into this pre-conceived template. I was recently watching some episodes of the 1970s Wonder Woman series and, though I sort of get a kick out of it, there seems a clear sense that the makers...didn't have a clear sense of what they were doing. Sometimes they play it camp, sometimes serious, sometimes an actor will say a campy line completely serious and another actor will say a serious line as though it's campy. But obviously the thinking was to do Wonder Woman as a straight drama was out of the question.

Sometimes the mix worked, such as 1978s Superman, the Movie which manages to be deadly serious, and campy bordering on a comedy, and the result is one of (if not THE) great super hero movies.

But so it went, from the Flash to Dick Tracy, and including Tim Burton's Batman movies which, inexplicably, are seen as "serious" Batman movies...but are really just an under lit, more violent version of the 1960s campy TV series, complete with celebrity actors hamming it up as the one-liner spewing villains (a fact that became more obvious when Joel Schumacher took over as director). Perhaps the best illustration of the gap between the comics and Hollywood's (ie: mainstream society's) perception of them is to contrast the 1989 Batman movie, co-written by Sam Hamm, with Hamm's brilliant Batman comic storyline, Blind Justice (available as a TPB). The latter is a brooding, character-driven thriller about conspiracies and industrial espionage...the former, an incoherent excess whose signature line has to do with enemas!

Comics just couldn't get no respect.

But there were occasional glimmers of something different. TV's Lois & Clark: The New Adventure of Superman clearly still felt you couldn't quite take super heroes seriously, but it was a comedy-drama. The villains and adventures were usually played for camp, but the romantic-relationship stuff was played more straight. It was a beginning.

Now something seems to have happened in the last few years -- comic book movies are eschewing the laughs and camp for serious, brooding, character focused adaptations. Twenty years ago, I doubt an X-Men movie would've included a scene of Magneto's childhood in Auschwitz! Spider-Man, perhaps the most faithful of all the movies, keeping (relatively) close to the characters and relationships and plot threads of the comics, is also the most successful super hero movie series (a fact Hollywood might consider the next time they decide to reinvent the wheel).

Of course, the down side -- and it's a big down side -- is that in their push to be more serious, less campy, a lot of these movies are forgetting to Not being campy doesn't mean the characters can't crack a few jokes, and it certainly doesn't mean the characters can't wear brighter coloured costumes. Worse, in their drive to be more dour, they forget that you have to actually back it up with better plots and characterization...something a lot of these movies have failed to do.

And sometimes, a little camp isn't such a bad thing -- personally, Roger Moore remains my favourite Bond.


I think the biggest surprise for me came about with the movie, The Whole Wide World, a movie dramatizing the life of pulp writer Robert E. Howard. What? I thought. Howard? The creator of Conan? The ultimate whipping boy for detractors of pulp fiction? Long derided as a "momma's boy" and a geek by mainstream commentators? And now he's getting a serious, artful bio pic? Who'd a thunk it? And sure, the movie still portrayed Howard as a kind of odd ball misfit...but it still seemed amazing that he was deemed worthy of a high brow biopic.

And now, in the theatres, we have Hollywoodland, a speculative drama about the mysterious death of George Reeves, an actor best know as Superman in the 1950s TV series. And again, it's not a joke, not a spoof, but a serious, film noire drama...about a guy who wore tights. I don't know, but juicy scandal or not, I can't imagine any studio head okaying that movie a couple of decades ago.

"What? You wanna make a movie about Superman? Only it's not aimed at kids? An' it's not a joke? Get outta here an' come back when you've got a real idea for me...!"

Whereas once you almost couldn't make a sci-fi TV series in Hollywood if it wasn't seen as being kid friendly -- or at least family friendly -- now it's almost swung the opposite way, where TV series like the new Battlestar Galactica are happily sold as not really being suitable for kids. Which is both a good thing...and a bad. 'Cause we were all kids once, after all, and they deserve something to watch.

Somewhere along the line, society seems to have shifted a little -- maybe not seismically, but shifted nonetheless. Maybe as the generations who grew up on the pulp fiction of Howard and the super hero antics of the comics come of age and take their places as studio heads and movie reviewers our collective tastes have changed. Suddenly men in tights aren't (quite) as inherently silly as they used to be. Suddenly pulp writers are seen as being real artists after all, with their own genuine demons and muses.

Pulp fiction may not be mainstream...but it may no longer be swimming against the current either.

Addendum: And I almost forgot to mention the melancholy, seeming portentous songs like Five for Fighting's "Superman" and The Crash Test Dummy's "Superman's Song".

D.K. Latta, editor

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