My friend John Podhoretz opens his review of Spider-Man II thus:
Calling the new Spider-Man film the best comic-book movie ever made — and it is, without a doubt, the best comic-book movie ever made — is a little like calling a Chicken McNugget the best processed fast-food poultry product ever produced. It’s praise, but how substantial can the praise really be, given the source?
Movies and television shows based on comic books constitute the worst single genre in the history of filmed entertainment (with the exception of porn). Okay, maybe movies and TV shows made from video games are worse, but they’ve only been around a little while. There have been horrendous comic-book movies since Superman first emerged as the avatar of this new form of pop-culture junk in 1938.
Me: Now at first, I was mad. Hulk mad. Me smash puny movie man! mad. But then I did recall that the Hulk movie sucked so bad it nearly turned itself inside out from the sucking. And I calmed down to merely Doc Samson mad.
Still, John’s gaze is way too sweeping (like, say, Cyclops without his ruby quartz visor). To say that Spider-Man II is the cinematic equivalent to a Chicken McNugget (his slandering of the super-tastey McNugget will have to wait for now) and that comic-book generated movies are the worst genre in filmed entertainment — which presumably includes TV — makes it sound as if there are never good comic book-based movies or TV shows—which I think is unfair. I certainly agree that there have been many, many disappointments in the comic-to-screen genre. But A) the genre is improving rapidly as Hollywood realizes that comics aren’t kiddy-fare and B) if we are going to measure genres by their worst examples, then all genres stink. Also, everyone knows that the worst genre in filmed entertainment is the after-school-special (Helen Hunt’s leap from her high school window in “Angel Dusted” notwithstanding). But, still,on reflection I can see that John has a point.
But then he writes:
Comic books developed a bad reputation because of the violence they depicted, which was and is a silly reason to dislike them. Here’s a better reason: They’re a cultural embarrassment. They weren’t when they were the province of powerless boys, but they have become a cultural embarrassment because the common culture has unthinkingly and stupidly accepted them as an art form. This was a natural outcome of the youth-worship that took over American culture in the 1960s, because if you’re going to immature and illiterate energy in all its guises, why not go all the way into the most immature and illiterate of cultural forms?
Hulk-levels of madness returning….
Clearly Podhoretz has taken too many crazy pills. I know he’s heard this from plenty of others, but comic books can be, and often are, wondrous, amazing things. I don’t think they are high literature, but they are certainly far more elevating and cerebral than much of the sitcom prattle John and I both wasted so much time on in our respective childhoods. Any kid who turns off the TV to read a good comic book is doing himself a favor, in my view. In fact, I am eternally grateful for having been allowed to indulge my comic book habit as a child. In many respects it was comic books which made me a reader. Comics created my interests in all sorts of subjects. It strikes me as pointless to tell an “anti-comic-book snob” like John things he’s heard a million times before, especially when I’ve got other stuff to do (and John as a new dad probably does too). But I think he’s simply flat-out wrong (unless he’s only talking about readers of DC comics and then, well, I take it all back).