Movies, of course, are just movies. These projects have been in the works for years — chugging along Hollywood’s trillion-dollar poop-chute, now stalled or un-financed, now flush and moving again. Nobody associated with their production planned to make any great statement. And cinematic trends are not clinical symptoms. But the Zeitgeist works by coincidence, and the fact is that all of them, all these noisy dramas of superheroic identity crisis, have popped out now — at a moment of intense national self-interrogation. Are we liberators or torturers? Decent men or sadists? Are we chained to our fears or ready to embrace “change”?
Congressional committees and op-ed pages are dinning these questions into our ears. “Could the president order a suspect buried alive?” enquired Representative John Conyers on June 26, of Justice Department torture groupie John Yoo — and the answer was not “Are you out of your mind?” but an ass-covering, “Uh, Mr. Chairman, I don’t think I’ve ever given advice that the president could order someone buried alive. . .” It’s enough to turn you into Allen Ginsberg, apostrophizing the continent: America, you complicated bitch! Your Liberty torch is the flare of a pyromaniac! America, you big clanking bastard with your double-chambered heart, do you know who you are?!
The theme of the troubled Übermensch, embarrassed or threatened by his own power, is no novelty. Apart from Hancock, all the aforementioned superheroes have their origins in the comic books of the past century, and even the youngest of them — Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, who first appeared in 1993 — is firmly in the tradition: a grumpy, lopsided, blue-collar epigrammatist, spiritual brother to Wolverine and the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm. Divided selves, divided sensibilities: looking back, we can see that the primordial fission occurred in 1941, when Stanley Milton Lieber, teenage staffer at New York’s Timely Publications, sawed his first name in half and became Stan Lee. It would be another 20 years before the genesis of Marvel Comics, but with the naming of his freewheeling, rapid-fire editorial alter ego — a vector for the genius of artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — Lee opened the portal through which the Marvel universe would eventually come swarming.
“Marvel was a new birth,” wrote Geoffrey O’Brien, who gorged on the comics as a ’60s teenager, in his 1988 memoir Dream Time.
In Stan Lee’s model of a fluxing and multileveled universe, the nearest event — Peter Parker boarding the cross-town bus — cohered with the most distant: the Watcher, say, surveying the apocalyptic upheavals in which he could take no part. . . . Everything impinged on everything else: to understand where the Avengers or the Inhumans or the Silver Surfer fit into the overall pattern was to get a visceral inkling of the cosmic plan.
As Marvel gets translated into Hollywood, the cosmic plan appears to be: flog the brand into the ground! The fluxing and multileveled universe, meanwhile, is represented by franchise convergence (the appearance of Tony Stark, for example, at the end of The Incredible Hulk) and a sequence of creaky cameos from Lee himself, now 85 years old. The Marvel stamp is no guarantee of quality, as you will be well aware if you sat through the new Hulk. But the closer the movies get to Lee’s original writing style — salty, aphoristic, playfully dissociated, a sort of bargain-basement Vonnegut — the better they seem to be. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man does it just right: as Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. flutters and swells with all the energy that has apparently been evacuated from Ed Norton’s drooping, colorless Bruce Banner.