There are two kinds of superhero movies: those that successfully integrate the adolescent wonder of physical-law defiance with the (slightly) more grown-up wonder of human emotions, and those that don't. A better way of saying this might be that there are two kinds of superhero movies: Richard Donner's Superman and everything else. (Okay, and maybe the X-Men films, too, but that's all, really.)
Every other comics-hero-inspired movie -- and there have been many and will be many more before Hollywood moves on to its next big groupthink innovation -- takes its charter either from Tim Burton's horrible Batman, Joel Schumacher's even worse Batmans, or Sam Raimi's indefensible Spider-man, offering camp sensibilities in place of comics' convictions, rank sentimentality in place of comics' heart, and digital sleight-of-hand in place of comics' graphic ambition. Donner's Superman remains the only satisfying superhero movie because it's the only one that fully surrenders to the mythic character that gives (non-underground) comics an excuse to exist. Granted, the iconography in question was a lot friendlier and more familiar to a wide audience than that of, say, Hellboy (which I promise to talk about, eventually), but the fact remains that Donner's film -- written by Mario "Godfather" Puzo, of all people -- positively swoons with mythos, and with the human/superhuman figures whose emotional entanglements dot the mythic landscape. Maybe it was their background in advertising and pulpy ethnic melodrama, but the filmmakers did not waste one frame pretending they weren't making a movie about a dude in a leotard who came from space, or trying to have anything both ways.
To put it bluntly: Donner and Puzo bought the bullshit. And to make a good superhero movie, you are absolutely required to buy it.
(Of course, Superman is also the only one of these films with a decent villain, in the form of Gene Hackman, whose off-the-rails brilliant performance as Lex Luthor more or less invented a whole school of postmodern acting... but let's leave that for now.)
The basic conceit of every superhero comic is that no matter how outlandish or implausible, all people, creatures, powers, and stories are equally credible. Man who can fly? Sure. Man with razor claws that shoot out of his knuckles? Of course. Massive red demon transported to Earth by Nazi black magicians but captured in infancy by U.S. Marines and raised as a crime-fighter? Natch. From there, the challenge of investing these inventions with essentially human characteristics alongside their epic burdens and responsibilities has kept the mainstream comics industry churning for three-quarters of a century, while most of the world has remained happily oblivious to its existence. I don't want to get into the whole thing of talking smack about comics nerds, because I most definitely was one, but there are recognizable root causes for why these publications are on the margins of popular culture. (I will posit, however, that words like "Hellboy" are key factors.)
The thing is, though I certainly would never have admitted it when I was younger (how much younger is for me to know), it's all bullshit. Highly inventive, artful, weird, beautiful even, but bullshit, categorically, undeniably. There are no men made of rocks. There are no adamantium claws. That's just bullshit. And bullshit is not for everybody. I, however, like it. The thing I keep recognizing as the parade of superhero movies marches on is that my willingness, my desire, even, to buy it -- I am, after all, in the movie theater -- keeps running aground of the incompetence, cynicism, and general tin ear of the people charged with bringing these heroes to the screen.
It's frustrating, as a movie viewer with superhero comics in his literal and figurative closets, to see the degree to which Hollywood has desecrated the form by embracing it. I can remember a time when nothing would have pleased me more than to see Marvel and DC's pantries get raided by film studios eager to spend as much money as possible. But with the notable exception of Bryan Singer's topnotch X-Men films (and possibly Ang Lee's perversely interesting Hulk failure), all the major studio adaptations of comics have been exercises in shying away from the true nature of the iconography they're cannibalizing. Nobody seems to buy the bullshit. They either try to dress it up as profound (Hulk), tart it up as young and hip (Daredevil), send it up as camp (Batman), or screw it up as much as possible (Spider-man). Worse than all of these, though, was M. Night Shyamalan's unbearable Unbreakable, an exercise in superhero existentialism that not only bought the bullshit, but was convinced that the it had Biblical gravitas. What Singer's films proved, like Donner's before them, was that by buying the bullshit and surrendering to both its charms and limitations, they helped transform it into something meaningful. Look, we all know that no one flies, but everyone wants to, and most of us will settle for seeing it. And almost anyone, if pressed, can admit that genetic mutation is a clumsy, childish metaphor. But that doesn't mean it's not useful. Metaphors aren't ideas, they're just vessels. Their operation, their very existence, requires faith. And faith is what is most lacking in the superhero movies of recent years. Not the faith of audiences to suspend their disbeliefs, but the faith of studios, producers, and filmmakers to suspend theirs.
The careful reader will have undoubtedly noticed by now that there has been no substantive mention in this article of Hellboy, the very film that occasioned it. There's a reason. Hellboy features the single best lead-character makeup job I've ever seen in a comics-based movie. It boasts one startlingly good special effect involving fire, and a production design that faithfully captures the look of the comic itself. Also, the performances of Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, and Jeffrey Tambor are skillful. These are the only recommendations I can make for this movie, which in all other ways -- incoherent story, uncertain tone, unconvincing action, insincere sentimentality -- is just bullshit. Excelsior!