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How campy superhero flicks are making a comeback

Aquaman and Venom, two of last year’s biggest surprise hits, harkened back to a time of less serious superhero cinema.

Art by Shrawani Bhattarai.

Given how close we are to the start of the next decade, movies based on comic books by Marvel and D.C. defined the majority of 2010s cinema. The universal acclaim and box office success seen by The Dark Knight and Iron Man back in 2008 ensured that they would be the archetypes for superhero cinema going forward.

There are two main categories that subsequent superhero films fall into: gritty, dismal takes on well-known characters, and flashy action-adventure flicks with charismatic, wise-cracking heroes and epic narratives that span across multiple movies.

There’s often a clear sense of self-importance coming through in both these types of films, through their attempts to intellectualise the intended ridiculousness of comic book storylines. Sony’s Venom and DC/Warner Bros’ Aquaman were two of the biggest movies of this genre in 2018.

Despite being from different comic houses,  the two films managed to stay incredibly self-contained, allowing audiences unfamiliar with other superhero films  to enjoy it as much as avid fans, which is probably for the best (I for one would love to forget that Justice League exists).

There’s another fundamental element that both movies possess and which helped them connect with so many moviegoers: they’re pure, dumb fun. There’s a campiness to these movies that’s reminiscent of many superhero flicks from the early 2000’s.

Aquaman is rife with ludicrousness: battles between gigantic sea creatures and merman soldiers riding sharks; a lead villain insisting on being called Ocean Master; a giant octopus playing the bongos. Well before the fourth or fifth explosion, you’re clued on to exactly what kind of movie director James Wan was trying to make.

The energetic spirit and over-the-top presentation of it all harkens back to the kind of corniness that made early 2000’s superhero movies like X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies all the more enjoyable. But, Aquaman’s heavily stylised action sequences, have far more visual character to them than much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Then there’s Venom, which is far from the consciously excessive spectacle that Aquaman is. The movie’s dark humour feels aligned with Deadpool, at times. Yet there’s parts to it that are far too bizarre to ignore, like Tom Hardy’s incredibly hammy performance and Venom, a sentient pile of alien goo, possessing Michelle Williams’ character all to make out with Hardy.  Watching this, it was hard not to think of the inexplicable sexual energy of movies like Catwoman or Spider Man 3.

There’s also the unbelievably hilarious soundtrack choices made in both movies. There’s a scene in Aquaman in which Jason Momoa  and Mera (Amber Heard) walk out from the ocean into the desert, to a Pitbull song which samples Toto’s ‘Africa’. The song itself is complete garbage, but throwing it into the movie in such a shamelessly tacky fashion makes for a pretty entertaining time. Venom, thankfully, doesn’t force you to listen to the disastrous theme song Eminem coughed up for it, until the credits.

The cheesiness and eccentric filmmaking of a lot of 2000’s-era superhero films could only go so far before it became intolerable. But in a time where so many of these movies are trying harder to be serious,  dramatic and culturally defining rather than being traditionally fun you can’t help but appreciate how unpretentious and mindlessly entertaining they are.

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