Every super-hero movie requires a significant suspension of disbelief, but in 1978 when director Richard Donner brought “Superman” to the silver screen he infused the movie with considerable believability by imagining the Man of Steel’s Metropolis as a thinly-veiled version of late-twentieth century New York City. When the character defied gravity and soared over his adopted city, what laid below him was that uniquely beautiful, earthbound constellation of lights that is the Manhattan skyline — even including, during one sequence, the Statue of Liberty. In his secret identity of Clark Kent he clumsily made his way through the unmistakable congestion of midtown Manhattan to report to work at the real-life headquarters of The Daily News, which stood in for the fictional Daily Planet. Arch-nemesis Lex Luthor’s underground lair was an abandoned wing of the iconic Grand Central Terminal. Superman apprehended a burglar scaling the famous Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street. And so on.
Of course it’s not necessary to film absurdist fantasies — and super-hero movies are nothing if not that — in real locations, but imparting some sense of reality in these films can add so much, as they did for Donner. It’s fine to watch a super-human character negotiating an unreal world, but it’s more thrilling, more engaging, more entertaining to watch a super-human character negotiating a world that looks something like the world we know — the real world.
I saw “Captain America: The First Avenger” last night and it opts for the more contemporarily familiar strategy of a world that is conveniently not very much likes ours at all. It tells the story of character so unrealistic his only problem is he can’t do enough good for his country, and compounds that dramatic hindrance by constructing a reality around him that’s thoroughly fake.
Ostensibly set during the Second World War, very little in the movie looks, feels, smells or tastes like the first half of the 1940s. Of course, there are nods to the style and fashions and objects of that time period, but the sets amount to little more than blatantly CG-enhanced versions of Disney’s Main Street, and the movie is riddled with anachronistically fantastical technology — ray-gun blasters stolen from “Star Trek,” steampunk-style computer screens and Reagan-era stealth aircraft. At one point, when the film’s timeline fast forwards to present day, its actors are sloppily green-screened against the backdrop of contemporary Times Square and it feels as if the filmmakers just can’t be bothered to mask the utter phoniness of their enterprise.
It’s no secret that these elaborate evasions of reality are a result of Hollywood’s depressingly low opinion of audiences. Judging by box office receipts, moviegoers seem not to care much whether these worlds resemble our own or not. Or perhaps more to the point, they really enjoy this brand of spectacular mediocrity that has no regard for dramatic tension rooted in recognizably human landscapes. Pyrotechnics and noise and adrenaline without honest magic suits them just fine.
For my part, I find “Captain America” and its ilk to be alienating and sad, mostly because I care for genre films so much and believe they can be so much better. But, as many readers will no doubt agree, I’m probably guilty of harboring unrealistic expectations — there may never be a “Godfather”-level artistic triumph in the super-hero genre (and not even Christoper Nolan’s ambitious but overpraised “Dark Knight” comes close), and to hope for one is childish. But if you can’t indulge your inner child and your sense of hope at the movies, then it’s a grim time.