James Gunn Defends Comic Book Films After Oscars, Indie Spirit Awards Pile-On

Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn has come to the defense of superhero movies after the genre was criticized and lampooned at the Oscars and Independent Spirit Awards last weekend.

Indeed, Hollywood’s dependence on films about costumed avengers was a source of derision and humor as the industry gathered to hand out statues and applaud the work of, mostly low-grossing, adult-oriented dramas. “The Avengers” may pay the bills, but off-kilter fare such as “Birdman” feeds the soul, Oscar voters implied.

“When something is that big in the industry, it’s going to be an easy target for Oscar jokes,” noted Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “It could indicate a general kind of weariness of these movies by talent, because they have been so popular.”

Gunn wrote that he didn’t take the jokes personally, but he did argue that the writing on the awards show didn’t seem to be “well thought out.”

“The truth is, popular fare in any medium has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite,” Gunn wrote on his Facebook page.“What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care and thought into them than people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films.”

Throughout the weekend’s awards shows, comic book movies got a spanking. In the Oscars’ opening number, Jack Black sang about the preponderance of superhero movies, and presenter Liam Neeson seemed to momentarily forget about his performance in “Batman Begins” when he also bemoaned their popularity in a series of scripted remarks.

“Nightcrawler” director Dan Gilroy also had pointed comments while accepting a screenwriting award at the Independent Spirit Awards. He lauded arthouse directors as “holdouts against a tsunami of superhero movies that have swept over this industry.”

What seemed to animate Gunn the most was Gilroy’s dig.

“Well it seems a bit weird coming from a guy whose wife [Rene Russo] has acted in two ‘Thor’ films,” he wrote.

Team Gilroy aren’t the only ones owing a mortgage payment or two to Marvel or DC Comics movies. TheWrap’s Jeff Sneider noted that nine of this year’s acting nominees have roles in comic book films, including Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo (Hulks past and present) and Bradley Cooper (Rocket the Raccoon).

Still, by handing out best picture to “Birdman,” the Academy was in some sense turning its back on popular tastes. The backstage satire about the fading star of a superhero franchise (onetime Batman Michael Keaton, in a bit of art imitates life) is very much a send-up of the current state of the movie business.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has publicly decried studios’ penchant for raiding the comic strip bin in the hopes of finding new costumed vigilantes to turn into bigscreen characters that spawn sequels and inspire toy sales.

“Many of these films — not all — but many of them are just basically epic, as they love to say, loud, gross, full of special effects, but without soul, without storytelling, without meaning,” he told KCRW. “It’s an empty box.”

BoxOffice.com’s Contrino thinks that some of the criticism of superhero films is unfounded.

“Just because there are more superhero movies getting made doesn’t mean there are less Oscar-friendly, prestige movies getting made,” he said. “These stories are still being told.”

It’s also not as though superhero movies lack artistry. Take a look at some of last year’s biggest hits. With its conspiracy subtext, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” played like a modern-day “The Parallax View,” while “Guardians of the Galaxy” nimbly mixed in humor and ’80s music for a cracking yarn about a team of C-list do-gooders. Fans weren’t the only ones embracing those films. Reviewers loved them too.

Crafting these bigscreen fantasies takes skill, care and, yes, chutzpah, the genre’s defenders say — characteristics that aren’t unfamiliar to the Sundance set.

“If you think people who make superhero movies are dumb, come out and say we’re dumb,” Gunn wrote. “But if you, as an independent filmmaker or a ‘serious’ filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken.”

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