At present the distinction [between highbrow and lowbrow books] is certainly used to allow us the satisfaction of despising certain authors and readers without imposing on us the labour of showing that they are bad.
— C. S. Lewis, High and Low Brows.
Matt Walsh is one of my favorite commentators. There are few people who have a stronger grasp of social and moral matters in contemporary America, or who are more direct at getting to the heart of them.
Unfortunately, he has a blindspot: whenever he talks on entertainment or pop culture issues, he’s awful. Because when it comes to those topics he not only does not know what he is talking about, but very clearly has zero respect for them. Now, there’d be nothing really wrong with that, except that he sometimes tries to write about them. And when he does the same boldness that serves him so well on subjects he knows causes him to make an absolute fool himself when it comes to subjects he doesn’t.
I noticed this first in an extremely ignorant essay linking violent video games with mass shootings. Now, you can make that connection, but the trouble is that Mr. Walsh very clearly knows nothing about video games apart from what he’s read on news websites and filled it with broadsides against the medium itself. It was followed by an embarrassing ‘clarification’ in which he attempted to claim nuance that he may have intended, but which had certainly not made it into the original article (e.g. he claimed he distinguished between ‘violence’ and ‘gratuitous violence,’ when he qualified violence twice with simple adjectives and never made any such distinction).
Now he makes an entirely unnecessary attack on superhero films, which is one of the worst things I’ve ever read from him. So, because I expect better of him, and because I think it illustrates a mistake that’s easy to fall into, I’m giving it the fisk treatment. His comments are in italics, mind in bold.
Almost Every Superhero Movie Is Terrible And It’s Time For Moviegoers To Awaken to This Fact
That’s, shall we say, a bold statement, one that would be very hard to back up. Saying “it’s time for moviegoers to awaken to this fact” sets an unnecessarily aggressive (not to say arrogant) tone, while also raising the question of why, exactly, granting the premise that most superhero movies are terrible, it is so important for moviegoers to ‘awaken’ to this ‘fact’.
But I don’t want to harp on this too much, knowing from experience that writers don’t always pick their titles.
“Aquaman” will be in theaters in two weeks. This is very fortunate because it has been almost 30 seconds since the last superhero movie was released. We cannot be expected to wait so long. The American people have, apparently, an unquenchable thirst for superhero movies, despite the fact that they are all exactly the same and they primarily exist to sell merchandise. These films are basically 95 minute Mattel commercials, only with less plot and worse acting.
Okay, first point is a sarcastic hyperbole of how many superhero films there seem to be these days, and an accurate comment that there is a very clear market for these kinds of films. An interesting piece might be written on this; what is it about this particular genre that would so appeal to people in today’s day and age, why do other genres seem to be floundering, and how does this relate to the history of the industry and people’s changing tastes (and it should be noted that superhero films are far from the first genre to experience a glut of popularity like this).
But rather than dealing with any of that, he immediately launches into an attack, saying “they are all exactly the same and primarily exist to sell merchandise.”
Regarding the latter point, the merchandise; it’s a cheap shot that requires backing up, akin to calling something ‘racist.’ All films are made in the hopes that they will make money; many films also have merchandising tie-ins these days. This, in itself, has zero bearing on their quality. In order to make this into a meaningful criticism you would have to show that the film is structured in such a way that merchandising was very clearly placed before story.
An example of that would be the porgs in The Last Jedi. They serve no purpose in the plot, and their antics are often tonally at odds with the surrounding scene, yet they continue to show up at regular intervals long past the point where even their tenuous justification has ceased. This is not the case in the majority of superhero films.
As for saying they are all the same, that is a common complaint of the Marvel films, and to a lesser extent the DCEU, though I think it is overblown. Yes, there is commonality of tone and style across the films, which is exactly what you would expect from a single franchise, and yes some within the framework are very similar, arguably too similar. But Ant-Man is not the same film as Captain America: Civil War, which is not the same film as Guardians of the Galaxy. Even going back to the initial few films, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were all distinct in tone and style.
The thing is, all genres and subgenres have common elements, and, if you wanted, you could describe them as being “all the same.” All westerns are the same, all musicals are the same, all war movies are the same, all detective novels are the same, and so on. But this doesn’t actually tell you anything about the genre; it’s just a stock insult applied by people who do not enjoy or respect the form.
Also, ‘worse acting?’ In what universe is, say, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Civil War or Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight considered bad acting? What about Josh Brolin in Infinity War, or Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming? See, this is part of the problem: he does not know what he is talking about, but he is throwing insults based purely on his assumptions.
We’re going to come back to this.
I am being generous by saying “less plot,” because that implies the basic existence of plot. Superhero movies in the 90’s were merely light on plot. Superhero movies these days are entirely plotless.
Again, simply not true, as he would know if he actually took the trouble to give a modicum of respect to his subject matter (also, what superhero films in the 1990s? There weren’t very many of them, and by and large – Steel, the Schumacher Batman films, etc. – they were objectively far worse than the ones we get now. The big superhero push didn’t really get started until Blade -1998 – and X-Men – 2000. Again, he shows that he is talking at random about something he does not have any real knowledge of).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines plot as: “The main events of a play, novel, film, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.” Thus, the plot of The Lord of the Rings would be “Frodo the Hobbit attempts to destroy the Ring of Power before the Dark Lord Sauron can recover it.” The plot of The Odyssey would be “Odysseus and his men attempt to return home following the Trojan War, while the angry god Poseidon seeks to prevent it.”
Clearly, most superhero films do in fact have a plot: the plot of Ant-Man and the Wasp would be, “Doctor Pym tries to use technology accessing the Quantum Realm to save his long-lost wife while keeping it out of the hands of his enemies.” The plot of Avengers: Infinity War would be, “The fanatic Thanos attempts to recover the six Infinity Stones in order to reduce the universe’s population by half while the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy attempt to stop him.”
The point is that it is simply inaccurate to say that superhero films are plotless, and again an act of complete dismissal. He is entitled to dislike the genre himself, but I have to wonder why he felt the need to announce his dismissal to the world, since we are not even two paragraphs in and he’s already shown both complete ignorance of and complete contempt for his subject.
The advent of franchise filmmaking and “world building” has turned every movie into a set-up for the next movie, which itself is a set-up for the next one, on and on into the infinite abyss. Nothing can ever really happen. There can be no substantial progress, no final resolution, no real triumph or defeat. You may as well pay 18 dollars to watch Iron Man play solitaire for two hours. It’s the same thing in the end.
The point about each film being merely a set-up for the next is a potentially accurate criticism of the ‘shared universe’ model of popular entertainment. But he has not demonstrated this by fact or example, nor will he. I won’t even go into pointing out how wrong he is in fact, nor the question of what would qualify for “nothing ever really happens,” except that his point is particularly galling considering that this is the genre that just produced Infinity War.
Ten thousand years from now, as the next installment of the Avengers saga is released to the screens we will all have permanently implanted in our eyeballs, philosophers will be debating whether these superhero franchises even had a beginning at all. They may well conclude that there was no prime mover, no first cause, in the Marvel and DC universe. These movies have always existed, telling the exact same stories, with the exact same actors, since before the beginning of time itself.
Here he makes a sarcastic joke, which again is undermined by his complete ignorance of his subject and repeating the nonsense of ‘the exact same stories,’ only now with ‘the exact same actors,’ which is just strange: does he expect the same character the be played by a different actor in subsequent films?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate superheros. I have nothing against a fanciful tale about a man in a rubber suit fighting bad guys who, through approximately 20 million story arcs, still have not thought to simply walk up to their nemesis and shoot him directly in the face.
He says he doesn’t hate superheroes, then gives a completely dismissive summation of the genre. This is what we call ‘immediate self contradiction.’
I’m no expert on Marvel or DC mythology but I’m pretty sure a bullet to the face would dispatch almost all of the heroes in either universe. Except Superman, of course, who is essentially just a deus ex machina with a cape.
I believe the audience has already figured out he’s ‘no expert.’ When he admits he’s own ignorance then says he’s “pretty sure” that there’s this one gapping plot hole in all superhero stories, it again makes me wonder why he thought writing this essay was in any way a good idea.
And again, I’m not going to point out how wrong this assertion is, because my point is less about why superhero films are good than about why this essay is bad.
In any case, as I said, I don’t hate these movies. I just realize that they are bland and empty and stupid, and I don’t need them injected directly into my veins.
Again the immediate self-contradiction: you might as well say “I don’t hate professional sports, I just realize that they’re empty, pointless, and stupid and don’t need to waste my time watching someone else play a game.”
Also, note that he says “I realize,” as if it’s an established fact, when he’s not come within a country mile of anything that could be considered a fact about these movies.
One of the things that gall me is that I know that if he found someone directing this level of ‘criticism’ against something he cared about, he would tear them to shreds.
It seems I was born without a superhero-sized hole in my soul that can only be filled with a never ending onslaught of comic book films. Perhaps I had such a hole when I was 12, but it has since been closed.
More contempt, now mixed with implied insults to those who enjoy these films.
If I have an insatiable appetite for any kind of movie in my old age, it would be that particular genre where Liam Neeson is a grizzled ex-FBI agent/assassin who has to recover/avenge a kidnaped/murdered family member.
Incidentally, there’s a movie coming out soon called “Cold Pursuit” where Neeson portrays a vengeful snowplow driver who “transforms from an ordinary man into a skilled killer as he sets out to dismantle the cartel” that killed his son (yes, I’m serious). I will be there on opening day. Am I a hypocrite because I criticize comic book movies even while waiting with breathless anticipation to watch Liam Neeson kill drug lords with a snowplow? No, I don’t think so. As Scripture says: when I became a man, I put away childish things and replaced them with Liam Neeson revenge movies.
Okay, this is simply nonsense. I think he’s trying to defuse some of the bad feeling he’s unnecessarily dredged up by humorously citing how he has his own taste in frothy entertainment. That’s nice, but it does nothing to counteract the arrogance and ignorance he’s already shown and will continue showing, especially since it all builds up to another ‘superhero movies are childish’ jab.
Wherever you stand on this topic, even if you run out to see each new comic book film in the desperate hope that something new will eventually happen in one of them, can you not at least agree that the studios have now officially exhausted the supply of interesting or credible superheroes? Would you not concede that it’s time for Hollywood to stop mining for new characters and perhaps even cut down (drastically) on the number of films featuring the already established ones? Would you not even admit that there should be a moratorium on all superhero movies for the next decade while Hollywood explores the possibility that it might actually be possible to tell a story that doesn’t involve costumed crime fighters?
I assume this is the whole point of the essay; that he’s sick of hearing about new superhero films coming out and wants to call a ‘moratorium’ on them. The trouble is, he’s already shown that he has absolutely no credibility on this topic, so his pleas are simply noise.
Honestly, I also wish Hollywood would get off the remakes-adaptations kick and start making more original content, but then that’s pretty far down the list of problems in modern Hollywood. Again, that’s a legitimate perspective that absolutely could serve as the subject of a good essay, but he buries it under a ton of smug nonsense.
The really strange thing, that he seems not to notice (probably because of the aforementioned contempt) is that superhero films are among the most morally positive movies that are being released these days. The last couple Marvel films were, respectively, about fathers being there for their daughters and the evils of sacrificing innocent lives for the sake of an ideology. There are very few positive places in popular fiction left, and superhero films are (by and large, and for the present) the most notable of these. And he’s arguing that Hollywood should stop making them because he’s sick of hearing about them. It’s not just that this is a highly dubious position, it’s that if anything it’s contrary to his own ideas. He knows how immoral and toxic most of Hollywood is, yet he’s spending time attacking some of its least toxic products.
If that time will ever come, we are here. In the mad dash to make movies out of every superhero ever to grace the pages of a child’s comic book, Hollywood has officially hit rock bottom. Worse than rock bottom. It has plunged below sea level, which brings us to Aquaman. They actually made a full length movie about a guy called Aquaman. He lives in the ocean, wears a suit of fish scales, rides around on a dolphin (I assume), and carries a magical trident. He is exactly the kind of character an eight year old boy might invent in his head during math class and then doodle in the margins of his text book.
Again, he knows nothing of the character, nothing of why people like the character enough that he’s been around for nearly eighty years, he’s basing his criticism solely on the name of the character, and one or two things he’s gleaned from the trailers or from online. This is a textbook example of ‘judging a book by its cover.’
He’s not as dumb as Superman, but he holds his own in the race. Batman isn’t exactly a work of genius but at least he has pathos. Not coincidentally, he’s also the centerpiece of the only interesting superhero movies ever made. Aquaman on the other hand, despite the rave reviews of critics who are always absurdly generous in their appraisals of comic book films, is destined to be a pointless, lifeless, silly-but-not-in-a-charming-way, cash grab by studio executives who I’m certain never bothered to read the script, because, really, how good does a movie about muscular fish-man living in SpongeBob’s pineapple under the sea need to be? It is a thing made simply to exploit a market. And it is a market that, I submit, should finally become a bit more discerning. Movie tickets are expensive, after all. And superhero movies have finally jumped the shark. Pun very much intended.
This is ridiculous. He acknowledges that the initial reviews are positive, but still dismisses the film with a string of insults based on nothing. Then based on that (i.e. his own prejudice) he proclaims that “superhero movies have finally jumped the shark” and the market should become a bit more discerning.
I’m sure you can see now why I opened with the quote from Prof. Lewis.
I hate to say it about someone whose work I usually admire, but this essay was horrendous; waste paper. It’s as bad as any I’ve seen from CNN or Salon, and I can’t say worse than that.
To put the best possible light on it, I am assuming he tossed this one off quickly, more or less as a joke. The trouble is that it’s not a very good joke both because of his ignorance of the subject and because of his needlessly insulting tone towards people who have done nothing worse than enjoy a film genre that he doesn’t. It’s like saying “all movies are stupid because they’re for people too lazy to read books.” There’s nothing clever or amusing about it; it’s just gratuitous nonsense with an edge of smug. No one will find this funny except for those who just want to point and laugh at people who enjoy superhero films, and that’s kind of sad, especially from someone who usually provides such substantive content.
Nothing he said here had any substance to it; he doesn’t give specifics, he just says that “modern superhero films are completely plotless” (no examples of specific films where the plot is flimsy, confusing, or disjointed), that the acting is bad (no examples of specific performances), and that the films are “bland and empty and stupid” (no definition of terms, no examples of particularly bland or stupid moments, no counterexamples of something similar done well).
To be fair, it’s a limited essay and he’s talking about dozens of different films, but he doesn’t even attempt to back up his points with examples. Now, if I wanted to call the Marvel films ‘plotless’, for instance, I would have cited Black Panther or Age of Ultron or Iron Man 2: films that legitimately have massive plot issues. That wouldn’t prove my point, but it would be something and would show that I at least had some knowledge of this topic.
The impression he creates is that he doesn’t actually know any examples and doesn’t think he has to, because again, he treats this whole subject with absolute contempt. A subject that many, many people of all types have found value in and which, at least in the case of the MCU, represents an objectively massive achievement in filmmaking. Love the films or hate them, creating twenty-plus big-budget films over the course of ten years, all in continuity with each other, almost all with different directors, writers, and cast, and all financially successful is simply not something that you can dismiss as “95-minute Mattel commercials.”
But the problem, as I’ve said throughout, is not that he’s criticizing these films or this genre; it’s that he has nothing substantive to say about them, and what is more seems to think there is nothing to be said. He simply declares it to be stupid and childish and proceeds as if that were established beyond argument.
In the essay quoted above, C.S. Lewis laid it down as a principle – and I think he was correct – that you ought not to criticize work in a genre that you personally do not enjoy. This is because you won’t be able to tell when the work is being done well or poorly according to the canon of its own art. He himself disliked detective novels and consequently didn’t bother trying to write essays on them.
When it comes to fiction, not every genre appeals to everyone (I’m pretty rare in that I can enjoy any genre that doesn’t morally repel me). It is not a matter of one being better or more ‘mature’ than another – the high-brow and low-brow fallacy – it’s simply a matter of how one’s personality is formed. If yours is so formed that a particular genre does not appeal to you, then you can have nothing worthwhile to say as to its flaws or merits, any more than a tone-deaf person could have anything worthwhile to say about Mozart. I For instance, I know little about music apart from a broad sense of what I do and do not like. If I tried to write a piece on why I think the Beatles are overrated, I would probably make a fool of myself, so I will never do that.
It is, in fact, another application of Chesterton’s gate: if you don’t see the purpose of a thing, you cannot tell if that purpose is being achieved and hence you are in no position to judge whether the thing is doing it well or poorly.
The point is that there are legitimate criticisms to be made about any or all superhero films, and about the genre as a whole, and about the film industry’s approach to them. But to make them would take someone who is familiar with the subject, who pays it a basic respect, and who can derive the kind of pleasure from it that it is intended to produce. It is the same with every genre of fiction and every form of art.
Moreover (and this is a large part of why I took the trouble to make this fisk), in writing such utter nonsense so confidently, he actually undermines his own credibility. If he speaks so confidently and callously on something he evidently knows nothing about, and is so insulting to people he has no reason to quarrel with, then that rather raises the question of how much of his other work is based on sound evidence and reasoning rather than pure arrogance. Now, I’m a long-time reader of his and generally find his work to be very solid except for the few times he goes outside of his knowledge base, but for a less familiar or a less sympathetic reader, something like this could be devastating.
Matt Walsh doesn’t need advice from me; this is directed at my own readers (and myself, of course). Please do not try to write criticism on topics you have no knowledge or understanding of, do not treat your subject matter with contempt, and do not try to substitute an arrogant tone for knowledge. If there is a topic – say, a certain film genre or trend – that you simply do not understand, that means it is not for you to write about or commentate on.
In conclusion, I urge you not to judge Mr. Walsh’s output by this piece. His work on moral, social, and religious matters is very solid; some of the best. I just wish he had a better grasp of his own limitations.