Saturday Night Movie Triple Feature: Documentary Edition

That’s right — a triple feature. Because as I’ve been telling virtually everyone who will listen, with varying levels of annoyance, I am very much lacking money right now. While all my bills are paid, I have enough food to eat and enough gas in my car to get me to and from work until I get paid again, I have no money for extras. Like entertainment or other things that may involve leaving the house. But since Netflix is paid for another month (hey, it’s only $15) and offers unlimited streaming, it seems like an excellent time to lie around on my bed and watch movies.

I’m currently on a documentary kick and Netflix does have a few streaming that focus on comics or comic book culture. I figured this would be good for a laugh. Or at least a way to waste a few hours.

Comic Book Confidential
Even though this documentary was made in 1988, it still feels very relevant now. The primary focus is on alternative comics — works and creators outside the superhero genre, although those are definitely acknowledged — and I think that’s a side of comics that rarely gets enough attention historically. Yes, we all know about the rise of DC and Marvel, the stories of superheroes, all of that, but these underground creators contributed more than I think most people realize to the look and feel of comics today.

I was delighted to see how many of them are still working today — creators like Lynda Barry and Charles Burns are featured here, along with Jaime Hernandez and Art Spielgman. I also think the sight of an awesomely long-haired Frank Miller at the end being all self-important is quite incredible.

But really, if you want to know the history of comics and side of that history that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, this is a good place to start. I have no idea why more people haven’t told me to watch this documentary before. Nor do I have any idea why I haven’t watched it until now.

Starz Inside: Comic Books Unbound
This is from 2008, and already seems a bit dated (in contrast to Comic Book Confidential, which doesn’t), especially since it was made before the economy tanked and Spider-Man got rebooted and the manga market took a downturn. And it definitely shies away from any criticism of the movies covered here, even when it’s probably deserved.

But it’s actually a pretty decent overview of the history of comic book movies. While there’s plenty of typical studio talking heads, it does feature interesting creators like Paul Pope and Mike Mignola as well as director Richard Donner. The overall tone here is completely flattering, even when they touch on some of the goofy live-action projects Marvel did in the ’80s and ’90s (but no mention of the TV movies for Nick Fury or Generation X, even though the Spider-Man and The Hulk series got passing mentions. I think some things are better off forgotten). But case in point: There was no acknowledgment that Marvel is still making bad movies (Daredevil? Elektra? I somewhat like Elektra, but I’m not going to tell you it’s good).

Still, I like that they do pay some attention to non-superhero comic book movies like The Road to Perdition and A History of Violence as well as American Splendor. And although the “looking into the future” predictions aren’t quite accurate now, I still think it’s clear that comic book movies are big business. I was surprised by this. I wasn’t expecting too much from it, but underneath the breathless tone of “these movies are awesome!” there is something of substance here.

Confessions of a Superhero
This 2007 documentary isn’t so much about comic books, except in the most abstract of ways. Rather, it’s about four people who dress up as superheros (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and The Hulk) and let tourists take photos of them for tips.

Christopher Dennis loves Superman a little too much — he has an overcrowded apartment full of merchandise and memorabilia and rarely takes the costume off. Maxwell Allen has inflated claims of his past as a supposed mob enforcer (as well as his resemblance to George Clooney) and seems to take being Batman a little too personally.

On the other hand, Jennifer Wenger, who dresses as Wonder Woman, and Joe McQueen, who dresses as The Hulk, both seem to understand this is just a way to make money in between acting jobs.

Wenger comes across the best of all four — she’s the most down-to-earth and genuinely sweet. McQueen also seems to understand his limitations and has overcome hardship (he was homeless for a while).

The other two? They both have obvious problems. Dennis claims to be the son of Sandy Dennis, but her family says he’s not. His obsession with Superman comes across as a compulsion (and his apartment is nearly something out of Hoarders). Allen is charming enough, until his outlandish stories begin to pile up (he claims to be great at various martial arts, but one scene in a martial arts studio would say otherwise. Perhaps not surprisingly, both seem to think dressing up as superheroes will provide them with their big breaks.

It’s a little painful in parts and it’s more about these four lives than any deeper message. But there’s still something sad and fascinating about how people are delighted and happy to pay money to get their photos taken with someone — anyone — dressed as their favorite heroes. There’s some power there.

Maybe this time next year, I’ll have the Comic-Con documentary that Joss Whedon, Harry Knowles and Morgan Spurlock are making this year. I suppose we’ll see how that turns out.

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