In Defense of Comic-Book SF

By Sam Lowry | July 1, 2008 10:07 am

On the Popular Mechanics Web site, Eric Sofge complained a couple months ago that big, lumbering comic-book movies are sucking the life from the already shaky genre of intelligent Hollywood science fiction movies. His concern is not just artistic: He worries that the rise of the Iron Men and Spider-Men and the vanishing of think-oriented movies like Blade Runner is taking away the one piece of Tinseltown culture that inspires viewers to think, and maybe even act, like scientists.

It’s a clever, well-intentioned argument. I just don’t buy it for a minute. The line between smart scifi and dumb superhero scifi is not as clear as Erik tries to make it. Where would you put RoboCop and Total Recall, for instance? Lord of the Rings nurtured many a science nerd, even though there’s not a speck of realism in it; on the other side, Star Trek (original and all other flavors) has plenty of mumbo jumbo moments in it to rival Iron Man’s suit or Bruce Banner’s irradiated cells.

To my mind, the most effective scifi stories depend on two key factors: dealing with imaginary science & technology in a logically consistent manner, and being sensitive to its human implications. That’s what made Blade Runner and Terminator so great. At their best, the Iron Man and Spider-Man comics worked because they weren’t about the science at all; they were, like Batman, about life-transforming events that caused their heroes to deal with issues we all deal with, but on a wildly magnified scale. In short, they were almost all about the human side. Sure, their attention to realism was abysmal, but they were quite appealingly attentive to the idea of having to rely on your wits to succeed.

Is it so bad to tell kids to look up to a brilliant but socially awkward kid who used his smarts to fight crime and social injustice? And does Erik Sofge really want to argue that Outland and Saturn 3 were a big help in furthering the cause of science education in this country? If so…well, good luck with that, Erik.


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