WM: I do think there's a way to honor the seriousness of comic books. Nolan goes hard in one direction in that sense. But there's always been a kind of brooding aspect to comic books and sort of an unhappy feeling. There's an allegorical stamp on the great comic book runs. I'm thinking about X-Men during the Civil Rights movement and the identity politics of the eighties. Even Superman, in "Superman II," gave up everything to be with Lois Lane and had to figure out how to become Superman again to save all of us. That's some heavy shit. But you have a director like Richard Donner, who is not an artist at all, but is a really good craftsman, making these movies. He's not interested in any allegory, and allegory explains itself in some way -- but a really good comic book movie knows the source material, knows the audience in some way, and hopes they grow it and bring in people who don't read comic books. But they know it's a movie, and there are things a movie has to do. One of them is kind of make sense. All of the good movies do all of those things really well in a way that's recognizable to people who know the source material.

DS: The first "Superman" movie is really the benchmark. As a non-comic book reader, the Donner-directed "Superman" movie is the one that makes me understand why people read comics and why those heroes need so much to them. There's a playfulness, even if there's a seriousness as well. Yes, there's abandonment, obviously, but there's a playfullness as well.

WM: Dana, there's one other thing though.

DS: What?

W: It's that Superman is hot.


Missed that one.

WM: Christopher Reeve was sexy, and I think there was a kind of virginal sexiness about that Superman that really really worked. Margot Kidder! With the first "Superman" movie and even the second one, they were screwball comedies that blew into into action sequences. But the set-up, Kal-El gets to Metropolis, the movie is a screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. And he's really sexy, and she's sexy in her way, too -- and I just think that that awareness of Hollywood genres in the context of superhero movies is something that doesn't happen that often. But with a smart director that's a really good hook. And the second "Iron Man" movie has that dynamic. It's a screwball comedy. There's a reception that all the characters show up at and it's very funny.

What do you make of the bad guy in "Iron Man 3"?

WM: The twist too good to ruin it.

DS: I'm hitting up against this while writing my review. It's very smart but under-explored. More than any other movie of its kind, this movie acknowledges super villainy as a construct. It acknowledges it and thinks about what goes into making a super villain. We see that construction under way. I wish there had been more of that. Guy Pearce's motivations, on a plot level, make no sense. I guess he wants to rule the world.

"Something in the Air"
Sundance Selects "Something in the Air"

Despite the plot holes, you seem to agree that this is another superhero movie that's a cut above, so maybe there's less of a reason to grouse about all the money it's going to make. Meanwhile, there's a new Olivier Assayas film opening this week. Do you think there's a newer tension between two opposing film cultures when it comes to the receptions of these movies? Or is it an issue that has persisted for some time now?

WM: There's no pressure on me at Grantland to do one thing over the other. I had a moment a couple of weeks ago where I realized that there is a way to cover both of these things without losing people. The people who don't want to read about Olivier Assayas don't have to, but hopefully they will, and maybe they'll go see the movie. There's a way in which what we do -- you, me, Dana -- where acknowledging the existence of these movies is important for us. I also think that, in many ways, it's important to assess where an "Iron Man" or "Hangover 3" stand in the larger film conversation. Despite occupying a big part of the movie apparatus, its occupation is still worth analyzing. At the same time, I like "Something in the Air" so much and I'm going to write about the new Carlos Reygadas movie in the next few weeks. When I was at the Boston Globe, there was no pressure on my end because I just wrote about everything that opened. I didn't have the luxury of choosing. Now there's a bit of curation on my part. Art house culture is important. Even the ones that don't work -- they don't work for much more interesting reasons than "Die Harder" or whatever that last piece of shit was.

DS: I'm in a similar situation. There's usually one huge thing that needs to be covered. "Iron Man 3" is the one this week. Usually that leaves room for an extra review. But even in film culture at large, in terms of reception, people are getting more and more omnivorous. The audience I imagine writing for is equally interested in "Iron Man" and the new Assayas film. They would be disappointed in Slate didn't try to cover both.

"There is a creative crisis in American movies." --Wesley Morris

WM: Did you see you see Steven Soderbergh's "State of Cinema" address? I think it's relevant. He gave this kind of rambling speech, but the meat of it was what we all know to be true: Hollywood has completely colonized moviegoing, moviemaking and cinema. It's corporatizing and zombifying it out of existence. I guess he's talking about all movies, but principally, he's talking about American movies and the way they choke the life out of art filmmaking from an exhibition standpoint. The numbers are astonishing when you look at them. The number of Hollywood movies released per year has gone down 28% in 10 years. The number of independent movies has gone up 100% according to him. But marketing and advertising for those movies has risen to something like 68% of all marketing for all movies. We are living in a time when of course "Iron Man" made $200 million in its first week of release overseas, because it was probably the only movie people knew was out. For us, it's an obvious point, but one that really bears repeating often: There is a creative crisis in American movies.

DS: Insofar as "Iron Man 3" is a symptom of that, it is depressing. But again, within the strictures, there's this small room for play. That's why people are so enlivened by the presence of Robert Downey Jr.: Just to have some moment of humanity in these movies. It's kind of split down the middle. We know that Shane Black can make a really good indie movie with Robert Downey Jr. ["Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"]. Why is it the pinnacle of his career to make a studio blockbuster?

WM: These are calling card movies. It's hard to say no when a studio is thinking about hiring you to do something like this. You can to prove you can do it, and it's lucrative both financially and for your reputation. It's hard for me to feel bad for Robert Downey Jr. As a moviegoer, I wish he were in other things, and when he did have time off, he didn't do "Due Date" -- but while I would like to see him in something more subversive than what he has been doing, instead he chooses to subvert these comic book movies, which I think is kind of smart. He has imprisoned himself, but it's a pretty nice prison.