Talk about superheroes for long enough, and the word’ll no doubt come up.
Adam West’s Batman was so campy, whereas Christopher Nolan’s really isn’t. Spider-Man is kinda campy, Daredevil mostly isn’t. It seems like Blade is trying really really hard not to be campy, and yet he says things like this in his movie. (Warning: there be swears in that Youtube clip!)
At some point, you might be wondering: what the hell does that word even mean?
A lot of people have tackled the subject. One of the most famous is Susan Sontag, bad-a$$ literary critic and all around mofo who wrote an essay called “Notes on Camp”. It doesn’t help us too much if we’re actually trying to understand camp, because it’s filled with not-helpful statements like, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” and “Camp is the triumph of the epicene style.” As always, the truth is a little less pretentious than whatever the heck literary critics try and say.
In short, when we call something campy, we’re saying that it’s highly stylized. That it doesn’t strive for realism, but instead seems to bring attention to its own artificiality.
The reason Adam West’s Batman is campy is because he’s so untethered to anything real. On the other hand, Christopher Nolan’s Batman exhibits a sort of realism.
Of course, there’s all sorts of complications that comes with the word ‘campy’, which is one of the reasons why some people have a hard time giving a simple definition. One of the biggest complications is that ‘campy’ has often been seen as a popular mode of expression for the LGBTQ+ community*. The idea is that this abstract stylization reflected the day-to-day reality gay people had to deal with: that you had to act like something you weren’t, that the act of pretending to be straight in a homophobic world led you to mockingly exaggerate the absurdities of a heterosexual world.
A particularly relevant example is the way that drag queens perform. They play everything larger than life. They’re not trying to become women, necessarily (though there is some overlap between the trans* and drag queen communities). Instead they’re looking at the way society handles gender and laughing at it. “Oh, you think only women can put on makeup and wear dresses? Well I’ve put on lipstick and I’m wearing a dress, Mr. Heterosexual. You either have to call me a woman, or you have to admit that men can wear makeup and dresses. What’s it gonna be?”**
Another piece of baggage, which I would argue is closely tied to the first, is that camp is somehow bad. There certainly are examples of campy things also being bad, but I think some of that idea is inherently linked to homophobia. Camp was seen as bad because it was a sort of gay art form. Straight people saw that campy things imitated the real world poorly, and therefore assumed that the work itself had just been poorly made.
In truth, they probably just didn’t get the joke. Many pieces of camp rely on the winking knowledge that the stylized artificiality is purposeful, that it reflects the frustration of having to be in the closet — if not all the time, then most of it.
So the next time you talk about superheroes, I hope you have an easier time figuring out whether they’re camp or not.
“Yeah, Adam West’s Batman is campy, but it’s not necessarily bad. It’s fun, it’s ridiculous, and it’s a kid’s show. The campy, stylized artificiality is just something that doesn’t connect with you,” you might say.
Or, alternatively, “The Andrew Garfield movies aren’t all that campy. It would be more accurate to describe them as just plain bad.”
*SIDE NOTE: I’m a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I also wrote a campy gay serial, which I know you want to check out here.
**ANOTHER SIDE NOTE: Does anybody else see a number of parallels between drag queens and superheroes? Both get specialized names, both put on costumes, and both often feel larger than life.