The Superhero Film in The Modern Era
Since the introduction of Superman in Action Comics way back in 1938, the superhero and comic book genres have always had a huge fan following. This following has never been bigger than it is now. There are roughly going to be 40 superhero films adapted to film within the next 6 years, which means there will be around 6 comic book based films each year. This resurgence really started back in 2000 with the first X-Men film and has continued along with the Dark Knight Trilogy and Marvel’s continually expanding universe, which is only just started to bed directly rivalled by DC’s upcoming roster.
While the box-office figures are stratospheric and audiences still love these films, the actual content itself is not actually that diverse. If one is to take away all the quirks that seems to distinguish one superhero film from the next, the makeup of the films are pretty much exactly the same. There is always a hero that is painted to seem unlikely to be born for greatness, who then gains some sort of power or suit. There will then come a great threat, which will initially defeat our hero, before (although seeming to be much more powerful) succumbing to defeat. And by default really, due to the sheer number of films they have released, Marvel are the prime offenders.
If you are to look at each of the Marvel films, they really are pretty much all the same. The plot points match up, the set ups and call backs are blatantly obvious and the untimely defeat of the superhero is ultimately overturned with good always prevailing over evil. This is not wholly a fault of the genre (there are many examples in comic book lore where the heroes don’t always succeed, such as when Bane bested Batman in the Knightfall storyline), this is just the conventional story technique used in Hollywood.
The problem with knowing about narrative aspects such as the three act structure or Chekov’s gun, is that you know everything is planned out from a narrative view-point to a tee. For example we know that when we see Tony Stark’s collection of Iron Man suits, that this will in some way, play a part later on in the film or that Thor’s banishment from Asgard to Earth will in some way impact the storyline. There is just no shock factor or anything unconventional to these films. They are all solidly based on a foundation and a formula that Iron Man started in 2008 and led up to The Avengers (2012).
What became one of the most successful films ever at the box-office, The Avengers was at least something different in that it had several heroes that Marvel Studios had set up converging in one feature film and finally there was huge conflict between the protagonists that were based on a level playing field because of each individuals sets of powers and/or abilities. A conflict of interests between a super powered character and a non-super powered character does not have that same impact, because more often than not the titular character will always end up winning somehow. With The Avengers there was a sense of uncertainty. Who would be able to beat who in that forest? Will they completely fail their mission by destroying the airship they’re on? With these questions we finally are able to actually wonder what might happen next, but of course, we are going to be disappointed.
The fight between Thor, Iron Man and Captain America ends in a very rock, paper, scissors-esque draw; one cannot be more powerful than the team and therefore the limelight. This is a team effort after all. Likewise, these are still the heroes, the people around which the story revolves and they cannot lose at any cost, once again robbing the audience of any potential narrative tension. If we know that the hero(es) are going to defeat whatever villain they appear to be fighting, there needs to be something more to them. There must be some meaning, some discourse or just something creatively different.
This is where the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) falls apart. There doesn’t seem to be anything to them that reflects anything in the real world. There are obviously going to be undertones of what happened on 9/11 depicted on-screen and we see that in the destruction caused in The Avengers by an “alien” force controlled by one very powerful person, also not from this world (or rather the USA). This is far from exclusive to the MCU, however. During traumatic times in the Twentieth and Twenty-First centuries the popularity of the superhero/comic book genre has significantly risen. This is due to us (the readers and viewers) being given a way to escape from the world we live in, while still being fed messages that are reminiscent of what is currently happening and given assurances that a higher power(s) will be there to protect us as a whole.
Yet generally, there is no meat on the bones of Marvel’s films. The closest they have come to actually reflecting something from reality was in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which it showed the worrying threat technology can withhold and how it can and is ultimately controlling our lives. However, this is pointing out something that is already in occurrence and frequently discussed is quite different to an actual warning and prediction in films such as The Terminator back in 1984.
Marvel is an incredible franchise, owned, of course, by Disney, an even bigger company that has been producing films for decades and always bringing in vast amounts of money. But this franchise build, is a huge problem for the films and the filmmakers working on them. Every company has a specific ethos which its employees must adhere to. This is not so much the case with film companies. Of course, they have the overall power regarding many aspects of a film, but it is the director that has the power the making of the film. Marvel has so far (while having very accomplished filmmakers on board) have not shown any specific tropes of their directors in their films; the closest they’ve come to doing so has been Guardians of the Galaxy with James Gunn, but even then, one can see the Marvel stamp all over the film. A Marvel film must be made in a specific way and this gives no creative license to the directors; this is even evidenced with Edgar Wright’s departure from the recent Ant-Man, where one can see where Wright has worked on the film, but this is not his baby, it’s Marvel’s.
Awesome Section Vol. 2
There are, of course, always going to be exceptions to the rule that in some way go against convention. Films like these are always welcome in whatever format or genre, but it seems in the ever so conventional and monotonous world of the comic book films, just small quirks added to a film can be incredibly welcome.
One part of the Avengers films (particularly Age of Ultron) that tried to speak to “nerd culture” is the fact that they consider themselves losers or outcasts. This is especially hard to pull off if these characters are millionaires with metal suits, super soldiers with incredibly strong shields or are God like entities that can travel from one planet to another. Can these people really be considered losers? The only real character that can be considered an outcast is Bruce Banner, as his condition which causes him to turn into the Hulk is truly one of a kind and something that he has to deal with (or feels like he has to) alone. We even see this at the end of Age of Ultron when Banner leaves the team and his love interest Natasha Romanoff, to live in self-exile. The Guardians of the Galaxy however, can indeed pull of this loser persona.
If The Avengers represent those who believe they are true losers, which can equally be representative of the part of the audience who believe they truly are a part of “nerd culture”, the Guardians are actually a group of outcasts that are reflective of those who have loved comic books and the characters throughout their lives and may have even been harassed for it.
Each of the characters actually has something fundamentally “wrong” about them. They all have genuine pains and motivations that are authentic. Star-Lord is from 1980s Earth and has had to deal with learning about such an expanded universe and creatures, while being away from his family. Drax and Nebula also have a lack of family, having lost them due to the merciless, murderous natures of Ronan and Thanos, with Drax having a burning hatred against these two and Nebula even being adopted by Thanos. Finally, we have Rocket and Groot, who are the true outsiders of the group. The other three are humanoid and can relate with each other on that level, but Rocket being a experimented on raccoon and Groot a tree only capable of saying “I am Groot”, these two are truly alone in the universe. Although, they do have each other and the other three, by having the feeling of loneliness they can feel a part of something with the other Guardians.
With this there actually feels like a connection between characters and that they genuinely represent the true nerd and comic book lover who would read alone in solitude until, one day, they themselves would find another “loser” just like them.
Another way Guardians of the Galaxy has shown deviation to the norm is through its soundtrack. As opposed to something Hans Zimmer conducted in a studio, Guardians uses existing songs in its soundtrack. Now although this isn’t a new idea, it was an incredibly ingenious decision commercially. For one it isn’t just an epic, computerised soundtrack, it is a group of brilliant songs ranging from Michael Jackson to Blue Swede; and of course, this was going to be a big merchandising point for the film.
What is perhaps more unusual however, is the use of the music within the diegesis (the fictional space within the film). Star-Lord/Peter Quill actually has a tape with all these songs on and are actually listened to by the characters during the length of the film. The soundtrack switches from diegetic sound to non-diegetic sound which can be somewhat disorienting, yet it is still a refreshing use of music in film. Sometimes the music doesn’t even fit with what is playing on-screen, such as when “The Pina Colada Song” comes on during the culmination of the jail-break scene. This completely dismisses the tension the other characters have while waiting for Quill and is another way the film goes against convention.
Mutant and Proud
Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, the X-Men films similarly have characters that are considered outcasts, but this extends to a prejudice that has always been relatable to the X-Men. The X-Men comics and films have always been a way to show prejudices and discrimination against homosexuals and the LGBT community. Ian McKellen (who plays Magneto in the movies) himself a gay man, has stated that he took on the role because of the films gay rights messages and one of the screenwriters on X-Men: First Class, Zack Stentz, has also confirmed the LGBT subtext and allegory in the films.
For the most part, this is done quite subtly. The mutants hide themselves from the non-mutant majority (or so we are led to believe) for fear of being misjudged and misunderstood as a threat. Even in X-Men: Last Stand, with all its short-comings, it still had this message, particularly with Warren/Angel and a scene with his father involving a cure to the mutant gene. Warren very quickly realises this is a mistake and he embraces his mutant side, to his father’s obvious disappointment. But this scene still reinforces the gay allegory in the X-Men films. About one side of society not understanding what the other is going through and that a mere mention of a cure is ridiculed by many, both mutant and regular human-beings, or rather cis-humans.
The homosexual subtext is none so more apparent than in the aptly named “coming out scene” in X2. In this scene Bobby Drake has found himself at his home (along with other mutants, including Wolverine and Rogue) and he confesses to his parents (although he doesn’t do much talking himself). This is met with shock on his parents’ behalf and anger on his brother’s, who storms out of the room disgusted after seeing his brother’s powers for the first time. There are, of course, the classic responses by his parent that assure they’ll still love him, blaming themselves for this and they ask “Bobby, have you tried not being a mutant?” Now these final three reactions are played somewhat for laughs, but it still feels like an authentic “coming out” to the parents and it definitely cements the LGBT allegory within the X-Men films.
This is one thing the X-Men franchise will have over its competitors. They will always represent a community in society that will receive prejudice. Whether it be the LGBT community as the films have shown so adequately already, but it could also include race, religion or countless other minimialised societies and communities in what we believe to be a very open-minded world.
The Noir Knight
Finally there is the trilogy that has earned countless praise for its dark, authentic and almost noir-esque portrayal of Batman. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy really reinvigorated the superhero genre with it really being rooted in the “real world”. For example, many of the weaponry in the trilogy is based on real technology; from Ra’s al Ghul’s microwave emitter to the Tumbler, the technology and type of weapons portrayed in the films are very realistic.
Along with this the trilogy is fittingly dark, as the trilogy’s title suggests. The original Batman comics were also very dark and noir, with Batman carrying a gun and was not against killing criminals. Although the Dark Knight Trilogy has Batman down as the righteous, non-killing vigilante that we expect, it still holds ties to the original noir feel in the comics and it is even relatable to some film-noirs.
There are three traits from film-noir that the Dark Knight Trilogy employs: the noir aesthetic, ambiguous characters and a sense of pessimism. Although much of the films are shot in high-key lighting, they still give off a darkly lit appearance, with the setting of Gotham itself exhibiting aspects of film-noir visually. The smoky, smog filled element of the air polluted Gotham City reflects how it’s polluted by corrupt police officers, politicians and criminals, which in itself links to another aspect of film-noir; character ambiguity.
There is a plethora of characters that are ambiguous in nature in The Dark Knight Trilogy. Batman himself has his actions questioned by the population of Gotham and is hunted by the police several times during the trilogy, although because the audience know his true intentions, we can’t really consider Batman such an ambiguous character. Next we have Harvey Dent, who before becoming Two-Face at the hands of the Joker, is shown to go to extra-legal lengths to get information out of criminals, as is shown when Dent interrogates Thomas Schiff for information on the Joker. His actions in the scene, as well as how the light falls on his face (half-of his face is almost always covered by darkness) foreshadows his transformation into Two-Face later on in the film.
But it is perhaps the women from The Dark Knight Rises that best represent the ambiguity within characters. Both Selina Kyle and Miranda Tate aka Talia al Ghul are decent examples of these characters with vague morals as well as being reminiscent of the femme-fatale archetype. Both characters shift from being one type of person to another during the course of the film with Tate actually revealing herself to literally be a different person, with her own agenda entirely.
Lastly, the Dark Knight Trilogy can be read from a pessimist’s viewpoint and hence completing the comparison to film-noir. Bruce Wayne states at the beginning of his crusade that he wishes to create an incorruptible symbol to bring hope to the citizens of Gotham and to protect them and to rid the city of corruption. However, what this symbol actually turns out to be is an everlasting reminder that Batman is always needed because there is always an evil to fight. Although there was around an eight year period between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises in which the crime rate in Gotham drops dramatically, an evil, a threat was still teased with the introduction of Bane early on during the third film. Even with Wayne’s “death” at the end of Rises the mantle of Batman is then passed on to Blake, implying that Batman is still needed because there will always be that threat to society. This is also true of all superhero films and comics really. For them to exist in the first place they most have an antagonistic force.
While none of these films deviate from narrative norms, having the protagonist be successful and even though the Dark Knight Trilogy isn’t wholly film-noir, these films do all offer something unique that the mainstream MCU has failed to really accomplish. Although, this may well play right into Marvel’s hands. While other films and franchises are offering something different, Marvel offers the tried and true formula to not only counter-act DC or X-Men, but to also work alongside them, benefiting all superhero films critically and financially.
The Future: A Symbol of Hope?
Thankfully, the future of superhero films looks as though they might inject to more creativity into the genre in several different ways and there are three films in particular that come to mind: Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad and Deadpool.
Firstly, it seems that we will finally be able to see two superheroes in direct opposition to each other on film, unlike the fight scene in The Avengers. There is no real indication that Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Lex Luthor will be the main antagonist, although he could play a part in bringing the two together (there is also rumour of Doomsday appearing but, as of yet, there has been no concrete confirmation). What this means is that the two protagonists to the film will act as each others antagonists, which could very well force the audience to take sides for the first time. When Spiderman fights the Green Goblin, we obviously want Spidey to win; likewise we side with Thor when he faces of against Loki and so on.
But who do we side with here? These are two of the most popular and successful superheroes across multiple mediums. This is an incredibly clever way to start introducing more heroes into a franchise as opposed to just mashing them all together at once (admittedly, The Avengers did this quite well) and for once there isn’t a common enemy. It seems as though both Batman and Superman will have agendas to stop the other for one reason or another. Bruce Wayne appears to have been in Metropolis during Superman’s fight with Zod and will therefore see the Kryptonian as a threat to the entire human race and one that must be dealt with. Superman’s problem with Batman, however, is not so clear and with the audience reaction to Man of Steel not being completely positive, it seems Batman should get the audience vote of confidence.
Man of Steel has started the expanded DC film universe with a darker tone and aesthetic that has clearly been inspired by the Dark Knight Trilogy and this looks set to continue with Batman vs Superman. It continues with the same director in Zack Snyder, it’s main protagonists look set to face off against each other and the trailer also confirms the darker aesthetic of the film. This darker tone to the DC films so far can also be seen from another of their upcoming films, Suicide Squad.
While the morals of Batman and Superman won’t come into question (we both know they ultimately fight for good) the Suicide Squad film will introduce to us a group of characters whose morality comes into a grey area. The Suicide Squad, or Task Force X, is a group of villains comprised by Argus’ Amanda Waller, who are assigned missions that are likely to end in their deaths (hence the label of suicide) for various reasons on Waller’s end and to reduce time off their sentences. If the participants should disobey orders or decide not to go on a mission altogether, a small explosive device that has been inserted into their necks/skulls will explode; this has been a plot device to persuade the villains to do their “duty” in the animated film Assault on Arkham as well as on the CW’s Arrow.
With the Suicide Squad we follow actual villains, including Harley Quinn and Deadshot, and they are our protagonists, they are our heroes in this piece. This is a film that looks to humanise people who have otherwise done very questionable things (at the very least) and the audience will be asked to sympathise with “monsters”, for lack of a better word. This immediately brings to mind a comparison to Game of Thrones in which there are many morally ambiguous characters and those that have done some incredibly horrible things, yet we have come to respect them, with Jaime Lannister being the prime example. The initial part of persuading us that these are indeed despicable people has already be set, but it will be the way the film tries to get the audience to sympathise with the characters (and which characters) which will truly be the interesting development.
Finally, we come to Deadpool. This is a character that knows he is a fictional comic book character and his stories have often broken the ominous fourth wall. This kind of narrative device is rarely seen in mainstream Western cinema because it so heavily goes against the conventional way of filmmaking and it is seen as a way to take the audience “out of the moment” and to, therefore, realise that they are just watching a film. This kind of filmmaking can be exhibited in the works of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard in various film of his including Tout va Bien. American filmmakers such as Woody Allen have also broken the fourth wall before with films such as Annie Hall and in both instances of Godard’s and Allen’s films, both broke the fourth wall in very excellent (and in Allen’s case very funny) ways.
If the Deadpool film can replicate how perhaps Woody Allen broke the fourth wall, this could be an incredibly satisfying break from the norm of, not just superhero films in general, but the entirety of cinema itself. From the first trailer released for the film, it seems it is going to go down a humorous road, which very few superhero films do anyway and this could help with the character breaking the fourth wall, if he does indeed do it.
Even the future of Marvel’s films looks slightly more promising with Captain America’s third “solo” film taking on the Civil War storyline which should divide heroes and villains alike and a fight between Cap and Iron Man being teased. Along with (hopefully) a Black Panther film and a long-awaited female led superhero film in Wonder Woman, we are set to see more variation in superhero films in the future, which will be needed if the sheer number that has been predicted to be released stays constant.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
A genre that needlessly reboots Spiderman just a couple of years after a perfectly good film – which itself was a reboot of the last batch before that – is simply churning them out needlessly. Remakes are only necessary if technology has advanced enough to make a noticeable difference, or the earlier version was poor.
I completely agree, but my main grievance is that there is no creative license to these films at all. Directors like Hitchcock or Jean-Luc Godard would’ve made spectacular superhero films I’m sure in their prime with inferior technology, not that I’d want such accomplished directors to stoop to that sort of low in the first place…
The western dominated cinema in the ’50s before transplanting itself to TV in the ’60s. I think we’ll see the same thing with superheroes, with Netflix and Amazon becoming their home. TV is a medium far better suited to this particular genre, where each movie feels like an advert for the next.
TV in general is definitely becoming the major force nowadays, but the comic book genre is definitely in a sort of cycle with it’s popularity transitions from big screen to small to big and so on.
Right, the whole concept is much better suited to TV. I was recently on a long-haul flight and started to watch Avengers 2 to while away the hours with a bit of mindless fun. I certainly did not expect to see a Kurosawa, but even my very low expectations had not been met. The film started with a huge action sequence without bothering to provide a context of ANY kind, throw in some basic plot elements or try to establish emotional connection between the characters or some investment in them on the part of the audience. This might work if you’ve just binged on previous episodes providing some backstory, but in a film which should be able to at least somewhat stand on its own, it was just a disaster.
My main problem with Marvel is that they’re so invested in creating a universe, they’ve forgotten to create a world. People get more excited for the end credits stingers than the movies themselves.
I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “they’re so invested in creating a universe, they’ve forgotten to create a world.” but I like it. All there films now are, of course, just made for commercial reasons and that just sucks
I think what Heim is trying to say is that Marvel films now only see “the forest for the trees” or that Marvel only sees the overall plan of including all their characters together in one universe they all share and not the individual characters themselves in their own films. That the only thing that people get excited for with a Marvel is how everything comes together in the long term and not for the immediate film (hence the preview “stingers” that clue into merely the next segment for the entire Marvel franchise. So it gives the impression that Marvel doesn’t stop to analyze individual films themselves to make each them stand alone in quality. In any case though, I agree with what you both said, regarding Marvel and how it’s become quite an obvious problem by this point.
Edit: should be “…the trees for the forest” instead.
it’s only recently they’ve started to “not be shit”.
The thing is, in the West (and in Japan as well), the nerds have money. They have lots of money. For it is they that build and maintain the IT networks that keep our modern world running. Not just from a simple consumer perspective, but from a business point of view as well. After all, without them, modern finance could not exist.
Thus, they are a market, and like all markets, they are there to be tapped. Give the customer what he (or she) wants. And so they do, and everybody wins. Quite honestly, I have nothing against all these films. So long as they remain sure of the fact that they are nothing but 2 hours of mindless escapism (which they do), then I’ve no problem with it.
I still haven’t seen a better popcorn flick released since Avengers.
Excellent point(s), especially regarding the audience and markets.
Everyone does need just a mindless romp of a film every so often, but that doesn’t mean every film of a certain genre should stick to that formula.
It’s kinda sweet that critics seem to think that they have much of an influence here. These films are so anticipated now, online and IRL, and the big studios have become so good at marketing them and their ancillary products that this is surely the one area of the film industry in which the critic’s voice is nigh-on redundant. But then perhaps that’s why they’re beginning to tire of their ascendancy.
Personally, I think that they’re just this era’s Noir. They’ll go out of fashion again, but only once the public collectively decides that it wants something else.
Nerds don’t just have money they have cultural influence.
The problem with the Marvel universe is that they have created about 9 thousand omnipotent god-level beings. It’s all so excessive. Phoenix, Galactus, Eternity, Beyonder, etc. etc.
Definitely a potential problem when adapting the characters to film, but they CAN be adapted so they can be less powerful. I would probably like to see more “unstoppable” beings in superhero films, if not only to see a hero or two lose the battle and maybe their life…
True, but so far only a couple of them have made it into movies (if you class X-Men 3 as the Phoenix Force which is debatable).
And even in the original fiction they tend to either be used sparingly or indifferent to anthropocentric events. Generally they’re personifications of forces of nature and pay very minor roles despite their omnipotence.
While I do love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these characters are too untouchable, to the point it is hard to have any tension with them. Important cannot die or have a sold conclusion to their story because they are being placed for future movies. Take Iron Man for example. At the end of Iron Man 3, Tony basically strips his identity of Iron man, to prove that it is not the suit that makes him important. This is contradicted in Age of Ultron, when he puts on the Hulkbuster armor. It is awesome, but it takes away from his character development in Iron Man 3.
That is a problem with an expanding universe coupled as a product to sell: the product has to keep it’s main selling points. But even if there was a major character death, there is always the chance that a character won’t stay dead, which could again rob a character of any decent development, depending on how it’s done of course
I’m glad you took the side of criticizing Marvel. It’s true that almost every movie or story is the same. Most of the time, the heroes will have their dark, mirror opposites. Iron Man’s foe in Iron Man 1 has a suit too, Red Skull uses a serum just like Captain America, etc. I’m interested to see though how far this generation of super-hero lovers will go, and how long Marvel and DC can make this last.
Oh I think we’ll see superhero films stick around for a while yet… and the MCU does have many positives, it’s just its glaring negatives never seem to be brought up
I’m at a loss to explain the phenomenon of superhero movies, except as a profitable business strategy. I’m sure things have changed, but British kids never used to worship superheroes the way Americans did. Unless you count Roy of the Rovers. Maybe one reason for the rise of the fantasy genre in general over the last 10 or 20 years is that people are just scared, anxious and depressed by real life.
The popularity of the superhero/comic book genre seems to coincide with traumatic events (World War II, 9/11) and it acts as somewhat of a catharsis to some people. Saying that, how the film genre is still going strong now at an ever increasing level of popularity is beyond me
Think of them as comic books. A new issue out every month. If you don’t read comics, don’t see the films. It’s not like superhero movies mean non-superhero films cease to be. Yes, the success of one does tend to mean another will be greenlit, but you don’t have to see that one, either. And your more “serious” films will STILL be getting made.
I don’t think that acts as an excuse for superhero films to not be made with the same seriousness as say something like Black Swan. All films should be made “seriously” and should be taken thus. That’s not to say a film can then not be enjoyable. I just think superhero films need more creative diversity.
Comics are fine. I outgrew them as a teen and moved on.
With the demise of stand-alone movie theaters and replacement with multiplexes it is difficult to watch any film as the noise and vibrations coming from adjacent screens ruins the experience. As I am no longer a child and have none at home, I have found that I avoid any multiplex with product catering to teenage males as they are prone to succumb to group non-think and get rough and violent. Have had several shootings in theaters where I am and attendant chaos.
Multiplexes catering to young children tend to attract clueless parental units who believe their mega stroller and screaming banshee running amok are of greater importance than anything else in the known universe and will scream threats at you when they run you over.
The superhero cartoons are far better than any of the films…always will be….
I’d in general agree about that, as there’s more scope for the human side of the characters to emerge, but the constant ret-cons and about-faces to try and keep everyone alive do get a little old after a while, even if I entirely understand why it happens.
I am a big fan of Joss Whedon’s work. Buffy was genius, Firefly even better. The Avengers was just plain stupid. Despite the fine actors and an inspired director, there’s no getting over the fact that the subject matter is childish and utterly ridiculous.
Comics and the movies made from them are crude, silly, wish-fulfillment nonsense fit only for self parody.
If you think comics are all silly, you might want to consider reading Sandman or Watchmen. The film of the latter, admittedly, was not great, but the original comics are considered genuine literature by many, and certainly aren’t either crude or wish-fulfilment. Quite the contrary: they’re as densely plotted as most novels, with genuine character development that examines the shortcomings and foibles we all have.
And that’s before we even start talking about non-superhero comics like Maus or Ghost World…
A bunch of college kids fighting vampires while trading witty barbs is childish and utterly ridiculous – doesn’t stop it from being fun though.
They’re all so shit. Not in a genuine shit way, but in a competent and unadventurous way. The characters are all so blandly sparky, all surface pleasures and stagey wit, but there is nothing in these characters that resonates. Tony Stark is supposed to be an alcoholic sex addict but the Iron Man films – the best of the bunch – commit the ultimate cinematic crime of telling us this, but never showing us. How often does Stark fail to save the world because he’s too pissed to put on his supersuit? That would be a film worth watching. There is no jeopardy in these movies, it’s all so controlled. Avengers Assemble was just a big party, and about as gripping as a pantomime.
And also very safe. Nobody significant is ever in any real danger because everyone knows they’re lined up to star in several sequels, as well as popping in and out of other characters’ movies.
Avengers and Captain America have been good films regardless of the genre. The only missteps Marvel have done is Iron Man 2 and Thor 2.
Its the DC films that will probably end up stinking. Superman did so badly that they have to shoe-horn Batman into the sequel.
Green Lantern did so badly that they didnt even bother with a sequel.
And thats the problem with the creative teams. Marvel does fun enjoyable movies. DC and Warners are going with dark and moody in an effort to replicate Batmans success.
I only ever go to watch a film at the cinema if there are going to be dazzling visual effects, such as in the superhero or action movie, or in such cinematic treats as The Life of Pi or The Hobbit films. Cinema-going is a very expensive habit. Everything else is just as good on DVD.
I would strongly advise you to go to the cinema more often and to watch differet types of films there. You never know, what you thought might be just as viewable at home might be even better on the big screen
I find that there is an immersive effect in seeing films in a theater that is lost when watching at home. I’m very glad for instance that I saw Under The Skin at the movies, not at home on DVD. And that film has virtually no special effects.
Thinking back to my film course at uni, there was always a difference when I watched a film in class compared to at home. Just being surrounded by other people adds an atmosphere to a film and knowing a group of people can all get lost in a single film in one place is kinda great
Best films I’ve seen in the cinema are in a foreign language with English subtitles.Even better if in black & white.
Superhero films can wait until they’re shown on Channel 5 on a Sunday afternoon.
we can take all of them! ALL OF THEM!
I am definitely suffering from superhero fatigue, particularly as most of them are fairly interchangeable as far as plot and structure go.
I doubt you’re the only one, but unfortunately/fortunately (whatever your viewpoint) we’ll just keep getting more of them
superman v batman is a foregone conclusion, surely? one is a guy with superpowers the other plays dress up
Never underestimate the powers of marketability
Superhero-on-superhero fights work best when the action represents a philosophical disagreement between the combatants, such as the Batman/Superman fight at the climax of The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. However, all too often they’re a tedious and over-used cliché built on little more than a”oh, you’re wearing a funny costume as well – I must fight you” logic in order to pad an underdeveloped story out for a few more (splash) pages.
I like to see them fight each other in the hope they both die so I can go and watch something more worthwhile…
I can’t help but feel that the history of the superhero movie already points to a problem with the genre’s longevity, namely that the series have to be rebooted every three films or so to keep the public interested, and stars age and leave.
Obviously Marvel have successfully gone further than anyone’s gone before, but I’d be surprised if they can keep it up for another five or ten years once the original stars leave. I dunno if it’ll kill off the genre but I think there’s a built in cycle of interest that’ll probably start dipping once Downey Jnr leaves/the stories have got too complicated and far from origin stories…
I mentioned in a previous comment that the superhero genre’s popularity seems to coincide with traumatic events like World War II and 9/11. This is irregardless of the medium. So the popularity is understandable for, I would say, 5-7 years maybe before it starts to go into decline. Perhaps it says something about our societies fear of terrorism that these films are still going, I don’t think so, but other than the money I see no other reason why
I’m still hopeful that the batman vs superman film won’t be as bad as we think it might be, but with the way they keep representing DC superheroes on the big screen…its really hard to say.
My main problem with the film – Zack Snyder. If there’s an average filmmaker (at best) at the helm, then we aren’t going to be getting a work of art. Not that we expect that from a superhero film anyway, but it would be nice to get something… different every so often.
Best super-hero film is probably Daredevil. It’s a coincidence that it wasn’t big budget and didn’t contain loads of ‘special’ effects. Just an interesting story and a well-made film.
One of the key problems for me with the whole superhero genre is that there is no consistency. Superhero X will have a certain level of ability and power one minute and the next it will be vastly more – or even vastly less – for no reason (except perhaps for the “plot”). This is particularly egregious when she have superheroes battling each other because normally they are mismatched and so one suddenly becomes much weaker and one much stronger.
One should perhaps not expect consistency when the whole concept of superpowers is ridiculous but still, the best Sci-Fi can have main ideas that are not physically realistic but after they have asked for the initial suspension of belief they at least stick with the rules created and don’t constantly bend them at a whim.
The constant change in the amount of power a hero has is definitely only for plot purposes that just seems to happen with no explanation and it can be very annoying. Oddly, this then might be a good thing no X-Men characters are in the MCU (just as an example) – imagine if Magneto were to face off against three characters with metal objects (Cap, Thor and Iron Man) and he wasn’t able to control any of those just because…
Also perhaps why non-powered heroes are always so popular, because there is a consistency with their powers.
Whether it’s cartoon superheroes or mythical religious figures floating down from the sky, Americans have a pathological condition that leads them to believe some other entity will solve all their problems. That’s probably why they don’t believe global warming is a problem: they think Batman and Robin are gonna build a ray-gun to blast away all the CO2.
We don’t have any comic book heroes in Britain because in Britain we believe crime is a disease and therefore should be treated not punished. If there were a British Batman he would be a Lib Dem social worker who stalked the streets letting would be criminals know what benefits they were entitled to.
i love superheroes because they are better than the average human and aren’t afraid to show it. It makes me want to be one but I’d be a non human superhero just to turn heads. 🙂
They’ve about run their course , but with twenty something kids , and their kids , who knows.
Interesting read. I would like to point out that you list Nebula as a Guardian of the Galaxy, but it’s actually Gamora. Nebula is Gamora’s adopted sister and secondary antagonist. Regardless, I agree with the majority of what you’ve written and I enjoyed reading.
Wow, that is really annoying. At least I was consistent with confusing the two I guess… But I’m glad you enjoyed it regardless
There are only so many times you can sell the same old crap. In two or three years time when they are looking to reboot Batman and Spiderman AGAIN I think you’ll start to see how big movies falling on their asses.
Depends who’s going to see them, doesn’t it? There are always new teenagers. Maybe they can get away with rebooting every 10 years, forever….
Terrific article! I’m working on one that touches on the three ‘eras’ of the modern comic book film (from 2000 to today). I’ll try my best to not just make it a rehashing of yours! Awesome work.
Well thank you! That’s definitely a good idea for an article. I’ve looked at the films individually really, so to look at the films in terms of the different times is an excellent idea. But don’t worry about rehashing, I didn’t mention a lot of films (I am absolutely remiss that I didn’t get to write about any of the five Spider-Man films). You have plenty to write about for that article and I look forward to reading it.
Here’s hoping the superhero genre begins to fade away in the next couple of years. Creatively they have long been exhausted: there’s nothing in modern reboots of these films which hasn’t been done or seen before. Unfortunately, despite its predominantly boyish appeal audiences flock in their masses to see the latest Marvel picture.
I agree that it’s been exhausted. A film teacher I had once said that it’s just a fad like the surge of Film Noirs in the 40s/50s. I wonder how many years of this we have left… D:
That’s interesting actually, I never think of Film Noir as a genre that was ever exhausted but I guess that shows only my limited knowledge of 40s/50s cinema. The worrying thing is the immense popularity of the genre which shows no signs of letting up- Avengers: Age of Ultron made over 1.4 billion at the box office this year! The list of Marvel pictures in the works is also quite scary, it’s looking like quite some time before we see the downfall of Superheroes…
The whole lot of them are very “post-911”, obsessed with 9/11 imagery, paranoias, fears, and dehumanized enemies.
Right now it seems like there are two main types of superhero protagonists – the awkward one who says a bunch of hilarious one-liners while having no idea what he or she is doing, and then the anti-hero with a dark past. I’ve always loved superhero movies and comics but I feel like with their new success everyone has allowed themselves to get into a comfortable rut, and the movies are starting to lose the magic that I always loved.
I enjoyed the article. I’m afraid that super hero movies have gotten out of control. Their saturation of the cinema has caused movies in general to gain a certain stigma.
I’m so glad you wrote about this because we are on the brink of an awesome age for superhero/comic book character movies, all of which look like they will be different and exciting so hopefully that will be the case!
Fingers crossed that Marvel changes things up very soon in terms of their “perfected superhero movie formula”. It would be a shame to see them run themselves into the ground.
I love how many different characters and worlds you discuss. I myself am amazed at how many films and shows are coming out this year alone. However, I understand that some people love being able to rely on the predictability, which could be said for all films. We love being able to prepare for what’s to come. Something we cannot do in real life.
I’m gonna wax a little eloquent here – What really interests me about the superhero blockbuster phenomenon is the reason audiences repeatedly flock to these films. I think the fact that these same stories are still in such high demand say something about our society as a whole, about what we crave, what we fear, and what we aspire to be. Why are we so obsessed with these godlike super-humans?
it is curious how you can “see” value in various heroic characters or the way the movies are being made yet seem disgruntled about the Avengers. To play the devil’s advocate here, I think what the latest movies about Iron Man and Cpt. America display, is the flourition of propaganda hidden in bland movie telling. While we get distracted looking for aesthetic meaning in Batman or a social cause we can agree with in X-men, these movies make us “feel” as though we don’t have to look for anything,enjoy the experience while subconsciously we are being fed real-world lies.
A rich Iron Man conglomerate who builds weapons of mass destruction for a living is heralded as the most obnoxious and self-loving character (sounds like a Nation to me that is considered the worlds biggest bully). Cpt. America, the impetus of patriotism shows that ignorance is bliss (For some reason he has not learned from the past and still thinks he is fighting a good war, which historians do consider WWII to have been the last of). Or how about that destruction that Superman caused ? How many lives were taken by destroying all those skyscrapers? (couldn’t he just fly into space or the desert and do the same thing?) At the end of the film I couldn’t help but wonder who killed more innocent people throughout the movie. But wouldn’t it be interesting to note that as long as we destroy homes, cities and amass heaps of civilian casualties for the sake of “Freedom” that as we are actually ok with it? Somehow people cheered when Superman drove himself into a skyscraper that later tumbled to the ground just as the world experienced in 9/11.
The comics represented superheroes and taught us valuable lessons about right and wrong, showed us that power sometimes gets over-powered or that “change is good”. But all we learn from these superheroes now is that being rich or powerful is good, that we do not need to apologize for our actions and that doing something (anything) in the name of “goodness” is reasonable enough – no questions asked.
It does appear that I may have a bias against Marvel’s films as a whole and I have rather unfairly just grouped the whole MCU together making it seem like I’ve been judging them all. I’ve only done this as a time saver, if you will, and because there are more bad or overrated Marvel films than there are good. Don’t get me wrong, Iron Man and Captain America 2 were both very good films that immediately spring to mind and for different reasons.
As I’ve mentioned in other comments, the superhero genre, in whatever medium, seems to increase in popularity during times of national trauma or crisis, such as WWII or 9/11 and these films as a group are no different. The hero (whoever that may be, Marvel or DC) is more often than not a representation of a higher power protecting the masses from a “foreign”, “alien” threat. They can reassure us of our safety, offer us escapism while still being connected to our world (in what they are reflecting) and they can even be an act of catharsis to work through any trauma an individual has gone through by them indirectly confronting it.
Now while the majority of superhero films from Batman Begins onwards I believe are a part of this trauma related film group (even one of the Spiderman fims was affected directly having had to remove an image of the Two Towers from a trailer)) these films have now started to lose this meaning because they have been over done. There is no longer the purpose of catharsis to these films and are now just throwing the same message in our face, which isn’t wholly accountable to Marvel. As you said, Man of Steel is also accountable for this.
(Sidenote: I didn’t write about this in the article because this was my topic for my dissertation and I am just want a bit of a break from that discourse)
I don’t think that this reflection of our world is now irrelevant now, but I think the iconography liking to 9/11 and terrorism is done to death and the superhero genre can be much more than just that (what I tried to show with X-Men and the DK trilogy). The narrative structure will probably not change and the protagonists won’t be all that different (excluding Suicide Squad, Deadpool etc.) but if they can add a different layer to their films socially, aesthetically, with a mixing of another genre, then great.
I liked the piece overall, though critical and a bit harsh at times. There are some good qualities to those ‘by the book’ Marvel movies, as the author even stating The Avengers practically made box office history. As a human race a good portion of the planet likes to indulge in the same mundane aspects of a brilliant, strong hero’s journey, and that’s why those films are so popular. People WANT to watch them. I agree whole heartedly with the piece in some aspects, the stories have all become as familiar as a broken record, simply being remade with different names and the same exact plot line. These lack a bit of creativity and could be altered to surprise us just once in a while. But in a way, I find a comfort in that fact. That I can go to a movie theatre, buy a jumbo popcorn bucket, and enjoy a film I can basically predict from the very first scene.
In life good doesn’t over come evil more times than not, and the underdog gets pushed to the side and dies knowing they missed their chance to be great. These movies give a desired escape from these sad, inescapable truths of life. Unfortunately or fortunately, there will always be a place for them in a society such as ours.
I understand that repetition, predictability and, for lack of better words, being spoon-fed for a large majority of the audience for these films can be positives for them, and i may well be part of a minority here. However, I just feel that having every film be the same destorys the magic of it somewhat.
Escapism is fine and all, but after a while it must be impossible to “lose” ourselves in something so predictable, because we suddenly become aware that it is a film and therefore, not real.
BTW I do enjoy these films very much too, just kind of annoyed that they get blind, fanboy praise every waking second.
I totally see that. I get frustrated too :/ wish they’d just get a little more creative sometimes.
Name five good ones on one hand.
I think the influx of comic book films is a good thing, despite the flaws in them, they’re still pretty good films. Those that haven’t even come out yet are also promising. I think that we need more superhero films as a fresh source of entertainment. Lately, Hollywood has been keen on hashing out remakes, something common with superhero films as well. Though, at least with these films, there’s always new opportunities to make things more interesting and new.
It’s tough. On the one hand, I want more superhero movies (or at least DC movies, as I am a fan of the publisher), but on the other I am definitely feeling over-saturated in the genre. There can be too much of a good thing. But where do we draw the line? At what point do we or Hollywood say “no, that character won’t get a movie”? Apparently the line isn’t Ant-Man (and while I thought the movie was okay but not great, I loved how they made him a legacy persona). But whose favorite hero won’t get the screen adaptation?
I think you start to touch on this a bit but don’t delve into it a great deal… What I personally think would/maybe will help is an increase in diversity of the characters in race, gender, sexuality, nationality… etc. Hypothetically, if these characters can be viewed in their own right, and writers put aside the focus of U.S. anti-terrorism (or maybe putting a spin on that, like Marvel could hypothetically do with Kamila Khan and address the islamophobia rampant in the nation), then I think the movies would feel much less formulaic. It wouldn’t completely solve the problem, but I think we would all be just… Less Damn Tired.
As much as I love superhero movies, I’ll admit they get a little stale after a certain while. There’s just so many. Often times they feel all to similar. I’m waiting for the day we get a superhero movie that isn’t completely by the book. Deadpool, anyone?
Marvel’s movies do have similar arcs and feels to them. However, most of them are still really great films.
This is interesting. I think, though, that there is, or can be, more to these films. That is to say, that whether intended or not, there are deeper things happening in them than formulaic stories and fights. They are about power. They are about justice. They are about how these themes play out on a superhuman scale. What makes one a hero, and what makes one a villain? Is there a way one can use extraordinary powers for good, for personal gain, et cetera?
Just some thoughts.
The trends of going toward superheroes has not ceased since this article; if anything, it’s increased.