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.