Sunday, June 23, 2013

Why Superhero Movies Aren't So Super

Here's a movie joke: "Have you seen the superhero movie this summer?"

*cue hysterical laughter*

Here's a list of some of the superhero movies we've had come out between 2010 and now (June 2013): 

Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, The Amazing Spiderman, Thor, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Jonah Hex, Captain America, X-Men First Class, The Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel SOMEONE GET ME A GLASS OF WATER, STAT.

There is an industry-wide problem with tentpole movies (aka hugely expensive movies that are expected to bring in the big ticket dollars). It's tied into the way that movies are shopped and funded. Especially in a bad economy, it's real tempting for The Powers That Be to only fund movies that come pre-equipped with platforms. The industry has had a boom of success with previous superhero movies, so that's what studios jump toward. After all, why would you fund a total unknown over a comic book adaptation with a built-in audience?

The problem with superhero movies in particular is twofold: First, superhero movies, for a variety of reasons, tend toward very similar themes and conflicts. Second, when you have investors that are already only willing to fund these tentpole projects, that means that they are by default unwilling to allow a lot of creative changes.

Why are all superhero movies similar? Do they have to be? Well, yes, to a degree. All movies that center around a certain device (for instance, Boy and His X movies) are going to necessarily be similar because they are appealing for the same reasons and explore the same issues. At their hearts, are ET and  Free Willy all that different? Both are movies about a young boy's friendship with a non-human, and how he grows as a person as a result of the relationship. That's it.

At their base level, superhero movies are about what happens when you take an ordinary human and give them extraordinary powers. It's a dramatization of being given responsibility in real life. To a certain extent, it's essentially wish fulfillment - we all want to believe that when the chips are down and the weight of the world is on our shoulders, we'll pull through.

Giving a person superpowers might sound like it opens up a ton of possibilities, but in terms of storytelling, it's actually incredibly restrictive. In order to have the audience sympathize with your character, they must use their powers to fight the good fight. Otherwise, they're killing people by default.

So now your superhero is a crime-fighter. But regular crime isn't a problem for your superhero, due to their powers. That means that at all times there must be a greater threat at work, some more-powerful power coming after them.

This means that every superhero story is a man v. man story, in terms of Ze Big Plots. There is often a secondary theme, but these are almost uniformly either Don't Let Uncle Ben Die (aka no, you cannot stop being a superhero, get your shizz together), or Sorry the City is Busy Washing Its Hair (aka, everybody hates and fears the supehero for his differences and ability to crush them with his thumb).

And that's another thing - I do mean that these stories are man versus man. All superhero movies are remakes of comic books that date back to somewhere between the 1940s and the 1970s. Minorities of any kind were not well represented in those time periods, and by "minority" I don't mean "literally smaller percentages of the population", I mean "anyone except white straight men". Sometimes we shoehorn a woman or a black guy into the remakes, but only one at a time, let's not get crazy here. 
Hope Black Widow is enjoying the back of
the box! And The Avengers is the best of
the entire superhero genre in terms of
Does this mean that superhero movies are bad by default? No, of course not, and we've had some worthy offerings from the genre. But it does mean that superhero movies are a bad choice to have dominating the film industry. They're exclusive and restrictive to storytelling and creativity.

Next time, we talk about the business side of superheroes, and where this trend is leading...


  1. I do like a good superhero movie, but they are literally coming out one right after the other. There's a Thor sequel and a Captain America sequel and another XMEN movie (or two) dropping soon. I'm not into Thor, but that still leaves a whole mess of movies. And they are ALL 2 hours plus long. I'm perfectly happy with movies that are an hour and forty five minutes long.

  2. I can only watch ONE superhero movie per year. Then I'm all about the comedies and chick flicks. There can only be so much techie crap in my life and all the special effects going on in the theaters today make me nauseous (literally).

    I enjoyed Identity Thief. It's refreshing just to relax and let a story tell itself. Does that happen anymore?

  3. +1 for krystal jane's comment about how they are all so long. I'm not sure whether I've ever watched a superhero movie without you, come to think of it. I find most of them incredibly boring and choppy... fitting in the entire "I'm lame/average" to "I have a superpower" to "how should I use this superpower" to "oh yeah romance" to "oh yeah bad guy" etc gets pretty boring and it's hard to do fluidly.


    1. Choppy is a great word for it, because they're based on a source material that is by its nature choppy. Serial installments work for comic books, but that's because you have a lot more time to explore characterization in a comic. In a movie they have to add on a ton of screentime just to hit all the beats, and they still come out way too similar to each other because there just isn't enough time to complete a satisfying arc AND build a unique character.

  4. It is a nice thread to discuss and you really have given meaning reviews regarding this topic. If particularly I talk about my opinion, then I would say our large audience does not believe in fictions and so these movies are some despised by such people.
    best superhero movies