The Less-Than Super State of Superhero Films

In the coming weeks Marvel will spit out their latest Avengers installment to kick off the summer blockbuster season. Age of Ultron will almost certainly gross a billion dollars worldwide, as its predecessor did. Unfortunately, film’s box-office success will only distance audiences further from an aesthetically variant, and refreshing, release and continue to perpetuate the genre’s stale storytelling habits.

We can trace the origins of the Superhero boom to Sam Raimi’s Spiderman in 2002 as the glossy visual effects and sly vulnerability of Tobey Maguire formed a delightful marriage for both comic book sycophants and general movie-goers alike. It was an above-average blockbuster, featuring a dapper young James Franco, not-quite-over-the hill Willem Dafoe and, most memorably, a bona-fide classic moment of romance with a gravity-defying kiss that EVERYONE has since duplicated poorly by hanging off the back of a sofa drooping down towards a lover in sloppy, tongue-confused imitation. The droves of ticket-buying viewers—the film grossed $821M, for context X-Men did $275M in 2000 and Batman and Robin did $238M in 1997— informed Hollywood that the market for comic-book adaptations was robust.

The result? Since Spiderman there has been forty-four comic-book Superhero blockbusters released, thirty-five coming from the Marvel universe alone. And that is excluding the litters of non Marvel and DC franchises such as Wanted, Jumper, Zorro, Hancock, Green Hornet, and the hoard of Michael Bay offerings.

There is nothing wrong with the superhero explosion at face-value. Hollywood, if anything, has mastered the skill of exploiting market trends with rapacious zeal. The issue is that so few of the films are manufacturing any cinematic or storytelling nuance. They are simply recycling the uninspired tropes of their predecessors while pandering to the faithful legions of readers of the particular comic book the films are adapted from. Worse yet, audiences are still flocking to see them, which leaves Hollywood erect at the prospective profits and aggressive in their coming releases. 

Audiences, not Hollywood, can alter this spiraling trend of mediocrity. It is us that have the power. We can simply not see the films. Not surrender our hard earned twelve dollars to watch a series of CGI-enhanced explosions and a desultory storylines with their astonishing tension deficiencies.

There are three cliches that are chiefly responsible for subverting the genre.

The first, and most offensive, belabored recurrence in recent superhero films is the metropolitan showdown. Hollywood, without much difficulty, took notice of 9/11, realizing that the deepest image stained into the minds of every American of mental coherence at the time of that tragic day is that of metropolitan destruction. Borrowing from the horror genre, Superhero films can’t help but exploit America’s deeply-rooted paranoia of ruined skylines. So they lay waste to New York or Los Angeles or a faux New York or faux Los Angeles, in a 9/11 fashion at the climax of their films. Sometimes they’ll destroy Chicago in a hollow attempt at creativity. 

It’s ready-made tension that is less authentic than the butter drenching the popcorn we shovel into our months while watching the languorous films. If you’re still awake for the ending of Man of Steel, you’re watching him bash skyscrapers through the filter of having seen, in real life, planes crash in the World Trade Center’s. The hatred and pain you experienced that morning is now in the theater with you, masking the lack of hatred and pain the film has provoked from you. See also Avengers, Star Trek Into Darkness, Pacific Rim, Godzilla, GI Joe, and, once more, the hoard of Michael Bay turds. It’s safe to assume the new Avengers movie will feature aliens causing havoc to some skyscrapers.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a climax where buildings aren’t destroyed? One that is layered instead with the emotional collateral of the characters rather than the pre-existent emotional collateral of the audience watching the film?

Second, Make It Darker DAMNIT!

Christopher Nolan’s growling-voiced Batman took the stage in 2005 with the release of Batman Begins. It, and its two sequel counterparts, are conservatively among the best superhero comic-book adaptations to be released in the post-Spiderman bubble. However, the trilogy is also directly responsible for hindering creativity within its own genre.

Furthering the dark tone established in Tim Burton’s Batman, Nolan’s films pair the dark, brooding Bruce Wayne with poorly-lit scenes of emotional severity. This is especially true in Begins, which plays as if it was stricken with a lackluster lighting budget. Once Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit the box-office stratosphere and was bathed in critical acclaim, the leach-like copycats of Hollywood took notice. Since, most comic-book adaptations have poorly mimicked Nolan’s lighting deficiencies, disregarding the source of the darkness: Bruce Wayne’s character. That’s why Spiderman 3 looked like this, and why Man of Steel sucked the light out of the film and attempted to deceive audiences by placing Nolan’s name on the poster twice, despite his minimal involvement in the project. Similar antics are evident in Marvel’s Thor, Captain America and Iron Man films.

Heath Ledger

Then, last week, appearing to finally over dose on the make-it-darkernote, Warner Brothers belched out this atrocious trailer. Hey, we keep making shitty Superman movies, so how about we have him punch Batman a few times? We’re moving closer and closer to a reality that features a movie entirely black, its only lights the intermittent flashes of explosions and gun shots over a dark Hans Zimmer score?

Lack of Human Characters

This cliche is most relevant in Marvel films. We are never introduced to the countless mortals who inhabit the spectacular worlds of immortal heroes. And don’t tell me that Tony Stark acts as a human—or worse yet Gwyneth Paltrow’s wet blanket character whose sole purpose in the films is to serve the needs of Tony, an unfortunate example of the Hollywood’s tiresome construct of writing female characters who exist either as objects to be sexed by the protagonist or as erratic roadblocks coming between the protagonist’s desire. But that is an entire essay of itself…or five. In most Superhero films, there are only the heroes and the villains. The only humans we get are the stiff, undeveloped sexual objects of the heroes, or the brief cameos of children or animals acting as tension props.

Take Avengers for example. When the alien invaders are laying siege to New York and the Hulk is battering though skyscrapers, there are no stakes. We haven’t met the people who work in the skyscrapers. We don’t know about their families at home, watching their televisions horrified for their well being. Isn’t that why we were all hypnotized by our televisions during 9/11? The empathy that the people burning in the inflamed buildings were somebody’s parents, someones siblings? Why couldn’t Joss Whedon (director of Avengers) thread in a b-plot of a single-mother accountant working in one of the buildings destroyed during the film’s climax? Why not show her and her co-workers grappling with the dilemma of whether or not they should leap out of the collapsing building, instead of the alternative of burning alive? You could still have Iron Man fly in and save them before they meet the pavement, their certain death.

There is a glimmer of good news, however.

They’re few, but we’re getting some indication that a talented minority within Hollywood have grown weary of these redundant beats. Netflix recently dumped the entire first season of the delightfully-violent Daredevil. The show, though taking place largely in the darkly-lit corners of New York much like Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, features astounding cinematic achievement such as glorious one-take scenes such as this.

It features actual human beings who are forced to suffer the consequences of Matthew Murdock’s masked Vigilantism— specific examples being the well-written and delivered Rosario Dawson character and the affable Foggy Nelson. Last summer we were treated to some much-desired lighting with the shining release of Guardians of the Galaxy.  Also, there were moments of humanity in Iron Man 3 with the little boy who helps Tony rebuild his suit and the terrific Ben Kingsley character. But the pleasantry is quickly forgotten as the film digresses into its ending, a conflagration of destructive explosions.

Then theres the new Star Wars trailer displaying a shipwrecked star destroyer. A reminder that while the Ewoks were getting turnt-up and drumming on the helmets of stormtroopers, others in the galaxy were left to clean up the mess.

There is lots of work to be done, as for every promising release like Daredevil and Guardians is countered by an overwhelming vomitorium of uninspired Zach Snyder films and Michael Bay catastrophes. But the encouraging news is that the audience can protest their upheaval and demand more from Hollywood.  They can be heard by staying home this summer.

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