Superhero movies have a problem. This problem is endemic, evidently, to their nature and I am uncertain it can be solved unless our expectations of superhero movies change fundamentally. In brief: if a superhero movie is made and it is successful, another one, by definition, will also be made. However, as this movie must surpass the original, the makers of the film invariably choose to expand the next film in scope, cast, and budget. The result is a movie that is not as good as the first, but just as successful. This leads to a third, and the same thing happens (only the third is not as good as the second) and so on until, at last, the final film in the franchise either fizzles, the cast gets tired and moves on, or it dies some other, more esoteric death (perhaps involving the death of a cast member, legal issues, scandals, etc.).
Allow me to explain in more detail.
Stage One: We begin, first, with a superhero. This superhero has his own movie and it is his (or, more rarely, her) story. We see how they become who they are, we are introduced to their struggles and are hopefully inspired by their ability to overcome their foes. Huzzah, huzzah – everything is wonderful.
This first movie is, by far, the easiest to get right – one main character, one external and internal conflict, one story arc to manage, one villain to face, and so on. It is basic, mythic, Campbellian storytelling that human beings have been doing since Gilgamesh. Now, notably, the movie can easily still be terrible, but so long as it makes money at the box office, it hardly matters. Stage 2 approaches.
Stage Two: So, now we’ve got this movie studio that feels it’s discovered a money-making machine, and they’ll be damned if they don’t capitalize. The thing is, though, that you can’t just make the same movie twice – you’ve got to move forward, wow the audience, blow their minds. So they add more moving parts to the story.
It should be noted that there is no objective reason the second story has to be worse than the first. Indeed, some franchises actually do improve in the second installment (Captain America: Winter Soldier, for instance). If they do so, however, it is because of two things: (1) the second story didn’t incorporate more characters, but instead incorporated more complex character conflicts for the hero to resolve or (2) the first movie was terrible and there was nowhere to go but up.
Much of the time, however, neither of these things is the case. You wind up a movie that is pretty much like the first one, only louder and bigger and needlessly more complicated. It can still be pretty entertaining (Iron Man 2) or notable (Batman Returns), but it lacks a certain something that the first one had.
That something, by the way? It’s called “authenticity in storytelling.”
Stage Three: If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? The second movie made money, so surely the strategy of the producers was the correct one: bigger is better (forgetting, of course, that the audience was coming to the theater on the promise of the first film, not the quality of the second)! But now they need to make another movie! And it needs to be even biggerer! HOW CAN THIS BE ACCOMPLISHED?!
Easy! This time you don’t just add one or two new characters to the mix! You add an additional 2 or 3 on top of the last film. New love interests (everybody loves love quadrangles, right?), the return of an old villain who teams up with a new villain and then both of them encounter a third villain who is tangentially related to the first villain in some way (looking at you, Spider-Man 3), the artificial raising of the stakes (first he saved the city, next time he saved the county, now he is going to save the city from the county and, therefore, the WHOLE WORLD WILL WATCH!), and on and on and on. And of course there are new allies, new sidekicks, new sideplots, and soon the whole thing becomes unwieldy. Everybody needs a story arc, but not everyone gets one (the movie’s got to fit into 2 hours, people!), and so characterization becomes more hand-wavy, more cliche. Our main guy? The hero we tuned in to see? His screen time is reduced, his arc is more predictable, and he very likely fails to undergo significant growth.
But, for all that, the damned movie is still fun, right? Well, maybe. A lot of franchises die right here, a lot of actors get tired of all the green-screening nonsense. If they go on, however…
Stage Four: MOVIE ARMAGEDDON! Now the franchise is so damned popular, it can have everybody in it. Distinguished actors from across the globe sign on for cameo roles that nerds freak out over. The special effects are absurd abominations for the eyes. People actively forget there’s supposed to be a plot. Character growth? Bah! We want explosions and our hero standing on the crushed remnants of the enemy android army. The only dialogue should be witty banter or over-the-top, Gandalf-in-Return of the King-esque speeches about it “being time” and “time growing short” and how “the time has finally come.” The movie is a complete and utter clusterfuck. Nothing makes sense, almost no character has sufficient screen time to be interesting, and all of us are basically going just to see how it all works out, just like people attend playoff games after their teams are knocked out – just to see what happens, ultimately, and to tell other people about it. It’s not a story anymore, it’s an event. And this is the end. It can go no further.
The MCU Anomaly
Now, I know there are those of you out there who are holding up Marvel’s interlocking franchises as proof that this dilemma has a solution. The solution, of course, is that you have individual movie franchises that keep things a little small (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc.) and then giant ensemble movies where you don’t need to do character development as much because we all already know these people (The Avengers). This, however, is not solving the problem, it is merely dragging it out. The individual films still tend to degrade (Iron Man 3, anyone?), the giant ensemble movies are still fun-but-stupid (Avengers: Age of Ultron was nonsensical, folks), and we are still locked in a steady, downward slope that even new Stage One films (Dr. Strange!) will only serve to slow a bit before they, also, are wrapped up in the morass. Basically, what I’m telling you is that The Infinity War Part 2 is going to be the greatest movie clusterfuck of all time.
And I’m totally going to be there to see it.
You ever notice that we tend to like the bad guys better than the good guys? I mean, let’s face it – Darth Vader is way cooler than Obi Wan or Luke. Luke only gets cool when he starts wearing black and force choking Gamorreans who piss him off.
Same goes for comic books. Who’s your favorite: Wolverine or Cyclops? Everybody picks Wolverine. Never mind that he’s irresponsible, violent, rude, and bloodthirsty – Cyclops looks smug. We can never forgive smug. Batman Vs Superman? Clearly the violent vigilante trumps the boy scout in blue. Every single time.
In The Oldest Trick, I’ve got a pretty bad guy as my main character. Calling Tyvian a “scoundrel” is putting it very mildly. He’s a petty, conceited, manipulative narcissist who thinks nothing of throwing other people to the wolves for the sake of his own comfort (comfort, mind you – not even his safety). You really ought to hate his guts.
And yet we don’t. From Frank Castle to Hannibal Lecter, from Dexter Morgan to Lucifer himself, we’re always willing to give the jerks, the creeps, the psychos and the villains the benefit of the doubt. Weird, isn’t it?
Here’s my thinking: Antiheroes (and I use the term loosely, as it can be defined in many ways – here I basically mean someone who is an amoral, immoral, or ‘dark’ protagonist) appeal to us in three major ways.
They Do What We Dare Not
Have you ever wanted to spill coffee on someone because they were being a jerk to the barista? Have you ever wanted to chew out your boss in front of everybody? Have you ever wanted to smash flat some jerk in a BMW who ran a red light and almost killed you? Well, guess what? The bad guy will do it for you.
In a world full of petty (and not so petty) frustrations, there is catharsis in those who simply break the rules to inflict what we see as justice on those we dislike. We refrain ourselves, of course – unlike the villainous personality, we are functional members of society – but we do so enjoy watching the wicked get a taste of their own medicine from those even worse than they are. Heck, this is the entire underlying theme of the Saw franchise, right? Those jerks deserve what they got on some level. We show up to watch them get it.
They Make Us Feel Like Better People
There is also a certain joy in realizing you are a better person and a better judge of character and situation than these otherwise exceptional people. For Example: Hoo, boy – are we ever glad we aren’t Walter White, right? Man, I mean, he’s pretty awesome and what-not, but he just keeps making decisions that’ll get him in deeper, doesn’t he? Were it me, I woulda walked away way, waaay earlier than that. I could do it. There has to be a way, right?
Shakespeare trades heavily on this notion in his tragedies. Iago and Othello keep digging themselves deeper and deeper and deeper and, oh man, you know what’s going to happen, right? That’s what makes it awesome. The good guy – the guy who keeps doing the right thing – he’s dull (or so we think). Captain America is never going to lie to his girlfriend. That makes us feel inferior. You know what the most common criticism levied against Superman is? He isn’t “identifiable.” This I take as code for “he wasn’t a fuck-up in high school.”
Sure Supes is identifiable. He grew up as a farmboy in middle America. It’s not his Kryptonian heritage you find alien. It’s the fact that he never set his dad’s car on fire while trying to re-enact a Jackass stunt. With Batman – brooding, obsessive, loner Batman – you never have that problem. You got it together compared to that nutjob.
The Hope for Redemption
This last one is a bit rarer, but it comes up a fair amount. We all love a good redemption story. We like to think that those crazy villains that we (secretly) admire can, one day, clean up all their bad habits and become good people like us. The whole of the existing Star Wars movies, for instance, is just one long story dealing with the fall and subsequent redemption of one Anakin Skywalker. We eat that up. Likewise, the journey of Tony Stark from playboy to superhero is the most compelling aspect of the MCU at the moment. His character’s personal journey is the one we love best.
See, as much as we enjoy the antics of those antiheros doing what we dare not, we also realize that their lives are not happy ones. Batman is a tortured, tragic soul in many ways. Wolverine is fundamentally alone. Conan the Barbarian lives an empty life. That sad music played at the end of every Incredible Hulk episode for a reason, guys. Being the antihero sucks. Even Lucifer has a rough time of it.
So we watch in the (sometimes) vain hope that they can pull themselves together. That, even in their tortured hearts, the darkness can be pushed back and good can prevail. Even if only for a moment, before they plunge back into shooting mob bosses and blowing up corrupt politician’s cars.
As you know, if you read this blog, I will be attending ITVFest in Dover, VT on September 24th-27th where I will be giving a talk about World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction on Saturday, 9/26, at 11am. Go and check it out!
Also, The Oldest Trick will be coming out in Mass Market Paperback on September 29th! Pre-order your copies now!
Finally, watch my Goodreads page for the possibility of a giveaway of some The Oldest Trick e-book copies! I plan on doing it as soon as I figure out how!
If you don’t read Texts From Superheroes, you should – they’re hilarious. Nothing quite like reading Thor trying to text Tony Stark about Halloween. Anyway, their most recent gem is this one:
With the advent of yet another Spider-Man reboot, it seems likely we are going to watch dorky Peter Parker get bitten by yet another radioactive/genetically engineered/alien super-spider and become our friendly neighborhood web-slinger. We’ll probably watch Uncle Ben get gunned down again, too, and hear that lecture about power and responsibility, and everything else. The thing is this: Iron Man is right, nobody cares.
Why does every single superhero movie need to waste a half-hour of our time on an origin story? I mean, sure, if this were the first time we’d ever laid eyes on Superman, we might want to know this guy’s deal, but Supes has been around since 1938 – 1938! We’ve been shown his origin story over and over and over again. If you don’t know he is an orphan of Krypton by now, where have you been?
And even beyond that, do we really need the origin story? Haven’t we come to accept the trope of the superpowered hero enough that, if a guy shows up and starts flying around shooting laser beams from his eyes, we are pretty much okay with it? Surely the origin story isn’t the only dramatic moment of the character’s life and, if it is, what does that really say about this character?
This is one of the reasons, among others, that I love, love, love Pixar’s The Incredibles. We meet Mr. Incredible and Wonder Girl in their prime. We never learn why or how they have powers (it’s implied they were just born with them) and the action of the story is not focused on why or whether they are heroes but, instead, the problems inherent in being heroic and dealing with all the problems related to it. It still ranks, for me, as one of the best superhero films of all time.
Also on that list? The Dark Knight, which also doesn’t waste time with origin stories. In fact, it deliberately thwarts us in our desire to know the Joker’s origin by having him make up stories about it every time he gets a chance. The weakest part of the film, in fact, is the whole Two-Face origin, which seems rushed and poorly explored. We don’t really care that much about that, frankly – we want to see Batman and the Joker, the embodiments of Order and Chaos, fight over the soul of Gotham. What don’t we want to see? Mrs. Wayne’s pearls hitting the sidewalk for the umpteenth time. WE GET IT – BATMAN IS CRAY-CRAY BECAUSE HIS PARENTS DIED! CAN WE MOVE ON NOW?
Now, this doesn’t mean origin stories can’t be done well (they very often have) or that they are bad stories (they very often aren’t), but simply that it seems to be the only thing these movies do. It’s formulaic, predictable, and unnecessary. At the very least they could shake up the formula, you know? Maybe have the origin not be revealed until the very end. Maybe spend the whole movie getting us to think the origin was A when, all along, it was secretly B. Maybe not reveal the origin story until the second movie. I don’t know – just spitballing here.
Why do we focus so much on origins? Well, I think that’s a fairly simple question to answer. Tales of urban fantasy, such as superhero stories, are as much wish-fulfillment as anything. We, the audience, secretly wish for powers we do not possess. The hero, therefore, fulfills some basic need we crave. As teenagers, didn’t we all wish we could go anywhere we wanted, have the power to defeat bullies, know how to avoid danger, and get perfect physiques without the need to exercise constantly? Hell yes! Hence, Spider-man’s origin story strikes a note with the viewer – his transformation is our own. You can apply this to pretty much any superhero ever. Iron Man? Well, we want to be rich and cool and famous but we don’t want to be jerks, too, so we have a guy who is a rich jerk and learns how to help people. Hulk? Who hasn’t wanted to be able to vent their wrath on the world without repercussions and without anybody knowing it was us? Superman? Hell, do I need to explain that one for you? The man can see through walls and fly at hypersonic speeds!
All that said, though, can’t we get away from that little corner of the superhero world for a while? Can’t we get to the middle or end-phases of our hero’s lives more often? There is more to life than just the beginning, and I feel that we often forget that, thanks in large part to the youth-centric aspects of our culture. We are always being told about the new kid at school, the first day on the job, the wedding day, the rookie on the force, and so on and so forth. Let’s grow up a bit, folks. Let’s explore the “after” part of “happily ever after.” As we all know, it isn’t all that happy, after all.
We have at this point had enough actors play Superman that we can have a conversation about who did it best, much as is done for James Bond and Batman and (for some reason) Jack Ryan. For me, the order goes like this:
- Brandon Routh
- Christopher Reeve
- Tom Welling
- Dean Cain
- Henry Cavill
- George Reeves
I’ll accept argument about the lower four, but not the top two. Chistopher Reeve owned that part – it was part of his being, much like Sean Connery will always be Bond and Johnny Weismuller will always be ‘the’ Tarzan. Brandon Routh, though, gives us the most interesting and balanced performance, bar none. His movie is the best Superman movie. When I think of Superman, I am either thinking of #1 or #2 on that list.
Superman Returns gets a bum rap. People seemed to have not liked the movie, and I don’t quite understand why. To be fair, Routh is simply playing Reeve playing Superman to some extent – it’s the exact same character in the exact same plot continuity – but excised of a lot of the stuff that made Reeve’s movies silly. Instead of a fairly flat tale of Superman flying around and saving people, we get an in-depth character drama circling around one of the more interesting love triangles in superhero-dom. Oh, and we have Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, and I don’t think anybody can seriously suggest anybody did it better than he did. Even Gene Hackman pales next to Spacey’s sharp, witty portrayal.
Anywho, in Superman Returns, Supes comes back after being gone for five years – he journeyed to Krypton to see what was left. When he gets back, the world has moved on without him. Most interestingly, Lois Lane is now engaged and has a kid. Lane is the same high-octane reporter and no-nonsense girl, Clark is the same befuddling goofball, but now we’ve moved on from the will-she/won’t-she anticipation of the Superman/Lane relationship. This is good – it was a bad idea for a relationship, anyway. Clark, though, isn’t quite willing to let go.
Enter the other man. Lane’s fiancée is (surprise!) a nice guy. A good guy. He’s handsome. He’s tall. He has a job. He’s good with the kid. He’s kind to Lois. He is a completely, 100% decent human being deserving the girl he’s got. I LOVE that about this movie. I am so very, very tired of the old superhero trope that reserves the affections of certain women (named Vale, Watson, Lane, Potts, and so on) for their specific heroes, as though they are some kind of franchised and licensed appendage to the male lead. No, bullshit – Lois Lane didn’t wait for Superman. Why should she? Some jackass flies off for five years and, what, she’s gonna just hang around? Not her. Oh, and the movie also gives her the respect of assuming that an intelligent, capable, and strong woman like Lois is able to pick a guy who isn’t a jackass, a liar, a jerk, or any of that crap. She doesn’t need to be rescued from her own life by some guy in a cape. Sure, she needs to be rescued from a crashing jumbo jet and a sinking boat and what-not (she isn’t a superhero), but Lane has her life figured out. She’s living it. She doesn’t need Superman. Well, almost certainly not.
That, right there, is the central conflict of the story: Lois might not need Superman, but does she want him? Clark may not have her, but should he get her back? Yes, yes – Lex Luthor is in the midst of a dastardly plot and Lois gets mixed up in it and Superman has to stop him – but the purpose of that plot is to demonstrate and explore Clark and Lois’s feelings for one another and their new relationship. This is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which is this: the writers realize that the only conflict interesting enough to sustain Superman is one that he cannot punch his way out of.
Did any of you get bored in Man of Steel after the 45th straight minute of indestructible people punching each other? I did. I mean, jeez – they are invulnerable superbeings. Throwing them through a wall isn’t going to do crap. They know it. We know it. Everybody knows it – why do we go through the motions? Man of Steel seemed fueled by the juvenile and visceral enjoyment involved in destroying large portions of real-estate with immense special effects budgets. Yeah, it’s fun, but it lacks a certain trueness to the character. Brandon Routh safely stopping the crashing jumbo jet from smashing into the baseball stadium and then setting it on the field was iconic. Every part of that scene was quintessential Superman – the guy who is so good he can’t be from this world. That’s what it’s all about.
Cut back to him and Lois, we are watching a genuine moral dilemma. Superman possesses the power to get Lois back – nobody doubts that, not even Lois. She still has feelings for him and could probably be convinced, as much as she might not want to be. In the end, though, Superman doesn’t get her. Lois chooses the other guy. The other guy distinguishes himself as a hero in saving Lois. Superman backs off, knowing this is for the best. It’s a little bittersweet, but we feel good – this is the right decision. That, to me, is what Superman is all about. He is about making the right decision. He is about taking the high road, despite his feelings. No movie or show has ever told his story better than Superman Returns. Not that I’ve seen, anyway.
Unfortunately, such subtlety seems to have been lost on movie-going audiences. They much prefer the near-genocidal violence of Man of Steel and a character who is less ‘super’ and more aloof and detached. Cavill’s Superman is a stock hero – he’s Wolverine in different underroos, he’s Batman with laser vision, he’s yet another version of the ronin, the disgruntled knight errant. A good character, sure, but not who Superman is. Superman is the Paladin. The incorruptible, unachievable paradigm. People seem to think that’s boring, but I disagree. People just don’t seem to think hard enough about how interesting and difficult journey it is to do the right thing for the right reasons at the worst times.