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The Superhero Accretion Dilemma

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.).

Okay, so far, so good.

Okay, so far, so good.

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.


Oooo! The plot thickens!

Oooo! The plot thickens!

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.”


Ummm...guys? How are you going to even...

Ummm…guys? How are you going to even…

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…

What the actual fuck, people?

What the actual fuck, people?

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.

Forever Originating

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?

Stop preparing to go and just go!

Stop preparing to go and just go!

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.

The Movies We Play in Our Heads

Ben Affleck is going to be Batman. Get over it.

Nobody is making you give them your money, folks.

Nobody is making you give them your money, folks.

No, seriously, just shut up. You’re being a giant child. Seeing as there is presumably nobody pointing a loaded weapon to your head and forcing you to go see this movie, you have two adult options here:

  1. Go and see the movie and see what happens. Life goes on.
  2. Don’t go and see the movie. Life goes on.

It’s not like Ben Affleck gassed kidnapped children in an abandoned coal mine. Calm the fuck down.

There is a bizarre cultural weight given certain fictional universes by the assembled masses of geekdom. A casting choice goes awry or so-and-so does such-and-such to Super-Guy’s underroos, and somewhere somebody is throwing an almighty hissy fit. I’ve done it, admittedly – I’ve done it here on this blog. I like to think my major objection in these instances isn’t to the choices made, though, as it is to the execution of said choices. If you want Gotham City to go into a kind of fascist lockdown, then fine. You need to have it make even a remote amount of sense, though. I object less to the ‘bat nipple’ than I do to the fact that Batman and Robin was a stupidly executed plot with poorly drawn characters and awkward performances. I also didn’t write the studio any hate mail.

When people start ranting about things like this, I like to ask them a question: What would you prefer? They inevitably produce a laundry list of things they would do differently – different actors, different costumes, different plots. Fine. The follow-up question is this:

Do you honestly think people wouldn’t get pissed at you, too?

If you grew up to become a hardcore geek, you also developed deep attachments to various characters. You loved Captain Kirk. You dreamed about fighting alongside Aragorn. On the playground, you were Han Solo’s niece with a blaster and a knack for fixing droids. I get it – I grew up the same way. These characters and these things stuck with you for a long, long time. They were folded into your personality, into your sense of self. I think this happens to everybody, geek or not. There was the kid who grew up wanting to be Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan, the guy who carried a copy of David Copperfield all through college, the girl who couldn’t stop watching My So-Called Life – all of these people have wrapped their self-image in with their heroes and heroines and stories. This is a fine thing to do – normal, even.

FettDeadAt some point, though, you need to know that somebody’s going to come along and try to capture the magic again. There are lots of reasons to do this – money, a love of the material, a desire to surpass what has been done before, etc.. In any event, they’re going to try. No matter how good it is, too, they’re probably going to fail with somebody. To some people, Michael Jordan is always going to be better than <whoever>, no one will ever capture the scope of Dickens in any other form, and all those other teen-dramas are just knock-offs. I met a guy once and we got to talking about James Bond. He hated Daniel Craig as Bond. His favorite? Roger Moore. Why? Roger Moore was cheesier, and that was what he liked. Seriously, that was his argument.

All of us have our ideal movie playing in our heads. It’s the thing we grew up with, it’s part of who we are. We can’t expect somebody else’s little movie in their head to match our own all the time, or even most of the time. What you consider ‘getting it right’ is inherently subjective. Will you hate Ben Affleck as Batman? Yeah, maybe. Maybe not – I bet you hated the idea of Heath Ledger as the Joker, too, and that was pretty stupid, wasn’t it (or do you think Mark Hamil is the perfect Joker? Jack Nicholson? Cesar Romero?)? In any event, the whole affair is no reason to get so upset. Just don’t go see the movie. You know you’re allowed to do that, right?

In the end, the thing I really want to tell people who get up in arms over how Hollywood ruined <blank> involves two additional things: First, that it isn’t like Hollywood erased the old thing (unless you’re George Lucas, but he gave us the originals back eventually), so just go back and watch that. Second, if you don’t like how they’re telling this story, tell it yourself. Nobody is ever going to make that movie you have in your head except you.

That’s half the reason I write, after all – nobody tells stories quite the way I would, so it’s up to me to tell them myself. Of course, being a writer isn’t for everybody – I understand that. You would think, though, that with that understanding people would elicit some degree of restraint in their criticism. If anybody ever asks you ‘could you do better’ and you can’t honestly say ‘yes’ (emphasis on honestly), maybe you shouldn’t be bitching so loudly. Furthermore, if the answer is yes, then go and do it.

For my money, I’m going to wait and see what Affleck does with the role. After all, you just never know and the worst that could happen has already happened. It’s called Daredevil.

Dark Knight Razzing

So, first off, I like Batman. I like Batman a lot. He is one of my favorite superheroes of all time. I also like Christopher Nolan –  The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Prestige are some of my favorite movies. You know what I didn’t like, though?

Dark Knight Rising Rises (sorry, didn’t like the movie enough to remember its precise title). Ugh.

Okay, I’m going to rant a bit here, and massive quantities of spoilers below, if you still care. I feel like I’m the last person to see this movie, so I doubt it matters, but still…

What I Liked

Before I get into tearing this mostly ridiculous movie apart, let’s go over the stuff that was honestly good. First on the list is Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle – very well done, good character arc, good one-liners, etc.. Second is the character arc of Bruce Wayne himself, which was a fitting conclusion to the series as a whole. I also loved Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in this flick, and I would totally go see a Nightwing movie with him in it.

There we go. Positives done with. Let’s go through the problems, one-by-one, starting with:

#1: Batman is Such an Idiot

Batman is supposed to be smart. He’s supposed to be the world’s greatest detective. He’s supposed to have a plan for everything. So why, then, is he caught so flat-footed by Kyle’s betrayal in the sewers? How on earth is this surprising to him? She’s a crook and a con-artist and he’s going to follow her into the base of the guy she’s been working for and he doesn’t have a back-up plan? Seriously? This is where the movie, which was holding on until this point, starts to go downhill.

When Batman fights Bane, apparently his only plan is ‘punch Bane until he falls down.’ Then, when he doesn’t fall down, Batman’s plan is ‘punch Bane more.’ Errr…maybe a change in tactics is in order? Haven’t you got a taser or something? Knock-out gas? Something?

Then, Bane charters the private jet to Central Asia that, you know, he has just lying around to shuttle himself and Bruce Wayne to that prison in the middle of nowhere. For giggles, you know?  To show how he ‘grew up in darkness’ (despite this being the sunniest prison I’ve ever seen, but whatever) and to torture Batman with cable news networks on satellite TV forever. Mwa-hahahahaha! Oh yes, so evil. Sunny prisons with their own private climbing wall, no apparent guards, and dark-knight-prison-escapefree reign of the facility  sound awful.

Now, while I generally like the ‘Bruce Wayne clawing his way out of the pit of despair’ thing, I do have to question the man’s intelligence again.  Indeed, I think that perhaps this entire prison is designed to capture the irrevocably stupid rather than the wicked. Take a look at the picture to the right here. Look at it long and hard.

Am I the only person who sees the rope?

What the hell, guys? They have a pulley system set up to belay. It appears to go to the top of the pit. Hasn’t anyone in this ridiculous prison figured out that they could just hoist a guy to the top with the stupid belaying line and then he can climb out? Even if the pulley doesn’t go all the way up, it goes higher than that jump nobody can make. Has anyone considered, I don’t know, swinging from the rope for a while to cross the gap? I mean, of all people, shouldn’t Batman be able to figure something like this out? Jeez…

#2: Meanwhile, Back in Gotham…

Bane hatches his evil plot. His evil plot involves manipulating the entire Gotham PD to go into the sewers. At this point in the film, my wife  (who works in disaster management, homeland security, and interfaces with numerous police departments) starting laughing uncontrollably at the television. So, a couple things here:

  1. Why the hell would you send every cop you had into the sewers? You need cops to do other things all the time like, for instance, work security at a professional football game happening simultaneously.
  2. Are we to believe that every cop in the Gotham PD was put on duty? Yeah, that makes sense. All the cops on duty at once, sure. See what the police union has to say about that.
  3. Major cities have more than one police department in them. Boston, for instance, has the BPD, the State Police, around three to four university police departments, Transit Police, the Sheriff’s Department/Correctional Officers, and so on. A much bigger city like New York Gotham would probably have even more.

So, we’re to believe that all of the cops went into the sewers and then Bane blew up all of the entrances to the sewers? Sure, whatever guys.

Machine-gun toting thugs or not, this dude would start throwing shit.

Machine-gun toting thugs or not, this dude would start throwing shit.

Then, in order to show Gothamites that they are ‘liberated’, he blows up their football team. Because, you know, the best way to get John Q Public to do what you want is to blow up his favorite professional football team. Good plan, Bane. Yes, obviously you and your dozen mercenaries are going to be able to restrain tens of thousands of angry, half-drunk football nuts, especially since you say you have a nuclear bomb. Obviously. People are reasonable like that. They are going to listen to your ‘you are my hostages now, congratulations! Oh, and by the way, I have no demands!’ and say ‘the man makes a good argument. Plus the bums had a 5-6 record, so screw them.’

I’m not going to stray into the whole ‘what would people really do’ argument too far here, but lets just say this: in the five months that Gotham is under martial law, the only people who seem to actually live in Gotham are the half-dozen cops who weren’t in the sewers, the two dozen or so of Bane’s thugs, and Catwoman and her roommate. Everybody else stays home, I guess, for the entire five months. Patently ridiculous, of course, but let’s not get into it. Still…

#3: I Have Some Logistical Concerns

How many dudes does Bane employ, anyway? I ask because they seem to be freaking everywhere. Again, drawing on my wife’s expertise, she estimates it would take about 10,000 personnel to lock down a city like Boston (population 600,000). If Gotham is Manhattan-sized, it’s much bigger than that. Now, granted it’s an island, so let’s give Bane the benefit of the doubt and say he needed 15,000 men to keep Gotham under wraps. Fifteen thousand seems an unrealistically high number of guys for him to possibly employ. I mean, sure, he’s been collecting disaffected youth in the sewers for a while, but how the hell does he even feed all those guys? What are they paid? Are we seriously expecting all of them to be that loyal to him? Really? The dude in the wolfman-mask is scary, yeah, but wouldn’t most of those juvenile delinquents prefer playing Xbox on a stolen television in some dumpy basement apartment? Like, where’s the upside working for Bane? What does he promise them, exactly, and why do they believe him?

Okay, okay, I’ll stop. He’s got upteen-billion fanatical followers, sure. Whatever. I just can’t quite figure out how the hell this is supposed to work. There’d be so many holes in this ‘blockade’ it would be ridiculous. People would be leaving (and entering) via little boats every night. The forces surrounding the city would be engaged in some serious planning to isolate the bomb, negotiate with the terrorists, and play hardball whenever they can, nuke or no nuke. Fine, though, I get it – Batman has to save the city. I know, know. So let’s to it:

#4: Batman Saves The City with Punching

So, Bruce Wayne, broke, penniless, and a fugitive from prison, manages to effortlessly walk out of whatever central Asian territory he’d been imprisoned and hops a flight home, easily bypassing the blockade (along with, I presume, innumerable others).

He then busts the cops out of the sewers (seriously, guys? Five months?) and they come out, looking unusually healthy for guys who’ve been in the cold and dark for that long. They all then muster up somewhere (I’m guessing the park) and, deciding it’s the 18th century, march in ranks against the assembled ranks of Bane’s thugs (who also seem to have gotten the memo that today was going to be a big fight at city hall). The Thugs, who also seem to think it’s the 18th century, fire their machine guns once, and then charge in for fisticuffs. At this point in the film, my wife and I started singing “When

What's that? The mask he wears all the time is important? No!

What’s that? The mask he wears all the time is important? No!

You’re a Jet, You’re a Jet” from West Side Story. Seemed appropriate.

Then comes the climatic battle between Bane and Batman; they begin fighting, taking turns punching each other. At last, as though struck by a bolt of lightning, Batman has a revelation: Oh! I should punch Bane in the face! Ah-ha!

So then Batman loosens a tube on Bane’s face mask which, apparently, is really important. Bane has trouble breathing, Batman wins. Sort of. Some girl stabs him, but that turns out to not be that important, since stabbing action heroes in the stomach is a mild disadvantage, at best. The stomach, you see, is for eating, and since Batman isn’t eating, he should be fine. Plenty of time to see a doctor. Seriously. Blood loss isn’t really a thing. Neither is sepsis. Chill out everybody, it’s Batman.

Naturally, after all that, Batman picks up the nuke and flies it out to sea, since we all know that nuclear weapons that explode over the ocean aren’t dangerous. I’m sure there will be no ill effects. We’re all saved. Hooray Batman!

In retrospect, I am forced to wonder what other endgame did Bane and company have in mind. I mean, he clearly didn’t cause much of a panic. He basically gave the children of Gotham a five-month snow day, more or less. I mean, if he wanted to nuke the city, couldn’t he have just nuked the city? Isn’t the idea to destroy the city, after all? Oh, right – he wanted Gotham to suffer. But they didn’t suffer, did they? Like, maybe a little, but if they did, we didn’t really see it. Some rich folks got their houses looted. They made some people drown. They blew up the football team. It seems, though, that for the most part everybody just stayed home, watched On Demand, and waited for Batman to show up and do something about it. So, yeah, dumb plan, Bane.

And I’m not even getting started on the terrible editing, the overbearing soundtrack, or the absolute ridiculosity that is Christian Bale’s Batman Voice. Wow, silly. Michael Cane hasn’t done a sillier movie since Jaws 4, honestly. I hope, at least, that the house this one bought is equally as fabulous.