Last week, we reported that Zack Snyder was going for an “edgy” Superman in the reboot Man of Steel. But even before Snyder got his hands on the property, Superman Returns went with a more morose Man of Tomorrow by playing up his loneliness and stalking his ex-girlfriend. Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man movies were reasonably light until they slammed into the third act, and then the character had to go much darker for Spider-Man 3. Now the Spider-Man reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, is playing up the gritty aspects of the web-slinger’s story. Almost all of the Avengers prequel movies have a reasonable balance of action, humor, and pathos, but with the exception of Captain America, they’re all aggressively modern. Does it have to be this way? Do we have to ground every superhero in a PG-13 reality? And would audiences accept anything different?
Superhero movies have become a smashing success since they first took off back in the early 2000s with X-Men and Spider-Man. Those two movies also laid out an important ground rule: keep the characters grounded in the real world. For X-Men, that meant ditching the spandex. Spider-Man had always been somewhat grounded in reality since it was set in a real city (as opposed to Metropolis or Gotham) and Peter Parker had to face everyday problems like trying to pay the rent. But both those movies needed to make excuses for even the slightest hint of something goofy. Magneto’s helmet was to stop Professor X’s telepathy. The Green Goblin helmet came from Norman Osborne’s collection of masks (not literally, but it provided a basis for why Osborne would be attracted to wearing a goofy helmet). Spider-Man at least has the courtesy to not bother with an explanation of how Peter got his fancy Spider-Man suit.
For the most part, fantastical elements in superhero movies apparently require an excuse. It’s not enough for the Fantastic Four to have suits to match their abilities. The suits need to have special properties that will make the Invisible Woman completely invisible or make sure the Human Torch’s outfit doesn’t burst into flames. And all names need to be justified. The papers need to tell Tony Stark that his superhero alter ego is “Iron Man”. The teens in X-Men: First Class have to come up with fun code names.
There’s a difference between trying to fill in plot holes and going on the defensive. Superhero movies mostly seem to be working overtime on the latter. Why does every single detail need an explanation? Perhaps it’s because a hypothetical audience won’t accept the contrast of an outsized hero traipsing around a “real” world. To an extent, it’s a reasonable assumption. Something that works in a comic book won’t automatically transfer to movies. For the story Bryan Singer was trying to tell in X-Men, Wolverine in yellow spandex probably wouldn’t have worked (and as it was pointed out many times during the run up to the film’s release, the X-Men originally wore uniforms in the comics).
But now it’s one size fits all, and the rules that helped superhero movies get a foothold are now stifling what these movies can be. Thor is a Norse God/space-alien who lives in a majestic dimension, and his movie wants him to get out of his dimension and start hanging out on Earth. Thor keeps cutting back to Loki so we never completely leave Asgard, but Asgard only seems to have three locations: the castle, the “Bifrost” (heaven forbid we call it the “Rainbow Bridge” like it was in the comics), and Jotunheim. But the title character has to fit into the Avengers‘ real world so everything magical has to be stripped down.
The push for “realism” is understandable, but it’s also creating a homogenization of the genre. The powers, the villains, and the suits are changing, but everyone must remain “human” and “relatable”. But why is that the trade-off? Why do we have to load-up on character flaws and gritty heroism to make these movies “work”?
I enjoyed the hell out of Captain America, but the movie was hit with the criticism that Steve Rogers was too one-dimension. He’s a do-gooder who doesn’t change over the course of the movie. But why does this make him uninteresting? He has the same values at the beginning of the movie as he does at the end, but he’s not the same person. He’s someone who has realized his dream of being the person he always felt he was meant to be. I never felt bored watching Captain America fight bad guys. I was wrapped up in watching someone who was a paragon of virtue. It was inspirational.
There doesn’t seem to be room to be inspiration in the majority of superhero movies. There’s room for grit, sacrifice, and learning responsibility. A character who is simply “good” is boring and doesn’t generate conflict. That’s why Zack Snyder needs an “edgy” Superman. The Superman of the 1950s TV series doesn’t get to live in our world. He’s a “boy scout” so therefore he’s uninteresting. Superman suffers from a distinct lack of being Batman.
What if Superman didn’t have to be bogged down in introspection or seriousness? Would that be so bad? Superman has lots of superpowers, so why can’t he fight big villains like Darkseid? Or what about a collection of less powerful but still fun villains like Metallo, Kryptonite Man, and Titano? Throw Jimmy Olsen down a well, tie Lois Lane to some railroad tracks, and let Blue Boy save the day. No grit. No loneliness. Just something grand and uplifting. Something PG.
But “PG” is death. There have been 30 Marvel and DC movies since X-Men, and none of them have been rated less than PG-13. No studio is willing to even entertain the possibility that superhero movies could be a little more light-hearted. Teenage boys will revolt and pre-teen boys apparently don’t count as ticket buyers. Studios have run the numbers and the numbers say you need a PG-13 rating, and that means you’ve got a shed a little blood, say some dirty words, and the hero has to stare off into the middle distance and realize his* destiny.
This July, Christopher Nolan will complete his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s approach to Batman has been to set the character in the “real” world. Anything remotely comic-book-y is verboten. There is no Batmobile; there’s the Tumbler. There’s no Two-Face; there’s “Harvey Two-Face”. In The Dark Knight, Gotham City looked like Chicago, and because of tax breaks for the production, Gotham City will look like Pittsburgh in The Dark Knight Rises. Say what you will about Tim Burton and Joel Schmacher‘s takes on Batman (and there’s plenty to say), but they dreamed bigger. Nolan’s take has merit, but it also wants to take the “super” out of superhero. Yes, Batman doesn’t have superpowers, but he’s still extraordinary. But there’s no room for Bat Shark-Repellant.
Bat Shark-Repellant was used by the Caped Crusader in 1966’s Batman: The Movie. For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s an absolute joy. It’s big, it’s cartoony, it’s campy, and it doesn’t care. No filmmaker or studio would risk a plot where the villains dehydrate the world leaders into colored sand. And if a modern superhero movie dared to make this leap, it would twist itself into circles to provide some reasonable explanation, which would defeat the purpose of making such a grand leap in the first place. Can teenagers not accept a movie where Batman is running down a boardwalk, carrying a giant bomb over his head? Contemporary superhero movies don’t have to be this campy, but an over-the-top, exuberant style has merit. There’s no shame in liking a bombastic, unabashedly silly superhero movie if it’s done right (if it’s done wrong, you have Batman & Robin). The shame comes from keeping superheroes in rigid box of “reality” when the genre has so much more to offer. Like Bat Shark-Repellant.
*Sad fact: Elektra and Catwoman are the only female-led superhero movies. Anyone who attributes their failure to a female hero has clearly ignored the fact that both films are terrible.