On the Failure of Superhero Movies. Or: Never Meet your Superheroes. Or: The Guardians of the Galaxy Effect. Or: They’re all SHAZAM!
Thor is Not Supposed to be Funny and He’s Not Your Friend
Why did Green Lantern and every iteration of Fantastic Four suck so bad? Why are other franchises bordering on the same kind of suckage? I think it’s because film-makers think we want to be friends with the superheroes.
We don’t. We might think we do, but we really don’t.
The following three and a half minute sequence from Batman v. Superman is perhaps the most effective in the superhero genre to date. The reason these scenes work so well is that Zack Snyder does not present Superman as a relatable character. He’s not a character at all. He and the bad guys are forces of nature that the audience cannot possibly relate to – forces that we can only observe. Our perspective is street-level. We follow a human character who has entirely relatable human concerns.
It was our inability to directly relate to superhero characters that makes them effective.
This unbridgeable distance between the reader and the character is built right into comic book titles: The Amazing Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, and The Fantastic Four. The term ‘uncanny’ in The Uncanny X-Men literally means ‘unsettlingly strange’, and it was this strangeness that made the X-Men a favourite comic for so many. I had no idea how Rogue experienced her world. I could not participate in the X-Men’s adventures, I could only Marvel at them. That’s the whole point. More often that not, their civilian alter-egos were burdened with secrets and abilities, a struggle we could not fathom. That was the point.
For a film to capture this it must be able to translate this feeling of awe and inspiration. If it fails it will appropriately be labelled devoid of substance, frivolous, empty – a mere spectacle. Like the Transformers franchise.
A funny thing has happened. Initially, superhero franchises made money, but they were regularly excoriated by reviewers and audiences were quickly growing fatigued by the endless procession of CGI amusement rides. So filmmakers pivoted.
Recognizing the risks of future failure, studios have effectively abandoned the genre and turned superhero franchises into full-fledged comedies. The success of Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool confirmed for filmmakers that audiences would stay invested if studios abandoned any pretence of offering an actual superhero movie.
We see this most markedly in the tonal leap that occurred between Thor III: Ragnarok and the previous two Thor movies. The first instalments made the mistake of writing Thor as both a superhero and the lead character. Boring. By contrast, the latest Thor movie retconned Thor into a hilarious dude-bro and teamed him up in a rollicking ensemble comedy set in a world of wacky yet inconsequential side-characters and satirical worlds. The film even recruits Jeff Goldblum and Matt Damon as a wink to the audience: Don’t take any of this too seriously, folks!
Super-Dad and his Drinking Buddies
It was only after watching Avengers 2: Age of Ultron that I finally understood that the crucial distance between viewer and character was missing from the superhero film genre. I was finding the Avengers so relatable that it eventually took me out of the film. Look at these guys! They’re so sarcastic and funny, like some of my friends. Oh cool! They’re drinking buddies, too. I have drinking buddies! What is ‘shawarma’ anyways? I should check it out. Hey, look! Hawkeye is married with two kids, just like me. Ah jeez, I hope he survives to see his family aga…wait, what?
As I sat there, it occurred to me that the root cause of my emerging doubt was that consumers of comic book nostalgia don’t go to these movies to ponder adult relationships and problems. What we want these films to capture, as best they can, is the feeling we had as kids encountering superheroes through the distance created by the medium of the illustrated comic.
What we want, even if we don’t realize it, is for the medium of film to reproduce the wonder and amazement engendered by the comic book experience. And this means recreating the unbridgeable gap between the reader and the character. Unfortunately, modern superhero films have effectively collapsed the vitally important nostalgic space – the space that made superheroes super in the first place. I am supposed to be amazed, not amused.
This is ultimately the reason why Green Lantern was such a flop. Ryan Reynolds was clearly your hilarious handsome friend from college, not the intergalactic policeman he was supposed to embody. The movie made Green Lantern into a dude-bro dork-fest and was lambasted for it.
Deadpool is a different kind of movie precisely because it follows the original comic book in abandoning any pretence of cultivating awe and amazement. The magic of Deadpool has always been the characters intentional collapsing of the distance between audience and superhero. It’s why he breaks the fourth wall: to insure that we are all aware of the gag. Captain Marvel, just like Green Lantern, is painfully unaware that it is participating in a gag. In fact, all superhero movies have become nostalgic gags that hitch their wagons to a kind of comfortable familiarity that kills any sense of genuine awe or wonder. Remember Blockbuster and No Doubt? Captain Marvel does. Funny! Super funny.
How to save the genre
I have always thought the best scenes in these films are the ones in which superheroes use their powers in front of normal people who are appropriately Gob-smacked. In a superhero movie, we must live through the human characters if we are going to genuinely appreciate the superhuman. On the screen, regular mortal characters serve as our proxies – they function to remind us that Thor’s powers are indeed extraordinary rather than mundane.
Like when Ma and Pa Kent watched in awe as young Kal-El lifted up the back of the pick-up truck. It wasn’t a gag. It was miraculous.
There are no such proxies in Avengers or Captain Marvel because there were in fact no normal human beings in the entire movie. The only regular people who could possibly serve as proxies in these films were inexplicably indifferent to the presence of gods.
No one in the Avengers 2 trembled at the sight of a Norse legend with a magical war-hammer come to life before their eyes in order to shoot lightening at a sentient cyborg. We didn’t have that experience. Instead, we sat and chuckled with Thor as he lounged at a party and got tipsy with his super-buds.
We occasionally see fear on the faces of citizens, but it is always from the perspective of the superhero that is trying to save them. Indeed, we’ve been viewing the world through the eyes of the superhero the whole time. What filmmakers have yet to understand is that our investment in superheroes and their stories is rooted in their role in the survival of the human race, as represented in the film by the actual human beings to whom we can relate.
You know who almost nailed it? Godzilla. Part of the success of Godzilla can be attributed to the way Gareth Edwards situates the audience as powerless spectators in a clash between unearthly forces of nature. The camera – our window into this world – is set mostly at street level. We the audience are shoulder to shoulder with the film’s regular human protagonists. We peer with them, squinting through the clouds for a glimpse of the miraculous and immortal. The score is simple, ominous, and foreboding. The fate of the world turns on this being who remains mysterious and captivating, not because we empathized when its parents got murdered in Act 1, but because the character overwhelms our ability to process the world. Hero or villain, they are undeniably dangerous.
More importantly, our investment in Godzilla is tied to our investment in the humanity he seems ordained to protect, for reasons that we don’t quite understand because, after all, we are merely human. We are never quite sure what is motivating the unearthly hero. How could we?
Now imagine if at the end of the film Godzilla sat down for shawarma while Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It” played on a jukebox somewhere. Remember that song? Of course you do. Wouldn’t that have been funny? Yeah, super funny.
I’m not saying all superhero characters need to be silent, humourless monsters like Godzilla. I actually think the character of Vision struck a respectable balance in Avengers 2. He was, in the end, the only mysterious superhero in the movie. Naturally, all that mystery was evacuated from the character in the following film, Avengers: Infinity War. What the Russo brothers, Kevin Feige, and the writers seem to have missed, and they are not alone, is that we’re not supposed to care about Vision because we feel with him the fragility of life and the power of romantic commitments; we are supposed to care about them because they are supernatural forces who shoulder the responsibility of protecting the real human characters in the film – not love interests or anonymous screaming crowds.
The arrival of a superhero is supposed to feel like a mysterious salvation, not a celebration. The loss of a superhero is supposed to resonate like the death of a god, not a friend. The consequences of a superhero death, disappearance, or retirement must feel existential and cosmic.
Filmmakers should not aspire as they currently do to the action and comedic beats we expect from a buddy-cop flick. They should aspire to the wide-eyed wonder of a kid who just read a comic.