On the Failure of Superhero Movies. Or. The Guardians of the Galaxy Effect™
Thor is Not 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.
The following three and a half minute sequence from Batman v. Superman is perhaps the most effective bit of superhero filming to date. The reason these scenes work so well is that Superman is not presented as a relatable character. He’s not even a character at all – he along with 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 human concerns that we can and should relate to.
It was our inability to directly relate to superhero characters that makes them interesting, mythical, and ultimately entertaining.
This essential and unbridgeable distance between the reader and the character is captured in the superlatives we find in comic 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 my favourite comic. 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.
A film must capture this feeling of awe and inspiration or appropriately be labelled devoid of substance, frivolous, empty – a mere spectacle. Superhero franchises make money, but they are regularly excoriated by reviewers and audiences who are growing fatigued by the procession of CGI amusement rides.
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 alerted producers and directors to the fact that audiences would stay invested if studios abandoned any pretence of offering a superhero movie. We see this most markedly in the tonal leap that occurred between the previous two Thor movies and the newest installment, Thor III: Ragnarok. The latest Thor movie is 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, k folks? Lost in this cynical shift to comedy is the sense that the lives of superheroes always necessarily exceeded our experience.
Super-Dad and his Drinking Buddies
It was only after watching Avengers 2: Age of Ultron that I finally understood that this crucial distance was missing from the entire genre. The realization snuck up on me as I watched. I was finding the Avengers so relatable that it 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. I have drinking buddies! What is ‘shawarma’ anyways? I could check it out. Hey, look! Hawkeye is married with two kids, just like me. Jeez, I hope he survives to see his family aga…wait, what? No.
I’m not supposed to be empathizing with ‘Dad’ responsibilities in a superhero experience! 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 experience we had as kids encountering superheroes through the medium of the comic.
What we want is for the medium of film to reproduce the wonder and amazement engendered by the comic book experience. And this means recreating the distance between the reader and the character. Modern superhero films have effectively closed the nostalgic gap – 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 is your hilarious friend from college, not the intergalactic policeman he was allegedly playing. The movie made Green Lantern into a dude-bro dork-fest and suffered for it.
Deadpool is a different kind of movie precisely because it follows the comic book in abandoning any pretense of cultivating awe and amazement. The magic of Deadpool has always been the characters intentional bridging of the distance between audience and superhero. It’s why he breaks the forth wall: to insure that we are all aware of the gag. Green Lantern was painfully unaware that it was a gag. Now all superhero movies are becoming gags.
How to save the genre
I have always thought the best scenes 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 was miraculous.
There were no proxies in Thor III: Ragnarok because there were in fact no normal human beings in the entire movie. The only regular people who could possibly serve as proxies in films like Avengers 2 were inexplicably indifferent to the presence of gods.
We saw no one in the Avengers 2 tremble at the sight of a Norse legend with a magical war-hammer come to life before their eyes and shoot lightening at a sentient cyborg. Instead, we sat and chuckled with Thor as he 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. Filmakers need to understand that our investment in superheroes and their stories is rooted in that character’s role in the survival of the human race, as represented in the film by the actual human beings to whom we can relate.
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 at street level. We the audience are shoulder to shoulder with the film’s regular human protagonists. We, too, are looking through the clouds for a glimpse of the miraculous and immortal. The music is ominous and foreboding. The fate of the world turns on this being who remains mysterious and interested not because we empathized when its parents got murdered in Act 1, but because the creature is overwhelming.
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. Imagine if Godzilla cracked wise and ate shawarma at the end of the film. It would have been both amusing as well as a giant shit on film-goers. You know, like the Transformers franchise
I’m not saying superheroes 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. What Joss Whedon seems to have missed, and he is not alone, is that we’re not supposed to care about Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch because we relate to the fragility of life and the power of familial 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.
Likewise, the consequences of a superhero death, disappearance, or retirement must feel existential and cosmic. The arrival of a superhero is supposed to feel like a mysterious salvation. The loss of a superhero is supposed to resonate like the death of a god. Filmmakers should not aspire, as they currently do, to the action and comedic beats we want in a buddy-cop flick. They should aspire to the wide-eyed wonder of the kid who just read a comic.