Thor is 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 superheros.
For the most part, the success of the superhero film and TV show genre is rooted in comic book nostalgia. Comics are the originary source of wonder and amazement. They made us want to fly or scale walls, though we knew we would never be anything other than a kid jumping off a couch. Indeed, it was our inability to relate to superhero characters that made them so interesting.
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. All I knew was that she was awesome. I could not participate in the X-Men’s adventures, I could only marvel at them.
True, comic book writers tried to make characters somewhat relatable, but in any other context what would be a relatable human problem was always unrelatable for a kid reading, say, The Mighty Thor. Thor’s relationships and inner turmoil were not problems I could (or even cared to) relate to; they were the problems of a god and that is why he was so cool. All superheroes are gods in the sense that we as readers never have access to their worlds. Most characters were something like a human, but as kids we were neither attuned to nor interested in the humanity of superhero characters. We had Archie for that (though honestly, I could never relate to his problems either). A film must capture this feeling or fail.
The lives of superheroes always necessarily exceeded our experience. Even street-level superheroes without special powers nevertheless had an incomprehensible combination of wealth, intellect, athleticism, and fighting skill. Batman was human, but he was not just a man. He took on Superman, after all.
Super-Dad and his Drinking Buddies
Superhero films and TV shows are failing. They have the potential to succeed but only to the extent that they feature actual superheroes rather than super-Dads and drinking buddies. For a superhero flick to work it must re-create that essential nostalgia-inducing distance between the viewer and the character.
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. As an adult, I was finding the Avengers so relatable that it took me out of the film. They are sarcastic and funny, like some of my friends. Oh cool, they’re also drinking buddies! I have drinking buddies. What is ‘shawarma’ anyways? There’s a place down the street from me. 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 feel like adults with 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.
Instead, they do an excellent job of making us feel like we’re flying through the clouds with Ironman, sharing yuks with Captain America, or swinging between towers with Spiderman. In the increasingly exciting and immersive 3D IMAX experience of superhero films, a key feature of our childhood wonder is being betrayed. I am not supposed to feel like I am flying or jumping off skyscrapers, and I am definitely not supposed to be attending a swanky evening soirée with Falcon. I am supposed to feel like I am bearing witness (like a kid reading a comic) to powers and feats and adventures that exceed my ability to relate and understand.
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 an intergalactic policeman. The movie made Green Lantern into a familiar dude-bro dork-fest yet and it 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.
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. We didn’t pay too much attention to regular characters in the comics because we didn’t need to. In fact, we could read a comic with no regular people at all and that would be fine because we didn’t need any reminders that superheroes are extraordinary by comparison. Our own human limitations were the comparison. 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. Or when Superman takes a terrified and overwhelmed Lois Lane for a dizzying flight around Metropolis. You’ll never forget it.
The only regular people who could possibly serve as proxies in films like Avengers 2 were either inexplicably indifferent to the presence of gods or too busy screaming because their neighbourhood was blowing up. In the Spiderman franchise, regular folks always seem to form an audience to battles from behind crowd-control fences, ooing and ahhing as if watching a Cirque du Solei performance. These crowds cannot serve as our proxies because they, like us, are also amused rather than amazed.
We saw no one in the Avengers 2 tremble at the sight of a Norse god 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.
How to save the genre
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. We fly, swing, and battle along side the superheroes. The camera – our window into the world – always seems to be mounted on their shoulders. The effect is that the superlatives fall away from the hero and what is left is a CGI ride. A movie without proxies to help distance us from superheroes can easily degenerate into a 3-hour CGI-fest in which everyone is supposed to be amazing but the result is that no one is particularly remarkable.
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 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 fucking cool 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 Transformers.
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 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.