A series of recent artciles has looked at the superhero movie genre as a whole and asked the question: why is this genre so mediocre? Matt Zoller Seitz kicked it off with Things Crashing Into Things, or, My Superhero Movie Problem. Tim Wainwright then responded with Hollywood Should Make More, Not Fewer, Superhero Films. Then, came Derek Thompson explaining The Reason Why Hollywood Makes So Many Boring Superhero Movies.
Each of these articles makes fine points. Zoller Seitz hits the genre (and its fans) the hardest, but also with the most accurate shots. Yes, the action scenes are often incomprehensible; acting talent often comes second to looking the part; fans do hold on to “fleeting moments of special-ness” to defend a films that are, as a whole, mediocre.
But the problem with all of these genre assessments is that they are just that: high-level assessments of a genre.
What this level of analysis forgets (though Wainwright hits on the point) is that a large majority of everything is low-quality. Whatever genre you’re considering, it’s probably on average pretty terrible. Because most movies, just like most television and most books, are terrible. Popular appetites and risk-averse business decisions have something to do with this general mediocrity, but not everything. Some of it also comes from the fact that making quality films is really difficult. Levelize the quality of any genre and you’ll find mediocrity at best. How can the averages possibly recover from Green Lantern or Ghost Rider?
Criticizing the genre as a whole is not only an easy target but lacks any prescriptive value. (To be fair to Zoller Seitz, he does give some time to Captain America: Winter Soldier, which he considers “easily the best superhero film produced since Christopher Nolan stopped directing them”). Rather than talk about the genre’s problems, though, I’d like to talk about the movies. Because looking at the actual movies that comprise this genre, gives us a different impression.
Below, then, is a list of every American superhero movie since 2000 (according to Wikipedia). I color-coded it for a general sense of quality based on my personal, but discerning, tastes. The bar here is low: Green equals anything from pretty good to excellent. Yellow is just your average blockbuster, watchable and forgettable. Red is bad bad bad. (White I have not seen).
What surprised me about this exercise is that, while there’s a lot of red in that list, it’s not as much as I expected. And while yes, by the averages, the superhero genre is as bad as any other, eyeing the titles, there are more than a few examples to put together some rules for how to make a good superhero film. And if the goal as film fans is to get better superhero films made, discussing quality films will help us add more green bars in the future.
I like superhero stories and I love movies. I want these films to be better. The superhero film has really low lows (Green Lantern, Spider-man 3), but it also has high highs (Dark Knight, Superman: The Movie). Rather than continuing to diagnose the ills of the genre, here are a few simple rules for producers, writers and directors. Follow these suggestions and you will make better superhero films.
1. Lower the stakes
The ever-rising stakes of the superhero genre has long been a problem. Once we faced threats to a person or a family, even a town, and felt something intimate in the middle of a larger story. Now we are faced with such catastrophic dangers to so many people at such break-neck speeds it has become almost impossible to feel any of the emotional weight involved. The east-coast is in danger, the country is in danger, the world is danger, ever-growing, ever-expanding dooms await us in our theaters. Audiences can’t find our way in a story that is over-sized without something to orient our own emotional investment.
Which is what the best superhero films do: orient audiences with low-stake, high-payoff stories. The Crow, from 1994, is a favorite superhero film of mine, and it takes great pains to invest its audience in the revenge plot. A man is killed, then his wife is brutally raped, beaten, and murdered. The man comes back from the grave for revenge up on the gang that destroyed his future. The Crow is a very dark, and very violent story; one keeping quite intimate in its story and limited in the stakes. It was also a huge hit and critical darling, and left a lasting legacy on the genre. For good reason. Not every movie has to risk the end of the world.
*Editor’s note: Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of The Crow‘s release. The film is famous in part for the death of Brandon Lee during production. It also introduced Alex Proyas’ visionary eye to American audiences, and features a wonderful performance by Ernie Hudson. It remains excellent. For fun, here’s Siskel and Ebert’s review, from 20 years ago.
2. Care more about your characters than your fight scenes
Ang Lee’s Hulk is a superior film to Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. Likewise, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns is much better than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. The only thing I remember about Man of Steel is how little fun it was, and how many action scenes it contained. I remember almost nothing about The Incredible Hulk.
Such is not the case with their predecessors. Both Hulk and Superman Returns are jumbled, over-long messes that fit awkwardly in the genre, disappointed the superfans, and made little impact on the films that came after them. And both were marvelous imperfect film experiences that I can recall with clarity. This is because they were, first and foremost, character-driven films about people in extreme circumstances trying to acclimate to complex identities. This is the bread and butter of the superhero genre, and every time Marvel and DC release another stock plot and punch-up film full of missed opportunities, I think of these two gems.
Today, Hulk and Superman Returns are considered failures in the genre and inferior to the re-booted companions that followed them. But this is simply mis-remembering reality. Hulk and The Incredible Hulk performed almost identically, both at the box-office and with critics. And while Superman Returns grossed 90 million less in the US than Man of Steel, it was a much bigger critical success, and still grossed over $390 million worldwide. If those are our metrics, then Hulk and Superman Returns are helping the genre curve.
Given that Marvel shows no signs of slowing, and DC is racing to catch up, both would do well to slow down and revisit their under-appreciated, character-oriented, recently-forgotten films.
3. Cast actors based on talent, not body shape or type
Genre expectations provide casting expectations for superhero cinema. Busty and muscle-bound rule the day. But the look or casting-type of an actor when he or she is cast in a superhero movie is irrelevant. Even more meaningless than look is the reaction of fans and the internet. The only thing that matters is the capacity of a performer take a role that audiences are familiar with (if not the character specifically, the expectations of that character in this genre) and make that character into something new.
The demonstrative example of this principle is Christopher Nolan’s decision to cast Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (a decision met with a familiar ire from fans). Ledger was, at first thought, a strange choice for the role, one that few predicted would be so memorable. What we knew, though, was that Heath Ledger could act. He had the skill set to take up a wide-range of roles, and the discipline to make even the most generic characters special. The Joker was not the first time we had seen Ledger build something strange and memorable out of something so familiar.
Ledger’s Oscar winning performance as the Joker defines the legacy of The Dark Knight, and is perhaps the lodestone that holds together a genre masterpiece. The delight Ledger must have taken in turning the Joker into not just a villain but an anarchic philosopher should be relished by all.
3. Tell us a story we haven’t seen on-screen
Did you know that The Matrix Trilogy ends with a peace agreement? It’s true. The machines and the humans, at war for however many long years, finally come to terms with each other, and agree to join forces, defeat a mutual threat, and stop their own war. One of the most famous superhero stories of recent years ends by two sides agreeing to cease hostilities.
Before we ever sit our butts in a dark theater, we know the general rules of the superhero film, what the stories are about, what the beats are for characters and emotions, and how the plot will unfold. That Spider-man and Spider-man 2 are essentially the same movie should not surprise anyone: both are made from the same pieces of the superhero genre. Which means we are also, always, waiting for those rules to be broken.
This is the point of genre. In breaking the rules of genre, familiar stories become strange, moving, touching, anything under the sun. When you embark on a superhero story and find yourself surprised, it’s a rare pleasure.
The Matrix, despite the well-known problems in the sequels, breaks from expectations (superheroes win through defeat, not negotiations) in a way that also allows genre conventions to be upheld (a climactic battle between the superhero and the supervillain). The Wachowskis, throughout the Matrix Trilogy, manage to put together a cleverly crafted genre-busting story placed among familiar genre conventions and story tropes (the Jesus lays down his life stuff is a little thick) doesn’t take away from the fact that The Matrix has a really unusual, perhaps radical, conclusion.
4. Show us something we haven’t seen on-screen
This same principal of surprise works in the visual and technical side of the superhero genre. But it unfortunately is generally misinterpreted. Directors and their financiers are spending more and more money and time on CGI fights and explosions and spectacles, making more realistic (and difficult to understand) action scenes, rather than bucking the boring circus routine in exchange for showing us something that is actually new.
The spectacle inherent in the superhero film is one of the genres greatest assets. You know what to expect and the big-money Marvel and DC movies usually provide a good rendition of what you expect. I can’t deny that Marvel has mastered both the large space-machine battles and the up-close fist fights. But that just means that when you do see something new, it sends an electric charge up your spine. Perhaps because it happens so rarely. Some of the most exciting examples of visual surprise come from the small superhero movies lying outside the major adaptation universes.
What I remember most about watching Josh Trank’s Chronicle is the excited feeling that comes with visual surprise. Not in the fight scenes or the climax, but in the small moments. Kids discovering their super-powers with strange, simple technical tricks cues in viewers to a careful director working hard to make these moments count. When the three friends in Chronicle gather to throw a ball at one another, such a simple little scene, it struck me: I’ve never actually seen something like this. One of the best audience reactions possible in the superhero genre.
5. Remember that your movie exists in the world
At the end of the day, this is the most important rule. Great films know that they live in our world, and creators think about the fact. Captain America lives in a fictional world called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a film that lives in our world, and that has actual real world consequences. So make something that matters, on purpose.
This doesn’t mean that every superhero film should be politically resonant or address contemporary concerns, nor that our stories be restricted by outside influences. But it does mean taking our world seriously. It means making choices on the production side that add value on the creative side. Thinking about the body count in the collateral damage of alien invasions, for example, is a sign that you recognize the real world exists.
Or, more importantly, representing our world in your movie shows a recognition of our world. Diversity, in itself, adds value. As a general rule, a film should not have more robot/alien/creature speaking roles than it does female speaking roles, even in the superhero genre. Ensuring that films meets this goal is not being politically correct, or kowtowing to pressure. It’s making a better film.
It’s not lost on me that the above examples come from male actors and writers and directors. The highlights of the superhero genre need to diversify. Working in genre allows a freedom to tell familiar stories with great surprises. So surprise us. We know it’s possible. Casting Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm was a pleasant surprise in that it broke from the expected genre norms. A Wonder Woman movie or Black Widow movie would be another. We’re 10 years past the disastrous Elektra and Catwoman films, and it’s time for another female anchor. Preferably written and directed by a woman. That would be special. In the list of superhero films since 2000 above, there is only 1 film directed by a woman (The Punisher: War Zone, by Lexi Alexander).
The most restrictive, and boring, expectation of the superhero film genre is that the same stories are told by the same story-tellers. That’s an actual problem in our world, and it sets unnecessary creative limits on the fictional worlds inhabited by our superhero movies. Genre is not a pass to ignore the wider-world we live in. Understand that, and we’ll start to see better superhero movies.