So I’ve been reading a lot of articles about people discussing the nature of the Superhero genre, and the fact that, to put it simply, the genre is boring. Most of the discussion revolves around the idea that the superhero genre doesn’t have room for growth. That the formulaic structure of superhero films that has stemmed from corporate culture and the audiences’ simple mindedness has given us an uninteresting genre.Well to that I call bullshit. I just want to breakdown some of what these different people had to say and provide a little counter argument, because we gotta stick up for our superheroes as well!
First of all let’s define what the ‘superhero genre’ actually is. We know horror, action, comedy are all genres, well arguably so are superheroes. This Slideshare gives a pretty good summary of the conventions of the superhero film genre, the main points being:
- Settings often include a big city, headquarters
- Characters often include a hero with extraordinary powers, equipment or skills and a main villain
- Significant props such as suits and weapons
- Plot often focuses on good vs evil
- Often high concept (big budget, VFX)
Okay now that we have that out of the way let’s discuss other peoples’ discussions about the Superhero film genre.
An article from FilmSchoolRejects discusses the comparisons people make between the boom of the Western genre to the boom of the Superhero genre. Basically they go on to make some points as to why they are both very dissimilar. Fair enough. But they also go on to say that whereas Western films breathed creativity and innovation, Superhero films are repetitive and formulaic. Sure they are formulaic, most films are. But the point they bring up is that superhero films become dull and repetitive because the only interesting stories are the origin stories. He gives us an example using Batman:
He loses his parents, his world, to crime at an early age – the concepts of crime and identity are so tangled within him, so central to his being, that fighting criminals becomes a futile attempt to reclaim his lost past. And in trying to reclaim a past that is irrevocably gone, he forfeits the future that might have come out of it. This inner conflict is what makes Batman, Batman. Further, the number of successful sequels to any Batman series depends entirely on how many interesting wrinkles can be put into the same story.
Basically what he is saying here is that character of Batman revolves around his inner conflict. It is this theme that carries on throughout The Dark Knight trilogy. His inner conflict is represented by the villains he chases, or his love interests blah blah blah. So he finds that the repetitive nature lies in the fact that superheroes apparently only have one set defined theme that must be carried on throughout all their films, and because of this it makes Superhero films boring and repetitive. Huh. So was The Dark Knight boring because yes it did explore the notions of Batman’s inner conflict, but it also explored the notions of chaos and order, of the inherent goodness of humanity, of sacrifice, explored within a backdrop of a gritty crime drama. So that’s boring. Superheroes aren’t stagnant characters, and either are their worlds. These films are more than capable of exploring new and interesting themes and plots whilst sticking to the roots of these characters, in the case of Batman, his root is his inner conflict (according to this writer).
Another article by Matt Seitz discusses that one of the biggest issues of the Superhero genre, is the sameness of it all:
The audience seems to have no interest in demanding better films, much less excellent ones. It settles for OK and better-than-OK. As long as the films aren’t unbearably bad or unnnervingly personal, they’re content.
He talks about the sameness of superhero films, that studios “rather have a mediocre sure thing than encourage filmmakers to try something truly new”. He brings up that films such as ‘Hellboy’ and ‘Watchmen’ are exceptions to the rule, however most superhero films are purely rehashed stories of the film before them.
Okay with that point in mind, let’s look at the superhero films that came out this year: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-men:Days of Future Past, Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy. When I look at these films I don’t see the overt sameness he sees with the Superhero genre. Sure ultimately they are about goods guys versing bad guys but that simplistic interpretation can be said about most films. Captain America is more than likely to be described as a ‘political thriller’ and the same can’t be said about X-men which was a lot more Sci-Fi. Then you got Amazing Spider-Man 2. This film was a kind of a dud, and does further the point about the typical, repetitive superhero film, but nobody was saying that the Superhero genre was perfect! And of course you got Guardians of the Galaxy which was a space adventure, with leads who wouldn’t be classified as your typical superhero. “This genre is where imagination goes to drown itself” he continues to say. To be fair he does pay his respects to Captain America: The Winter Solider but his overall arguement about the sameness of Superhero films is heavily faltered. Sure they all have “visual and rhythmic sameness” as he points out, but so does every other genre, because ya know, that’s what a freaking genre is! But that doesn’t mean each film can’t be its own thing and explore different stories, themes, values etc.
The National Ash also talks about the limitations of the Superhero genre:
It looks like the reason superhero narratives invade and saturate many aspects of pop-culture is because they are easy to digest. They are familiar stories that we’ve been raised on since infancy. The world’s are updated and changed to fit the current and modern palate, but the base ingredients are still there. The good guy is easy to identify with. The bad guy clearly has to be stopped by any means. And the town is willing to allow the peculiarities of the hero if he indeed does save them from harm.
In his post he discusses ‘the arch villain’ in superhero films, and how they aren’t very memorable. Of course there are many recent superhero films that have had pretty weak villains e.g. Thor: The Dark World (Dark Elves or what ever they were called), some villains are pretty ‘we’re just evil for some stupid reason ooooooh’. But the same can’t be said about all villains in superhero films. Continuing on the Thor discussion, is Loki not a compelling villain? Does he not cause both a physical and mental conflict for Thor? He says that good villains makes the superhero question themselves, cause them a conflict with themselves, Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, Zod in Man of Steel etc etc, these villains deeply caused both an outer and inner conflict for the heroes.
He also talks about ‘the town in need’, and how the main towns in superhero films never have their own voice in superhero films and are ‘willfully ignorant of their circumstances’. In that little quote I posted he also talks about how the town is willing to allow the peculiarities of the hero. And the writer does point out this can’t be said for all superhero films, in the case of The Dark Knight and Rises, however he does make it clear that he believes most towns in Superhero films are like that. Yes in the Amazing Spider-Man 2 the New Yorkers were pretty damn stupid, just standing there and clapping when there were scary monsters invading their city, but this generalisation does not apply for all superhero films. For example we know that in Batman v Superman one of the plot points will be about the anti-Superman movement (you can read my post ‘Should the World Hate Superman’ here), the town is voicing their concerns over Superman’s actions, they aren’t ignorant to their circumstance, their circumstance being that a freaking alien invasion caused the destruction of their beautiful city! Again it’s the weeping generalisation critics of the Superhero genre like to make, that makes no sense.
The Atlantic continues on the discussion about the sameness and average nature of Superhero films:
Hollywood needs to know what its fragile audience wants, and when it asks us, we tell them: Make something like the last average thing I saw!
Okay so let’s talk about this supposed sameness and average-ness of superhero films. Because in my eyes, if anything right now studios are trying to do something different, and are trying to up their game, instead of producing the same thing over and over. Yeah it’s for money, but hello, that’s called being a business, and as long as I get great movies, then I don’t care if their intention for making lots and lots of superhero movies is for money. Let’s look at Batman v Superman. This is something we have never seen before in this capacity. First of all you have two of the biggest pop cultural icons together on the cinematic screen, but you also have a superhero film about two huge superheroes at conflict with one and other. Sure films like The Avengers already explored superheroes at conflict with one and other, but the primary purpose of Batman v Superman is the conflict between the two heroes, which I can tell because its freaking called BATMAN V SUPERMAN (by the way I hate using all caps, this won’t be a regular occurrence). But then the point can be made, well the sameness is obvious when the third Captain America film is obviously going to be about heroes at conflict as the main plot. Yes but also for completely different reasons. At the surface level they sound the same, but they are completely different. Civil War’s conflict will more so revolve around the concept of freedom and authority. Batman v Superman’s conflict will revolve around perspective and ultimately changing perspectives (e.g. Batman only has limited information about Superman, once he gets more probably through the source itself, the conflict will shift).
WB are making a Wonder Woman movie, about Greek Gods, Marvel is making a Doctor Strange movie, about a Sorcerer Supreme, Fox is making a Deadpool movie, about a meta psycho and Sony is making a Sinister Six movie, about a team-up of villains. Of course there is no guarantee all these films will be great, but there is a guarantee that they will be vastly different to each other.
I feel as though a lot of these critics are in a way ignorant and looking at the Superhero genre with blinkers on. Let’s look at this post from Washington Post. In the article the writer says:
The 2016 release of “Suicide Squad” is another copycat move. The comic book features a crew of antiheroes, who are sprung from jail to become covert operatives for the good guys. Sound familiar?
If you couldn’t figure it out, she was referring to Guardians of the Galaxy. Wow. Right now I want to go all full rage mode and type a billion things in all caps but I won’t. It’s fine if you don’t know the comic book world deeply. It’s fine if you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge about all comic book characters. That’s not the problem here. The problem here is that she has made a quick judgement on something she has little information on. Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy may sound similar on the most basic level, but in reality they do not share much in common. Suicide Squad is about a bunch of crazy villains (e.g. Deadshot, Harley Quinn, King Shark etc) who are given the opportunity to complete suicidal missions for the dodgy side of the government in order to reduce their sentences. They have neck bombs, they often get killed in very cruel ways, and they don’t really care about saving the world or any of that crap, they’re here for themselves. Now compare that to Guardians of the Galaxy, Groot isn’t exactly the same type of character Harley Quinn is, and their situations are completely different.
She also has a little discussion with her problems with Warner Bros comparing them to Marvel Studios, her complaints include Warner Bros not hiring big name actors for the roles (um so what?) and that they are copying The Avengers. Grrrr both pretty silly arguements. And if WB were completely copying Marvel then they would have followed the same route as them, solo movies first then team-up movies, WB is doing the opposite so her argument is a little invalid.
Anyways again another writer has issues with the sameness of superhero movies!
Topless Robot wrote an article about the 7 reasons why Marvel movies are really boring. He says that:
With the Marvel character movies (and this is not exclusive to the Cinematic Universe films), the obvious goal is to just keep the franchises steadily moving. For the love of Odin, can’t someone go in and shake things up a bit?
Now at the time of that write-up the upcoming Marvel film slate had not been announced, but that quote clearly shows that people are underestimating the Superhero genre. Oh you want things to be shaken up? Boom here’s Civil War for you! You know the movie that’s going to completely change the Marvel Cinematic Universe (presumably at least).
Basically I could go on and on about this, but I think I’ve rambled on enough. The main takeaway from this is that the Superhero genre isn’t boring, and it can grow and innovate! Superhero films are so much more than a bunch of costume wearing characters fighting other costume wearing characters. Different superhero films explore different themes and different aspects of humanity through different ways whether it be through a political thriller or a crime drama.
I hope that the next wave of superhero films validate my points, and I think that they will!
Anyways what’s your stance on the nature of the Superhero genre? Do you think it’s boring or repetitive? Or are you more so in agreement with me? Let me know!
Categories: comic book movies