The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Superhero Movies Are Dead, But They Keep on Coming

Written by: Carlton King, Special to CC2K

ImageGet ready, ladies and gents, for the next wave of superhero films.  We have a Spider-Man reboot on the way, a sequel to The Dark Knight is in the works, and Iron Man 2 contained enough setup for the upcoming Avenger movies (Captain America, Thor) to make you wonder whether you were still watching the previews.  Ignoring for the moment our recent vacation to planet Pandora, the biggest movies of the recent past, present, and near future all seem to involve our friends in the Spandex Brigade.  Some of these movies may even be halfway decent.  (I just saw Iron Man 2 again, and liked it a lot better the second time around.)  But let’s not kid ourselves that these movies are new, except that the effects have improved. 

As spiff as these superhero flicks are, we are picking at the bones of some pretty old corpses here.  Remember, folks, Batman first appeared in 1939 – seventy-one years ago and we’re still standing around in that alley outside the movie theater watching his parents get shot.  Superman is even older: he came out in 1932 (not as gay, I mean, although that would make his relationship with Lois Lane make sense all of a sudden).  Spider-Man is almost fifty.  The newest of these films, Iron Man 2 (did I mention that I liked Gwyneth as a redhead?) loosely adapts the “Demon in a Bottle” storyline from the Iron Man comic, which ran during the Carter administration.  Captain America would be on Medicare by now.  Even Venom, the new kid stinking up Spider-Man 3, first appeared in the 1980’s. 

Not only are the characters old, but the stories are reuse, reduce, recycle as well.  Most of the successful superhero flicks to date have the same plot: the Hero’s Initiation into the magical or super world.  A hero has his life changed forever, learns a thing or two, is placed into danger, and defeats his new enemies with his newfound abilities and willingness to fight.  That’s Spider-Man, Batman Begins and Iron Man in a nutshell.  It also describes the Matrix and the first X-Men movie, if you count Rogue as the “hero” of that film, the one we viewers follow around and learn alongside.  (It’s also every Harry Potter book, as near as I can tell from not reading them.)  Depart from this model at your peril, screenwriters.

But depart from it they do, if only because they have to.  In a sequel, that story has already happened to the main character, and it’s hard to engineer the same thing to happen twice.  Spider-Man 2 uses a plot we’ll call the Comeback, which is really just a variety of Initiation:  Peter Parker gives up his powers for a while and has to be summoned back to the super world, as though it were Narnia.  Neat trick!  (In the comics, Spider-Man gives up the costume about once a year, so it may not be a path every super can take.)  Where our superflix go wrong is trying to follow the initiation plot with one that doesn’t work nearly so well.  One example is the Hero Rules the World plot.  Batman controls Gotham City, more or less, so The Dark Knight has him mostly sitting around, wrestling with the moral dilemma of whether to hack people’s cell phones.  In the Matrix sequels, Neo is the most powerful character in the entire universe, so it’s hard to find any credible challenges for him – so we end up following people around who aren’t Keanu Reeves and watching them have orgies and shoot guns into the air.  Worse still is Hero Has a Meltdown: it may sound interesting, but we didn’t like it in Iron Man 2 (hero gets depressed, goes on a bender) or Spider-Man 3 (hero is taken over by a dancing alien).  Let it play out over several issues of a comic, but movie watchers only have so much popcorn. 

In short, we don’t know what the story after the Initiation story should be, or how to tell it.  The public demands new movies, however, and so we keep going back to the well, even when the story has just been told or doesn’t need telling at all.  Those new Spider-Man movies are a reboot, starting with the origin story again.  Wolverine was a (failed) attempt to give an origin story to a character whose defining characteristic was that his past is not known.  I can only imagine what a train wreck this Avengers movie is going to be.

I was a giant comics geek in my younger days.  When I see a character whose book I used to read glaring down at me from a movie poster, I reach for some money to buy a ticket.  But we’ve got a stable of geriatric characters and only one reliable story to tell for each of them.  Let’s quit grave-robbing and figure out some new plots, already.  I’ve seen this movie already.