Superhero films

I saw this post randomly, and it jogged my memories about all the superhero movies that have been put out recently, and I tried to come up with a reason for why some are successful (iron man, x-men, batman, etc.) and compelling and some are garbage (daredevil, fantastic four, elektra, ghost rider, etc.). Here it is.

Hollywood is kind of a like a smart-alecky teenager, and so does best with movies that have some sort of deeper message, but not too deep. I use the teenager metaphor because they are emotionally deep enough to wrestle with problems, but immature enough to fall victim to hysterics and melodrama when faced with very difficult and complex “adult” problems. If you make things too nuanced, the lessons are lost on a mass audience or by directors trying to work for a mass audience.

The movies that succeeded this decade, by and large, took advantage of this sweet middle ground. Take batman for example. There’s really something pretty deep being said in some ways. The story is caricatured account of Jungian psychology. Bruce Wayne is haunted by his parent’s death but also by bats, his Jungian shadow. He attempts to banish these demons by embracing his subconscious and his desire to cause fear, at the horrible cost of his social life, and to some degree, his sanity (the Joker in film and the comic books is always noticing how close Batman is to him in his insanity, very powerful stuff). Still though, everything is very stereotyped for the most part. Batman is good, he fights evil, but he has a tinge of psychosis himself. In the latest installment, he battles partly with two-face, again an OBVIOUS and stereotyped representation, again, of batman himself, who manages his twin identities at great psychic cost.

Iron man plays well I think on similar obvious, but nonetheless compelling psychological drama. The man is an egomaniac whose danger is physical: his heart is slowly stopping, and so he must take on a metal exterior to live. As we see, he is emotionally very vulnerable, and so his metal weapon is physical heart machine as well as a psychological metaphor for his psychological hardness.

The x-men does well because it explores prejudice. The x-men all have really cool powers, but they’re hated and they have to live with their outcast position in the world.

The movies that fail as superhero films I think either try to get nuance d or stay at the surface and just wreak destruction with special effects (notice that there’s nothing wrong with action and special effects, but see how the above movies integrate drama with explosions and so integrate meaning into the exhibition of super powers).

An obvious example is Hulk. There is a story to tell here, but it’s hard to tell it in a movie format because Marvel comics tells the drama of his alienation and rage over MANY comic books, and it often takes on a soap-opera-y feel. Hollywood could only create a big brute breaking stuff. Not too compelling. Think also of Elektra. Hot chick that kills people? Not really very original or sophisticated. Same with Ghost Rider. Fantastic Four similarly had no real driving drama behind it. It was a family that got along (for the most part) and was capable of kicking ass. Not too much tension to make a feature film about. Or lastly what about superman? It’s hard to get anything going there at all because an invincible person is just so divorced from human concerns. I think this flaw in the comic is reflected in the fairly lackluster performance of the restarting of that franchise.

The one film series that might give this theory trouble is the Spider Man franchise. I’m just not sure what to do with it. “With great power comes great responsibility” I guess, but Peter Parker is pretty put together. Maybe there’s love-ish drama with MJ, but I don’t know, I don’t find it very gripping. I didn’t like most of the spider man series because I think they sometimes focused too much on ordinary movie/plot concerns and didn’t really get any super hero action. The focus on character development was especially problematic for me because I didn’t feel that there was that much there to begin with. But anyway, people can do what they want with the spider man stuff.


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