Let’s Talk About Superhero Movies

I know a few people who are getting sick of superhero and comic book movies, and with good reason considering this year’s offering of Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, and Captain America to name a few. Back when I was young you could still consider superhero movies to be a new thing, but here in 2011 we have more comic book movies than I could have ever dreamed possible as an adolescent. You’ll notice I use the terms “superhero” and “comic book” interchangeably here, but that is simply for ease of use – rest assured I am well aware of the inherent differences and that there are non-comic book superhero movies and non-superhero comic book movies.

Ever since 1989, when I saw the first Tim Burton Batman movie in theaters at an extremely young age, I have been hooked on superhero movies. Around that same time I became interested in comic books, but it wasn’t until highschool and college that I started actually reading more than single issues of titles like Batman or Uncanny X-Men. Due to this odd mixture of nerducation I have a decently even nostalgia for both the film versions of superheroes and their original, printed inspirations. I know that the Joker didn’t actually kill Bruce Wayne’s parents, but I didn’t know it the first time I saw the movie and still enjoy it even after learning “the truth”. Now when I go to see a movie like Thor or Green Lantern if I’m not already intimately aware of the source material I will take a decent amount of time to educate myself so that I can approach the movie from both perspectives and have a deeper understanding of both what has inspired the movie and also what has changed in order for them to make this material into a movie.

I’m Getting Sick of Origin Stories

When it comes to many superhero movie franchises, you can generally predict that at least 1/4 of the first film is going to be dedicated to the origin story of the main character(s). In some cases, like with the Punisher movie, you can consider the entire film to be origin story. In the case of Punisher, I didn’t mind this so much but I was disappointed that the main actor changed to the second movie which created a disconnect in my mind. The same is true of the Incredible Hulk movies, though I feel Ed Norton did a good job making the change in actor painless, and though the movie effectively retold the origin story briefly at the beginning it wasn’t blatant about it and still treated itself like a good sequel to the first movie.

In the next few years we’re going to see reboots of both Spider-Man and Superman, and both of these films concern me already simply because of the origin story aspect. I don’t really want to see Uncle Ben die again on film, even if I am behind the idea of a film that focuses on Peter in high school for more than 10 minutes. I’m pretty sure newborns today come into the world knowing the origin story of Superman. I’m fine with rebooting a franchise and I’m fine with re-casting main characters, but my main point is that both of these movies already has a big hurdle they have to get over or avoid for me to fully enjoy the film and that’s not a great start for any movie.

Marvel’s Pre-Avengers Movies

The origin story discussion above is one of the reasons that I really enjoyed the movie Thor. Sure there are some very valid complaints people have about the movie, that the human characters are non-consequential or that Thor’s character development seemingly happens in a rush, but when it comes to superhero movies these are lesser sins to me that are easily overcome by the movies high points. Blessedly, the movie starts with Thor AS Thor, he is the god of thunder, and there is minimal time needed and minimal time spent in explaining this. On top of that, he starts the movie out as a complete badass and that’s enjoyable to see in a superhero movie. The movie reminded me of that time I saw Batman in the theaters back in 1989 and the first scene is Batman being himself to the fullest, scaring bad guys and kicking ass with martial arts and gadgets.

Perhaps even more importantly, the movie Thor did an excellent job of introducing Loki as a villain and setting things up for the upcoming Avengers movie. When it comes to a property like the Avengers, and my recent distaste for origin stories, the more of that movie that is not spent on introducing the characters and setting things up the better! On top of that we already have two quality Iron Man movies that have spent time introducing S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Black Widow, so I am gaining more and more enthusiasm that the Avengers movie will be exactly what I want it to be. That said, the Captain America movie is the last piece that needs to fall into place and if that ends up falling flat it may be tough for the collective movie to pull through (especially since it is already being produced).

X-Men, or Lack Thereof

In an interesting twist, the latest X-Men movie actually takes place during the origin story of the team but avoids feeling like an origin story. In this case, as hypocritical as it sounds, I would have preferred if the movie had involved more of the teams origins (ie – the actual First Class mutants) because while the movie was titled X-Men: First Class it really should have been titled Professor X and Magneto: Some Mutants Over There Somewhere. Despite that, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit but after the fact I was extremely frustrated that all of the mutants beyond the two main characters and one main villain were effectively pointless and could have been replaced with any other mutants without any big changes to the movie.

I appreciated the efforts that were put into the movie to make sure it mostly tied in to the existing films, and as I stated the portrayals of Xavier, Magneto, and Sebastian Shaw were exceptional to the point of carrying the movie. However, the entire movie ended up being one big origin story and the characters that it focused on are either secondary characters or villains in the existing films. I share these observations because I think it is incredibly interesting that many of the reasons I liked Thor are the exact same reasons that I disliked X-Men: First Class.

Superhero Movies: Ensemble vs. Spotlight

The heading basically says it all. When it comes to superhero movies the majority of them are spotlighted because of the source material but also because of the early examples starting with Superman in 1978 and then Batman in 1989. These films set the standard for superhero movies and their sequels and also set firmly in everyone’s minds that superhero movies featured one character in the spotlight. There were certainly attempts at ensemble superhero films beforehand, but X-Men in 2000 was the first time that many of us really believed it could be done correctly. It was followed by X2 in 2003 which only reinforced our optimism (or maybe just proved that Bryan Singer knew what he was doing). At the same time we were seeing multiple Spider-Man movies which declined in quality as they progressed, I believe in no small part to the fact that they shifted from spotlight to ensemble films but things didn’t change to account for the shift and the overall quality suffered.

What Marvel is attempting to do now is an interesting combination of the two ideas where a series of spotlight movies build up to one big ensemble film, and I have to say I’m excited to see the result. Of particular note is the fact that Joss Whedon is at the helm of the Avengers movie, which gives me a lot more faith that it will be a good piece of work because as you should know Mr. Whedon has some experience with ensemble works. So yes, at its core this whole rant effectively boils down to “Why I think the Avengers movie will be good”, but I personally enjoyed going through the specifics and I hope you enjoyed some of the discussion as well!


  1. Rebecca Rupp says:

    I think there’s also a big aspect of intended audience. I feel that you and I might have enjoyed Thor more because we weren’t that invested in his backstory, whereas X-Men is practically a religion in our household. Sure, I don’t mind some artistic license, but mutants are too often used as liberally and thoughtlessly as sugar in soda. More does not really equal better…(does that metaphor work? Oh well.)

    Early buzz on Green Lantern is pretty poor, but one of the positive reviews I read mentioned it catering unashamedly to the fanboy crowd. Seems the happy medium is hard to find.

  2. There’s a good reason that you see lots of origin stories though: origin stories have a build in story arc and character development. Generally, the hero goes through more changes and greater growth in the shift from non-hero to hero than at any point afterward. They are stories with a beginning and an end, and the character makes an easy to capture journey along the way. This is what makes origin stories suitable for the format that is the 2-hour Hollywood movie. Part of the reason the later Spiderman films may have sucked is that there was increasingly less space for the character to develop. This isn’t to say that you can’t do a superhero movie that isn’t an origin story (the ’89 Batman film is a great example, though that still contains the “origin” of the Joker, and is posited more as a mystery: “who is Batman”). It’s really question of having a good story that can be told in the film format, and origin stories tend to be really good for that.

  3. highbulp: you have an extremely good point there, and I agree, but my argument isn’t that they should not have done so many origin stories – it’s just that I feel like I’ve seen enough of them in movies and I’m ready to see movies that either shortcut or find other ways of presenting the backstory and get on to telling more creative and interesting tales. Also, this applies mostly to characters that are being rebooted that we have already seen a good origin story on screen for, mainly Superman and Spider-Man.

    That said, your point about an origin story being a perfectly set up way to translate a character to a movie (especially a first movie) is spot on, thanks!

  4. My pet peeve with many current superhero movies? Multiple unconnected villains. Unfortunately, I think a lot of that has to fall on Batman Returns. They put Penguin and Catwoman into the movie, and it really worked! Clearly, two villains is a good formula!

    But, it’s not. It’s really not. If the villains are a coherent group (in the way that Bane will supposedly be employed by Talia al Ghul in the new Batman movie), that can work. But, look at Spiderman 3. Why was Sandman even in that movie? Or, conversely, why was Venom? Why did they work together? It made no sense.

    I’m right there with you on the Spiderman and Superman reboots, though. They have a huge hurdle of managing both “stay faithful to the story” and “stop retelling the same damn part of the story.”

  5. highbulp: i don’t think superhero movies need ‘character development’ , and i see the fault of a lot of them in the way they try to force it in there. i know what i think you’re saying, that the big drama is in how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man and then after that, Spider-Man is just Spider-Man, basically.

    but i think most of these characters have some internal, unchanging theme that further movies can tap into without the character really having to develop. the classic example of this is James Bond. the job of a writer of these movies is to take some facet that is intrinsic to the character and to focus on that and tell a tale around it. and they should leave the room pretty much the way they found it. so Spider-Man usually never needs to get married, doesn’t need to have kids, doesn’t lose any limbs, doesn’t have any big revelations that change his place in the world. he’s basically a kid who has a hard time making his ends meet. his girlfriends are mad at him, his aunt worries about him, he can’t focus on school or a real job, becuz of his duties as Spider-Man. and Spider-Man gets no respect, other heroes think he’s annoying, the public sees him as a menace. but he’s got to do this cuz the one time he acted out of carelessness, his uncle was killed becuz of it. so within that, u can tell a ton of stories depending on what u focus on and who u choose as the villain and so on. Spider-Man doesn’t need to develop as a character, in fact, the more he does, the less appealing he is.

    and it seems like movies feel like they have to have some fakey revelation behind every one. they heard about things like ‘motivation’ and ‘character development’ so they need to check that off on the list. they ruined the Sandman in Spider-Man 3 from this. real drama in these films really comes from the conflict between the hero and the villain that they choose. like if they focused on Venom for a whole film, there’s a lot of issues that villain raises that can lead to really great drama.

    the hero just being the hero is really the best part of it all. that’s why everyone is dying to get thru these dumb origin films, so we can just jump into the real stuff. i think Spider-Man 2 is way better than the first exactly becuz of this. other movies are worse examples, like Iron Man 2 or the later Batman films from the 90’s, but this is from lazy writing and lack of focus rather than lack of ‘character development’, i think.