Piece by Piece: Can Superhero Movies Take Risks?

Superhero movies have exploded in popularity in the last 17 years. But is there room for serious drama?

 

There have been three different Bruce Waynes and three Peter Parkers since Hugh Jackman first adopted The Wolverine’s claws and mutton chops. Two generations of the Fantastic Four, Professor Xavier and Magneto have been reincarnated and redesigned, collided with their new selves and The Green Lantern has gone the way of the Green Hornet and decided to make fun of superheroes instead. Careers have been made by superhero movies and some have already faded into obscurity. The Marvel cinematic universe has been entirely constructed and collided into two Avengers movies with a third on the way and through all this Hugh Jackman has been Wolverine.

Seventeen years as the same character, with nine film appearances as the man is an impressive feat (Roger Moore is the most prolific Bond with seven film appearances) but there is something equally admirable about Jackman’s commitment to portraying the Canadian loner throughout his entire career. X-Men was only his third career film appearance and is what thrust him into the public eye. Jackman’s career was jump started by the very film that is responsible for the seismic shift we have seen in box office cinema and the start of superhero movies as more than childish. His career has progressed along with the popularity of the superhero movie and with him bowing out with the incredibly final Logan it is fair to look at the changing nature and development of the superhero movie.

Real stakes, fake world

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I make no secret of the fact that my favourite superhero movies are those that have fun with the concept first and foremost. It’s why Guardians of the Galaxy was such a breath of fresh air and why Deadpool made it into my top 20 films of the year while Dr Strange sat on the bench. It’s why I believe that Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad the worst things to come out of Hollywood in 2016. There is room for the serious in the comic book flick, yet outside of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, how many can you name that have plumbed into real darkness and serious drama. It is true that Peter Parker is spurred by the death of Uncle Ben, that Wolverine and Black Widow are the results of experimentation and that Peter Quill’s mother dies slowly at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy but with it all there is a level of detachment.

The drama is merely a background – a motivation to spur on a character – to allow for moments where the audience can pump their fists and cheer over their hero overcoming. The actual meat of the drama in superhero films invariably comes from an outside source threatening the physical world with force; an alien horde, a Machiavellian God, a Nazi invasion.

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic

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One film that comes to mind as a film motivated by more than outward force is Captain America: The Winter Soldier which disposed of the basic superhero structure in exchange for a militaristic, political framework. It applied a superhero theme to a Bourne film, it had no single villain, there was no Apocalypse tearing the world apart or horde of alien invaders, its threat was based in the reality of the situation and Captain America, had he failed, would have been the main victim of the film. Unlike the city of New York in The Avengers or Gotham in Batman Begins, the danger in The Winter Soldier was focused primarily on Steve Rogers.

Its story was driven by character principles rather than an immediate threat to the world, it just so happens that Captain America’s principles are also the same as Americas. The world of The Winter Soldier was threatened by being overrun but the specifics of the takeover were not stated, the film simply placed its viewers in Steve Roger’s state of mind.

Age of Ultron is an example where the threat demeans the drama and action at the centre of it. The general threat of the world being overrun is too large, too vague and expansive that people cannot really engage with it. Even when Ultron focuses his attack on Sokovia, it’s honestly hard to care about these nameless faces and crowds. These kids and parents in car pile ups, stuck on broken bridges are simply objects, tools to tell a story. In Civil War Scarlet Witch accidentally causes a huge accident and multiple deaths in a busy city, it is an affecting moment not because of the civilians who die in the street but because the grief is focused solely on Scarlet Witch and how she feels about it, it’s just how empathy works.

The majority of people can’t bring themselves to be emotionally invested in the trials of real world horrors because it is too far detached from them, never mind a fictional comic book country. Film is best when it is smaller in scale, Die Hard is so effective at conveying the stakes because it is John McClane and HIS wife that are in danger, the drama unfolds in real time and we feel each small inconvenience because each small inconvenience is his. No one cares about Nakatomi’s bonds or any of the office workers, not even the pregnant woman who needs to sit on a couch, even Hans Gruber cares enough about her to let her sit down, so why don’t viewers?

It is because viewers connect with who they have had time to connect with, upping the number of people in danger never ups the stakes if the people in danger are undefined. Yet comic book movies abuse this trick to no end. It’s something that they struggle to grasp time and time again. But that is not to say that comic book movies should have Man of Steel’s complete disregard for the population, forcing buildings down and levelling an entire city all for the sake of a grudge match. It is that comic book movies will benefit from delving into the personal rather than the expansive.

The Anti-Cinematic Universe

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Yet, superhero movies are exclusively a box office deal, they are designed to be spectacle cinema, to sell popcorn, to please large crowds and sell IMAX tickets. They need to amaze, to meet expectations and simultaneously subvert the expectations of myriad subsections of fans who know every possible route that can be taken with a character. The rights to these films are also owned exclusively by larger companies, and Marvel, DC and Fox are keeping their rights close to their chest, meaning that every superhero movie must be excessively vetted to ensure it makes optimal economic sense. A small-scale Batman film that doubled as a detective story would be extremely feasible to pull off, but if it diverts from the larger goal of the studio then it cannot be created. Since Iron Man’s post credits sequence the cinematic universe has become the goal, each new film must serve to that. It even makes sense for Fox to split up the X-Men franchise into three separate franchises to allow themselves the gratification of the merging of these franchises in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The movies made to serve the cinematic universe are for the most part frustratingly similar, they follow the same character moments and story beats, feature unmemorable villains and share a tone. Whether it is the glum drabness of DC or the larger than life wit of Marvel, the point stands that there is less room for risk when all the chips are kept in the same pot.

Logan is far from a perfect movie but what it is film that shows a different direction for superhero movies, it is a sign that the subgenre could become its own genre, it has already developed enough tropes, actors such as Tilda Swinton, Chitewel Efijor and Anthony Hopkins are becoming more commonplace, and styles are being developed on different ends of the spectrum. Deadpool is a comedy, Logan is a drama, The Avengers is action, Winter Soldier is a thriller and Batman Vs Superman is CSPAN. Logan shows a proliferation that can only be good for the industry, and while it follows the Marvel route of struggling to create convincing villains it has taken inroads to create a more personal story, a road trip driven by self-destruction. It is adventurous with its direction and indulgent in its message. While viewers have been standing on the tracks waiting to be hit by the Marvel train of homogenisation Logan is prepping the ground work for an alternative track.

Dr Strange plays it safe but looks good doing it

Marvel’s latest is a visual spectacle when it decides to deviate from it’s simple formula

Marvel movies are a huge part of modern cinema and with 2-3 movies expected each year for the next five years it is hard to see the end of the trend. So, with this saturation of the market is it possible that the company can keep things fresh to counter the inevitable superhero fatigue? There is an answer given to this by Dr Strange and the answer is an assured ‘eh, maybe.’

The film is a harbinger of times to come for Marvel as one of the first ventures into B-string heroes. Although there will be comic fans that defend him, the fact cannot be argued that Dr Strange has never been a hero that has hit the mainstream in the way that it’s previous movie tentpoles have done.

There remains one outlier, in the form of Marvel’s best film yet, Guardians of the Galaxy, wherein Marvel had their favourite shortcut to entertainment seized from their grasps. In Guardians of the Galaxy they could not rely on the moment of easy movie magic where the hero finally puts on the mask, where they become the hero that everyone is anticipating. This could not happen in Guardians of the Galaxy because most people watching had no prior knowledge about these heroes. Dr Strange suffers from the same limitation, luckily he wears a magic cape, so viewers can still be treated to the moment of apotheosis that defines the origin story.

But enough about Marvel, what about the film.

The film follows Benedict Cumberbatch as Steven Strange, an arrogant surgeon who has watched too many episodes of House. He is rich, selfish and inconsiderate to those around him until he is involved in a 100mph car crash and loses the use of his hands transforming him into a rich selfish and inconsiderate man obsessed with fixing his hands. His journey takes him to a Nepalese mountain village where he is introduced to the world of magic… And then there’s an evil plot by an interchangeable villain using this magic that Strange must help fight against. In many senses, it is the same story we have seen before, only the characters and setting have changed. It is a MCU movie base layer with a Batman Begins/ House MD filter applied.

Where Dr Strange shines is in its embracing of its magical origins, there is a trend in Marvel movies to over explain the science behind certain occurrences, often grounding it in an unneeded reality that is a residual effect of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. In a scene in Dr Strange, Tilda Swinton’s all-knowing guru The Ancient One continually knocks back Strange’s attempts to find a scientific explanation for magic. This is one of the best, most self-aware moments of the film in which the film announced that it is something new and different and it is immediately followed up by the stand out moment of the film, where Strange is taken on a journey through the multiverse and shown the level of understanding that he is completely unable to comprehend. It is a scene that’s a showcase for some incredible visual effects more akin to Enter the Void than Iron Man and a promise of things to come later in the movie.

However, other than a few fight scenes which exploit Inception style city bending and trigger happy fractals the multiverse is left in the background, serving as a stage for fight choreography and as a servant to the on-Earth drama. There is an attempt to bring the multiverse into the story but it is shoehorned into the end, a great touch and end to a film that did not precede it. Easy comedy beats fall flat, Rachel McAdams and Mads Mikkelsen are more than wasted and the desperation to make Stephen Strange the next Tony Stark are blatant. There are multiple great moments in the film that enthral but stink of wasted potential.

Recommendation

Ultimately it does not use enough of what makes it stand out to make a great film but my faith in Marvel’s future remains intact. They continue to be entertaining, but entertaining in the same way, a way that can become tiresome but has not completely crossed that line yet.

Dr Strange leaves the formula as is but changes up the visuals enough to be new and interesting. It takes some risks but not enough. On the whole it is less than the sum of its parts, but some of its parts are fantastic.