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.

Midnight Special engages in mysteries in the dark

Midnight Special does a lot with very little

Most recently I took issue with the beginning of Rogue One, a film which took too long to get going. By the time that it had established its motives and threats the film had already lost me due to throwing out too much mediocre exposition. I had quickly lost faith in the film. I found a nice counterpart to this in Midnight Special, a movie about faith. It takes a long time to start delivering answers but enshrouds itself in an aura of mystery and character drama.  Allowing connections to be made to the characters and questions to be asked as of people’s goals. The point that this drove home to me is that if a film’s beginning isn’t exciting then it must grab its viewers’ attention by being at least intriguing or cryptic. Midnight Special is both from the first scene.

The first scene is an incredibly efficient scene of exposition, using that age-old method of TV news we are introduced to a kidnapped child being held in a motel room by two gun wielding men. Immediately we must question how are we going to side with these men if these are our protagonists. But the gentle concern in the voice of Michael Shannon’s Roy tells us that cares for the boy and the ambiguity of the viewer is immediately established.

Adam Driver’s Paul is the most traditional, accessible character in the film as he is educated of the situation at the same time as the viewers. In a more traditional film he would be the protagonist. However, this is not a film about information, this is a film about faith and relationships, an ethos which is given form by the terrific performance of Michael Shannon as Alton’s father.

Whilst the film is overall a moving and emotive one with a heart of mystery the answers at times do not satisfy. It seems as if Midnight Special was made to not have any solid answers, yet the film gives away half-answers in the form of flowery dialogue, sometimes to a fault.

The purpose of the journey seems to become muddy in the middle, with the main driving factor being Alton’s infrequent episodes and panic attacks. The reasons for which are kept vague for all too long and like the team of runaways the film follows, viewers too are kept in the dark a bit too long. This leads to waning interest when the film should be building up to its conclusion.

The film wears its relatively muted budget beginnings on its sleeves, creating tension out unspectacular set pieces, an example being an extremely dramatic scene late in the film set in a traffic jam and a prolonged sequence involving a road block. Moments which would be 30 seconds long in a typical blockbuster are stretched out for five minute chunks that squeeze every last drop of tension out of the situation.

Midnight Special does a lot with very little. This is to its own credit for the most part but it does mean that there are moments that can lack that penetrative quality. Most notably the flashing eyes of Alton are visited repeatedly but fail to ever look any more than an After Effects overlay. Perhaps it looks so far out of place simply because the film is so gritty and modest in its effects that the eyes stand out like a sore thumb.

Recommendation

It is not Spielberg, Midnight Special is not for everyone, the air of mystery sometimes gives way to the entertainment value and can at times be frustratingly vague

Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of fantastical elements and thriller fans may be underwhelmed by the few set pieces. The film boasts great acting on all fronts and a nervy contemplative atmosphere that will engage fans of films that do things differently.