Superhero movies have become a staple of summer movie season, for better or for worse. The question often is not whether we’ll see a superhero movie anymore, but how many we’ll see, with The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises being released within the last three months alone. Some may point to Christopher Nolan’s 2005 movie Batman Begins as the movie that kicked off superhero mania at the box office. Others might go further and point to Sam Raimi’s 2001 feature Spider-Man or Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman as the one who proved the financial viability of superhero movies, while others may cite Richard Donner’s 1978 movie Superman as the true beginner. Regardless of which movie can truly be credited for this, however, the fact remains that superhero movies have become a firm fixture, and written themselves into cinema history.
Or have they? Despite their ubiquitous presence in the current cinema landscape, superhero movies still seem unable to break the barrier from good to great, and get compared to cinema as a whole. The genre seems to survive in a bubble, only being compared against others of its ilk, and never against the cinema landscape at large. There are some individual exceptions, to be sure, most notable among them being Heath Ledger’s exceptional turn as The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, which received deserved accolades for being a stunning performance of any film released that year, but by and large, superhero movies seem to be stuck within their own echo chamber, and as long as they continue to do so, a true classic will never emerge from the superhero genre.
I should clarify at this point, when I say classic, I mean a movie that’s considered a masterpiece of filmmaking first, and classified in a genre second. Apocalypse Now is a classic film, not a classic war film. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic film, not a classic science fiction film. The Godfather is a classic film, not a classic mafia film. Superhero movies, for their increased volume, have yet to see a movie that similarly transcends the genre in a similar fashion. For now, it seems that all the “good” superhero movies continue to have that label stuck to it; for all its acclaim, The Dark Knight has slipped out of film discussion just four years after its release, coming up only in relation to its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises. X-Men 2, adored by many upon its release, is also a footnote unless superhero movies specifically are being discussed; likewise with Spider-Man 2, appearing in the conversation only in relation to superhero or Spiderman movies. Compare that to a movie such as the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, which regularly comes up in discussion due to its quality, rather than its genre. Likewise for Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Mark Waters’ Mean Girls; these movies, despite not quite being labelled as classics yet, have managed to stand the test of time better than superhero movies that have been released after them, and standing the test of time is the first real mark of a classic.
And it’s not as if superhero movies haven’t had a chance. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has seen Christian Bale at the helm, an actor well-regarded among filmgoers, and who managed to turn in an agreed-upon Oscar-winning performance in between Batman movies. 2011’s Thor saw Kenneth Branagh, a man best known for regularly bringing Shakespeare to the big screen, take the directorial reigns. The likes of Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Stewart, Natalie Portman, Liev Schreiber, Willem Dafoe, Michael Fassbender, and Kevin Spacey have all played supporting roles in numerous superhero films. So what’s been holding them back from true greatness?
Well one problem superhero movies have faced has been a problem that has been plaguing most summer blockbusters of the past decade; an eye to sequels. Notice the three superhero films I mentioned above, all well-regarded in the genre, and you’ll notice the one thing they have in common is that they’re all sequels. Superhero movies are never standalone projects; they never really have been, in fact, the only single-serving superhero movies being the ones that were financial disasters. There is no attempt to even make superhero movies that have a proper conclusion at the end of the first movie anymore, meaning that most superhero movies spend the first in the series telling and retelling the origin stories of their main character, content in the idea that they’ll have sequels and trilogies to tell the rest of the story. Thus, the movies, with some exceptions, fail to work as stand-alone pieces. Marvel studios has recently taken this one step further, by having several of their movies take place within the same cinematic universe, thus creating tie-ins with each other, but more dangerously, making several prequels to one movie. The Avengers assumed that the audience would have a working knowledge of Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America, Thor, and, to an extent, The Incredible Hulk, which is five movies that were made to set up one. Is it possible for a movie that’s a sequel to be considered a classic despite relying so heavily on what came before? Sure. But the historical precedent is slim for such movies to enter that realm, yet superhero movies pin their hopes on said sequels to deliver everything the first entries missed out on.
Which leads into another problem such movies face; playing things safe. Superhero movies, more often than not, now seem to fall into a set pattern, and what’s more, it seems accepted that they’ll follow such a pattern. All the story beats tend to be recognisable, and there’s no attempt to buck the trend. Which makes sense, when one looks at the directorial trend of superhero films; Christopher Nolan is the first director to see his vision through to the end. Sam Raimi was dropped from the Spiderman franchise following the critical drubbing Spiderman 3 received. Richard Donner was famously structured out of Superman II to make way for Richard Lester. Tim Burton likewise gave up the Batman franchise to Joel Schumacher, Bryan Singer had to step away from the Superman franchise following Superman Returns, as did Jonathan Hensleigh and Lexi Alexander individually from their respective Punisher movies. Despite the success of the first movie, Kenneth Branagh will not be helming Thor: The Dark World, and neither will Jon Favreau be overseeing Iron Man 3. All of these crew changes seem to point to the idea that the studios have their own idea of how the stories should go, making directors expendable as a result, which doesn’t bode well for developing a creative vision for superhero movies. The guaranteed sequels and the lack of bold choices also leads to superhero movies rarely having a noticeable sense of danger; every perilous situation the heroes find themselves in is greatly dulled by the knowledge that a sequel is inevitable (and often confirmed), thus meaning they have to get out safely. Major characters are always safe as a result, making the outcome of every decision they make in the movie predictable.
So how can this be fixed? Well, if superhero movies are to break free of their restraints and truly become classics, there are a few things they can do, chief among them is trying to take some risks. A lot can be gained if a superhero movie takes an unexpected turn here or there, if it zigs instead of zags. One possibility might be the unexpected death of an important character that perfectly fits the narrative structure but causes problems for any sequels the movie would have. More focus on telling a story instead of maximising revenue would go a long way towards elevating any given movie.
Along those lines, another avenue these films may take is trying to tell standalone stories. A lot of superhero movies fall flat on their face because they’re not fully supported; everything is set up as a buildup for a payoff that’ll come in a future movie. Rather than worry about what comes next or what came before, however, if superhero movies focused on actually telling the story at hand in a complete, they could go a long way towards drawing favourable comparisons to movies outside the genre. That way, a movie could be judged on its own merits rather than what had already been told, or in the case of financial disasters, what the creative team had planned by way of improvements.
But perhaps the best way to elevate superhero stories is to take truly talented writers and directors and give them full creative control. Imagine, if you will, a Spiderman movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Or a Punisher movie with Quentin Tarantino at the helm. Or a Batman movie done by the Coen Brothers. Or even a Superman movie by Darren Aronofsky. There is a whole range of top-notch writers and directors who have not tackled the superhero genre, and who could invariably create something that’d be fascinating to watch, if only they were allowed. Classics are being made almost every year, so it stands to reason that handing a superhero project over to someone who has a track record of creating classics would be a positive step, but only if they were given complete freedom on the project.
Overall, it’s disturbing that we have yet to see atleast one superhero movie in the 34 years since Christopher Reeve first appeared onscreen in the blue tights and red cape, despite the volume. A lot of this is due to studios relying heavily on sequels, playing things safe with the stories they do have, and keeping an eye on bringing audiences back for the payoff to the buildup, rather than engrossing them in a larger story that has strong standalone components. It is possible to change this, however, if some alterations are made, chief among them handing off the reins to talented filmmaking individuals who have proven their worth in the industry, complete with creative control. Focusing on standalone tales and trying to tell an unpredictable story would also be invaluable in putting superhero movies in the conversations for best movie of the year, and paving the way for a classic movie that happens to be part of the superhero genre.
– Deepayan Sengupta