Will we ever see a classic superhero movie?

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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

13 Comments
  1. PB210 says

    Or a Punisher movie with Quentin Tarantino at the helm.
    ————————————-

    Not unless a Mack Bolan film comes out first. Or the Shadow has a reboot.

  2. PB210 says

    What of properties that did not start in comic books but did follow the introduction of Superman and Zatara in Action Comics#1? The makers of Robocop put in an obvious homage to Iron Man in their film, for example. The Highlander, Star Wars, etc.

  3. Gian says

    Lord of the Rings suffers from most of the ‘faults’ you pointed out and its not a ‘comic book’ movie and is considered by many a classic…

  4. Staindslaved says

    Damn my post got deleted. Too bad, it was so well thought out and articulate that the original poster would have posted a retraction claiming that I am right and he was sorely mistaken too (it’s a conspiracy I tell yah!).

    Basically I said that Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman and Nolan’s The Dark Knight ARE classics. I even have facts to back-up Batman (1989) as it was one of the 400 films nominated for AFI’s 100 Greatest films list and both it and The Dark Knight were in the popular book series 1,001 Films to See Before You Die.

    Anytime a new “Entertainment” genre or sub-genre comes out people always poo-poo it as merely popularized pulp. Sci-Fi films, Spaghetti Westerns (Before that actual Westerns), Slasher flicks, etc. were all quickly dismissed in their day but honestly who doesn’t consider 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Good The Bad and the Ugly and Halloween as “Classics” these days. The superhero genre HAS and will continue, hopefully, to add films that break-out into Classic status.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I agree with you, although I do think it’s more difficult today to do the kinds of things that give a classic value to a movie in ANY genre because of the dynamics of the marketplace and an almost militant conservatism on the part of major studios.
      They have an almost pathological way of ratonalizing bad decisions. You say something like, “Look at JOHN CARTER; maybe it’s time to change the game up a little,” and they come back with you with, “But look at THE AVENGERS.”
      “JOHN CARTER!”
      “THE AVENGERS!”
      “JOHN CARTER!”
      “THE AVENGERS!”
      And on. The surprise isn’t that there are so few pictures in the genre like Nolan’s and Burton’s; the surprise is that guys like Nolan and Burton ever got to make those pictures.

    2. PB210 says

      Basically I said that…… Tim Burton’s Batman [is a] classics. I even have facts to back-up Batman (1989)…… as it was one of the 400 films nominated for AFI’s 100 Greatest films list

      ——————————————————–
      Leonard Maltin gave that film just 2.5 stars. Maltin rated Val Kilmer’s turn at 3 stars.

      Since Tim Burton mostly makes absurdist farces such as a Pee-Wee Herman film and so forth, the acclaim he receives seems odd.

      http://www.aycyas.com/batman.htm

      It’s imaginative, it looks gorgeous, it’s got lots of action and fabulous gadgets – and yet it’s somehow disappointing; hollow. It would be simple to lay the blame for this at director Burton’s door – certainly, his talents lie in his visuals, not in his narratives – but personally, I’m more inclined to point the finger at screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. Granted, writing this kind of project is a difficult assignment. Decisions must be made as to how much background information needs to be filled in, and how much “assumed knowledge” is allowable. Narrative must be balanced with action; exposition with plot. It’s not easy; and unfortunately, the writers of Batman failed to hit the mark.

      From Yuku poster Count Karnstein:

      “Keaton wasn’t Bruce Wayne. He was a bumbling parody”. “The Burton version was a clumsy, bumbling oaf. Which of course did not fit in with the overall tone of the movie, unlike the West version, which was consistent. He was a cardboard cut-out and a bumbling oaf. His mental “issues” were not developed properly.”He couldn’t even string together a coherent sentence…..! Or how about the “I’m Batman!” part? Or how about him not knowing which room in Wayne Manor he was in, or whether he’d ever eaten there before? It was absurd! . [Michael Keaton, then and now, mostly makes comedies.]

      http://www.undermountain.org/monsterfans/viewtopic.php?p=228&sid=68f9d52600588f16981169e0475385a2

      1. Staindslaved says

        ???…lol, really.

        Anyone can find a few negative reviews online about any film. I could pull up one for Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, wouldn’t affect people’s opinion of their “classic” status. The labeling of something as a classic is by its nature subjective, I acknowledge that and also admit to being a bit sly with my “facts” remark but being on some highly regarded lists like that is worth noting.

  5. PB210 says

    What happened to the earlier comments? I posted a reply.

    Anyway, to revive an aspect undiscussed; does one include Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Robocop, and so forth in the genre?

    I would exclude pre-1938 (intro of Superman and Zatara properties) properties such as Zorro, Doc Savage, the Shadow, Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, perhaps Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon (perhaps), Nick Carter, etc. Certainly, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter encounter far stranger menaces than the Green Hornet, the Shadow, etc. usually meet. What makes Luke Skywalker any more plausible than the Fantastic Four?

    1. Simon Howell says

      Comments were lost, along with a whole lot of original posts, in a site crash. We’re still in the midst of reposting what came down.

  6. Steve says

    Do you really think Hollywood will stop making a superhero movie that can earn a few hundred million dollars? They will never make a “classic” superhero movie that does not earn a lot of money and have no sequel.

    Why have to make a “classic” superhero movie? Superhero movies are made to be enjoyed by the majority of audiences.

  7. Anonymous says

    Superhero movies don’t have to have unexpected turns, they have to be intertaining.

    I belive that The Dark Knight Rises took some unexpected turns

  8. Steve says

    Cannot agree with the Watchmen comment. It went against the very core of what the movie was about – what happens when ordinary, non-powered human beings attempting to do extraordinary things. Yet you have these people punching through brick walls.

    The Dark Knight is the one superhero movie that has been able to rise out of its genre. So many people were commenting on it being a suspense/thriller, not like a “comic book” movie at all, which I think is not only accurate, but will also stand the test of time. Yes, it will come up in discussions of comic book movies, but that discussion will almost always lead to a discussion of how The Dark Knight rises above it’s genre.

  9. Demo says

    We did get the superhero movie that youre describing, it was called Watchmen. It was one of the best movies ive ever seen and the average moviegoer wasnt into it

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