Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > Letters to CR

Charles Hatfield On Superhero Movies Sucking
posted June 12, 2010

Good commentary on the Seitz piece, Tom, and Seitz himself is pretty good too (although I'm flummoxed by his praise for Superman Returns as original and daring).

I'm teaching a superheroes course this fall for the first time, a cultural studies seminar in which we'll talk about superhero comic books and also movies. So this discussion holds a lot of interest for me.

It seems to me that the big-budget superhero movie is an even more sorely constrained genre than the superhero comic, if only because superhero movie have to shoot the moon every damn time. There's a difference in narrative structure that stems from differences in the means of delivery. Whereas monthly comic books, even in this aim-for-the-TPB era, can exhibit some flexibility in their narrative structure and pacing -- a single issue can be just that, or it can be part of some anticipated multi-issue saga -- a big-budget, big-tent superhero movie must almost always do similar things and rev up to a similar sort of climax. So you can't build a mainstream superhero movie around a character study or a comic interlude or a mundane heist story with ironic flavoring, or a soap-opera like resolution of long-simmering subplots. You can't focus the movie on a sidelong story that provides relief from the sturm und drang. Instead you have to go for broke all the time.

This is not only because the narrative structuring of a (nominally) self-contained movie is supposed to be different from a serial that comes out at quick intervals. It's also because of the huge costs associated with the genre. The elements that tag superhero film series as a genre are expensive: big, above-the-line costs for talent (name actors, mainly); big design challenges; lots of visual effects and elaborately choreographed action. The logic that governs the production of such films as Risk Big to Win Big; usually producers aim to slather on more and more stuff, rather than dial back the excess. There's a certain Barnumesque hubris involved (can you top this? etc.) but also a need to provide novelty in a filmmaking era saturated by digital excess. And, let's face it, if you're paying seven figures or more to line up your lead actors (the costs of sequels must go through the roof), you're not going to make a kitchen sink drama. Instead you're going to leverage a boatload of money and try to out-spectacle the next guy.

Combine this with the actors' desire to do something "challenging" with the roles and the audience's desire to see the actors put through their paces, and you can see what a challenge the genre becomes: a spectacle-driven circus of a movie that nonetheless must give its (obscenely well paid) actors something to do. Also important here is some sort of dyadic romance plot, because (a) romance, thank goodness, tends to leaven the brute qualities of the genre and widen its appeal; and (b) movies that draw in repeat business from girls and from couples do better on the long term than movies that don't (as James Cameron seems to understand).

From this, we could probably put together a list of expected elements in blockbuster superhero movies, elements that are not necessarily to be expected in superhero comics each time out:

1. There will be romance. A couple's story will be an important undergirding element of the plot. Nolan et al.'s Batman films get about as close to downplaying this element as blockbuster costume movies can, but of course it's still there.

2. There will be some personal stake in the plot for the hero. That is, the plot will foreground some psychological or moral dilemma for, or some mortal danger to, the title character. This is not always the case in superhero comics, where a hero can foil a villain's plot without having a direct personal connection. Witness how Spider-Man's origin story was "retconned" in Raimi et al.'s "Spider-Man 3" so that Peter Parker could become more personally invested in taking down the Sandman. This gives the lead actor something to do and sharpens the stakes considerably.

3. The danger posed by the villain(s) will, in the end, be near-apocalyptic in scope. The entire city if not country or world will be threatened, so as to justify pulling out all the stops, action and effects-wise. This is true even of "The Dark Knight," even though its most frightening moments involve being up close and personal with Ledger's Joker. IMO the outsized car chases and stuntwork in that movie have a tacked-on quality that vitiates the drama of the Joker story (though the filmmakers lean hard on the idea of the Joker as terrorist, in order to justify ratcheting up the damage and spectacle).

4. The casting of villain(s) will usually be very important, and parallels between hero and villain (what once seemed fresh in the hands of Alan Moore or Frank Miller) will often be underlined. Villain roles will be plum roles and will provide much of the interest in sequels. Casting in general will be monitored by the fan community with a mixture of anxiety and enthusiasm.

The above framework insists on elements that sometimes but not always appear in serial superhero comics. This is why, I think, the degree of variation in the genre (I'm speaking here only of the movie genre, not the comics) is sorely limited. What you have with this genre is a set of expectations that in its specificity and demands rivals that which hems in the James Bond franchise. In other words, superhero movies in general, whichever the hero, are as constrained as Bond films. So there's very little leeway in terms of development. This is not simply because they're about superheroes; it's because they're blockbuster films with huge budgets rather than chapters in a serial that comes out in regular installments like a comic book monthly (or a weekly TV show). The different narrative demands of feature films, and the logic of Risk Big to Win Big, force what was a serial genre into a new kind of straitjacket.