Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Downfall of Superhero Movies? Not Quite Yet

Sorry for not posting here in a month. So much going on! I released my first solo novel in four years, Gateway Mothman. More on that later.

I'm late to the party, and I finally saw Black Panther. Like many viewers, I LOVED it. More profoundly, however, I feel Black Panther is one of two saving graces in the Superhero movie genre as of late. The other being Wonder Woman.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of running a writer's workshop for a big group of young writers. We discussed story structure and The Hero's Journey. I spend many hours in the car for my day job, so I do a lot of thinking while on the road. I think I figured out three things:

1) Why Superman hasn't translated well on the big screen since Christopher Reeve
2) Why Marvel continues to degrade the genre that they have been riding since Iron Man
3) And related to #2, why Black Panther and Wonder Woman have been the standouts among a bunch of mediocrity.

1) Superman, like many of us, is the epitome of the comic book superhero. The "S" is an iconic symbol for good and justice, sure. But the characters, at its basest form, is FLAT. Without Lex Luther, Brainiac, or Doomsday, you get the feeling that Superman would pretty much be relegated to saving cats and putting out fires. I think that's why Batman has translated much better on the big screen. Batman lends itself to more dimensions, and Nolan's writing and direction was able to bring that out most recently.

We can identify with Bruce Wayne more. Both Batman and Superman lost their parents, but they dealt with their losses in such different ways. Bruce Wayne starts out as a lonely, depressed, directionless young man, and in the end, he learns that fear should only be used against the bad guys. There's a real character journey to exploit. With Superman, he's awesome in the beginning...and he's awesome in the end. Sure, he loses his adopted father. But still, there's not much character growth going on.

2) Marvel has had a tendency to parody itself. Don't get me wrong, I love a great joke. I love humor. And the Marvel films are fun, and there's been a lot of laughs during the course of any of the Marvel films, particularly with Guardians of the Galaxy. But it's gotten to the point where the use of BATHOS, exemplified by Joss Whedon's philosophy of: "Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke" is staring to make the franchise feel like it's making fun of itself.

Nothing is wrong with bathos, but it's been undermining the stories for the sake of getting laughs. I love Tony Stark's wiseass comments, but overuse totally sucks the gravitas of some very serious and profound moments. Fighting against your teammates during Civil War is not a time to be making jokes. So the dramatic tension is completely gone in the moment. We won't care as much when Rhodey crashes inside War Machine at the end of that battle.

3) Which brings me to why Wonder Woman and Black Panther have been a fantastic example of how to do a Superhero movie right. Yes, there are laughs to be had. But both characters have well rounded character arcs, and both movies are (without question and without apologies) utterly SINCERE. This is what the latest Marvel films have been lacking. At the very moment of a profound and sincere theme or idea is about to surface during an important scene, Marvel directors are more than happy to fart in your ear for a laugh.

It's as if they are afraid of sincerity. With Wonder Woman, the subject of love is explored. It's the

film's central theme, and it's Diana's revelation about love that gives her the strength to defeat Ares.

In Black Panther, you could also look to the villain for sincerity. Here we have Killmonger who is not only multidimensional and a very real backstory, but he has such a profound revelation of his own at the end. The central theme of Black Panther is about stepping out of your ancestors' shadows. For T'Challa, he mustn't accept the sins of his father as his own. He has to make his own decision, for his destiny is in his own hands. The film doesn't shy away from this sentiment. Instead, it basks in it.

And the audience is craving this. There's a lot for writers to learn from Superhero movies. We can see the mistakes the Marvel movies have been making and avoid those kinds of missteps in our own work. We can write characters with depth, and we can make sure our protagonist actually PROTAGS instead of reacting to the villain.

We can be sincere with our audience, and not shy away from these important themes. We can entertain, yeah, but we can also give our stories some nuggets of truth and wisdom also.


Pat Hatt said...

The BIG one that did that recently with Marvel was Guardians 2. They forced the humor waaaaaaaaaaaay too much. It didn't flow like they first, they just shoved it in whenever they could. Superman was always meh to me, boy scout.

Pat Dilloway said...

Some of the more recent Superman comics like Superman Earth One or Superman American Alien have a more nuanced origin story. I agree a lot of the Marvel movies recently have felt blah, but Black Panther was far better.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I didn't like Black Panther that much, but I know that's just me.

However you're right that Wonder Woman is a near perfect super hero film. She was so real. The character needs to be real, whether a super hero or not. Marvel goes for the big boom and the show, but movies like Wonder Woman and the Batman series prove a super hero movie can have depth.

Loni Townsend said...

I was a fan of Smallville, and there were trials for Clark Kent to face there. But I'm a fan of humor, inappropriately placed or not. That might just be a downfall of my personality though.

Mr. Shife said...

Great post, Jay. Some really good, insightful thoughts. Congrats on the release of Gateway Mothman. Awesome news and best of luck with that. Take care.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Are our modern day mythological gods not allowed to tell jokes? It's an interesting question. What is funny about the myths of old? It makes me wonder if there was humor buried within a retelling of the Iliad that gets lost in translation. Or whether there is humor to be found in Zeus, Apollo, and Artemis having a conversation on Mount Olympus as written by an ancient Greek that predated Aristotle. Americans seem to reward our screen heroes of the modern era for witty banter. What some people think is funny may resonate with me differently because I think it's clever (and am laughing because what was said just now on screen happened to be clever). I think the age of superhero movies might never end. They're just too damned fun. But who am I but a schlub that keeps on buying movie ticket after ticket?

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Teresa Hamilton said...

I really like super heroes movies, and I agree with your opinion. I love the humor in Marvel movies, but sometimes it's too much, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is a example.
Can't wait to watch Infinity War.
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