Matthew Vaughn has sounded the death knell for superhero movies, and a couple of months ago I might have been inclined to agree with him. We’ve gone past the most exciting and popular heroes, and we seem to have gotten past that brief phase where truly astonishing directors were being attached to superhero films. What’s more, the filmic genre itself has begun to feel more than a little long in the tooth, with every movie being essentially an origin tale and with the action often feeling constrained locally, with the stakes being more personal than epic. I recently had dinner withGreen Lanternwriter and DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, and he brought up a point that stopped me in my tracks: Why don’t movie superheroes save the world? Looking at the modern superhero movie they’re all-too often just standard action (or cop) movies in funny outfits. In fact one of the few modern films we could think of where the heroes saved the world wasFantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. (A friend later pointed out that technicallyWatchmenfits this category as well)
‘I think we’ve kind of crossed the Rubicon with superhero films,’ Vaughn told the LA Times.‘The genre is going to be dead for a while because the audience has just been pummeled too much.’
On one level he’s right. There have been an awful lot of superhero films, and almost all of them have been in the same mold – the mold established bySpider-Manback in 2002. You can see that basic structure echo in most superhero movies since then, and as inSpider-Manmost of the threats have felt small, localized, and in almost every single film have been so completely connected to the hero that the villain feels more like an extension of the hero than a threat on his own. That’s been great, and it’s created some truly wonderful superhero movies, but it’s also begun to run its course. Vaughn declared superheroes dead while working onX-Men: First Class, a movie likely to continue that style – a threat whose menace is small (probably just impacting the mutants) and that grows directly from the heroes (if Magneto isn’t the bad guy at the start, he certainly will be by the end).*
But on another level he’s wrong. The superhero movies that we’ve had have only scratched the surface of what is possible with a superhero story. And I think that could be about to change.
I was hoping thatThorwould be the first to break the mold; the original script that Marvel Studios had was nothing short of aLord of the Ringsstyle epic, with Thor only coming to Earth in the final minutes of the film. That would have been a major kick in the pants for the superhero movie concept – the genre is not what you think it is, and to actually classify it as one genre is misleading. It’s a way to tell stories within many genres.Sadly theThorthat we’re getting is going to be much closer to the standard blueprint, with a smaller, localized threat that is very personal for the hero.
Captain America: The First Avenger is another story, though. While I doubt the movie will be a war film per se – this won’t beSaving Bucky Barnes – it’ll be a movie where the stakes aren’t about Captain America himself, his girlfriend or even his hometown. It’s going to be the fate of the free world as Captain America tries to stop the Red Skull from winning World War II for the Nazis. That’s the kind of selfless heroism that hasn’t been en vogue in superhero movies for a while. I’m excited for a hero to be a hero not because he accidentally created the villain or because the villain’s plans are all an effort to get revenge, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Then there’sGreen Lantern; ifCaptain Americais the superhero movie filtered through pulp adventure,Green Lanternwill be the superhero movie filtered through pulp science fiction. With a scope that spans the stars and a villain who threatens all life in the universe,Green Lanternwill feature a hero who does battle not just to save those close to him but to do right by everybody. And this time I mean everybody.
And then we haveThe Avengers. I am crossing my fingers that Marvel Studios and Joss Whedon have this one figured out and that they realize that you can’t get together Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for anything less than a global threat of staggering proportions. It can’t simply be a revenge plot by Loki or some other villain established in a previous film – it must be something that threatens every living being in the world.
Scope. This is the missing element in the modern superhero movie. The stakes have to be huge. The stakes have to be planetary. Failure by the hero can’t result just in his own death, or the death of his girlfriend or the destruction of his hometown – it has to result in the deaths of millions, if not billions. It’s time to stop looking at Arnold Schwarzenegger action vehicles as the models for superhero films and turn to the world-spanning madness of Roland Emmerich. There will always be room for the more personal stories of Spider-Man and Daredevil, but as the focus of Hollywood
moves on to characters like Green Lantern and Dr. Strange and Wonder Woman, it’s time to stretch out and think big.
Maybe Vaughn’s right. Maybe the only type of superhero movie that really works is the smaller, personal, and vigilante-based type. If that’s the case, yeah, we’re at the end of the ride. But if the magical and the fantastical and the cosmic and science fiction heroes can get a toehold, the superhero cycle will renew itself and it’ll be something very different. It’ll be something grander, more exciting and wilder. Let’s get senses-shattering. Let’s get reality-rending. Let’s make it so that heroes live, heroes die and nothing is ever again the same.
It’s time to put the super back in superhero movies.
* For the record you could say that the modern superhero movie actually gets its blueprint from the originalX-Men, but I argue that it wasSpider-Manthat refined and perfected it.