Friday, July 21, 2017

I'm tired of saving the world

They fight crime.

If someone asked seven year-old me what a superhero does, that probably would have been my answer. Superhero movies of today would say otherwise.

Case in point: Wonder Woman. While a strong film in its own right, it eventually falls into a trap of redundancy shared by many of its contemporaries.

"If the heroes don't succeed, the whole world is doomed."

Suits in marketing are partly to blame here. "It's got to be big. BIG! The film must be a BIGLY splodey extravaganza of CGI tidal waves incessantly washing over the audience in IMAX 3D. We must get on this! No time for lunch! We'll snack al desko!"

Like a descent into addiction, eventually the fate of the world is not nearly intense enough. It's the whole galaxy at stake. Then the universe. And if the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War follows the comics, all of existence and the very nature of reality will be at stake.

The concepts of "existence" and "reality" are difficult enough for philosophers to tackle. Can the average audience members really get their heads around "all reality"? I'll admit that I'm not sure I can. Regardless, that's where this constant one-upmanship of raised stakes has us.  Fundamentally, this is a problem of writing. Before exploring this issue, I would first like to examine the nature of the source literature and how that might hold a few answers as to how we got here.

Literary critic Northrop Frye would likely call these stories "romances." This does not mean deep kisses of unbridled passion and love triangles...although there is often some of that. Romantic stories include the tales of King Arthur and Camelot as written by Thomas Malory, Marie de France, and so many others. They are stories of colorful, larger than life heroes who move from one epic adventure to the next. Our contemporary superheroes are drawn from the well of these kinds of myths. That "larger than life" aspect is fertile ground for hyperbolic, "world-ending" stakes.

Yet comic books have their own composition theory. I witnessed this in a workshop at a Comic-Con decades past. A creator from one of the Big Two publishers of comics walked aspiring writers and artists through a little exercise where the participants broke down how they would open an issue of their own comic book. Most of the responses were something along the lines of "I start off with a full page, then go to a splash page, and then another splash page..." The creator responded, "Great, but you've left yourself with nowhere to go. You're not building toward anything."

It's the same conundrum with the writing of these films. If the fate of the world or the universe or realty itself is always at stake, then where else is there to go? There can be no more escalation. How long can a writer sustain such a fever pitch? Instead of nail-biting tension, the stories eventually just get trite, boring, and tedious. It's hard to care about saving the world if everybody is doing it. What was once sublime becomes tedious.

What's more, the writer paints the story into a corner. It is highly improbable that the heroes are going to fail to save the world/galaxy/universe. I'll admit it might be an interesting postmodern experiment to watch them fail and then see the apocalyptic aftermath. The truth is though, audiences would likely find such Bergman-esque risks wholly dissatisfying and that's bad news for the suits in marketing. After all, who will buy the merch tie-ins for a disliked film? In fairness, such an ending also doesn't fit what we humans have come to expect in a romantic story. So it's a given that the boys and girls in tights are going to come out on top. Where's the threat, then? Do we not, in time, just become numb to it?

I'm not saying "doomsday approaching" stories are bad in and of themselves. Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Kree-Skrull War (start here if you want slog through my deconstructive critique of that epic) are examples of great comics carrying this theme. I'm also not saying that the movies should be dull or the threats disproportionate. Take the Avengers for example. The cast includes characters such as Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man. They are incredibly powerful and the antagonists should at least be able to menace them. The Avengers should not be fighting someone who could easily be beat up by Cage and Iron First. Dr. Strange is also quite powerful and should not be able to dispatch his villain by merely muttering a spell. Such would make for boring reading or moviegoing experiences.

There are ways, however, to raise the stakes without dangling the whole world over a pile of lit kindling. A threat to a single person or group of people can carry just as much investment from an audience as a doomsday scenario. One of the most often cited Spider-Man stories has him struggling his way through a death trap. If he fails to get out in time, he will be unable to get medicine to Aunt May and she will die. No, the world won't end. But the most important person in Peter's world will end and that is an apocalypse all its own.

As I mentally sift through the superhero films, we see kernels of such wonderfully personal themes. In the original Captain America, Steve (still in wimpy form) is the only member of his unit to dive on a grenade while all the "tough guys" run. In the first X-Men (2000), Mystique gets Senator Kelly in a headlock (of sorts) and growls, "People like you are the reason I was scared to go to school." Each of these is an amazing moment. I believe superhero films would do well to have more of these moments than "the world's going to end" CGI bonanzas. Additionally, there are so many other types of threats the heroes could face.

Off the top of my head, there's also the theme of "I just want to go home." Yes, it's been on  my mind quite a bit. Homer covers it in The Odyssey and Melville has it in greater and lesser shades in Moby Dick. If you want a genre example, I'll waste no time pointing to the greatest entry in the Star Trek film franchise, The Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk just wants to get his "boatload of children" home, but there's wickedly intelligent madman in his way. Will they escape? Yes, but only after great sacrifice. Along similar lines, even a Nietzschean "will to power" struggle of "I need to get through this" can be infinitely more compelling that the now standard, "suit up because we have to save the world" trope.

I can only hope that the writers and other creative engines behind the juggernaut of comic book-based films will eventually change trajectory. If not, boredom and redundancy are excellent pins to burst what already looks like an inflating bubble. I implore you, Hollywood. There are other directions to take the stories.

After all, whatever happened to just fighting crime?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets


  1. On FB, Adam said: "Great post!"

    Thank you!

  2. On FB, David said: "I am echoing this sentiment all the time. This is why one of my favorite comic book superhero movies is Dredd. He doesn't save the world or the city, just takes down a criminal like it is another day at the office."

  3. On FB, Jordan said: "Near the top of the list of why I refuse to watch superhero movies these days.

  4. On FB, Bernard said: "I agree. Spiderman: Homecoming didn't fall into this trap, but Wonder Woman, for all its great qualities, did. Some of the best comic runs (I'm looking at you, Fraction/Aja Hawkeye!) had relatively low stakes. I compare it to why I never yell in class: aside from becoming sport, any nuclear option leaves you with nowhere to go, and opens you up to weakness."

  5. On FB, George said: "I didn't have a problem with world saving in Wonder Woman, it fits the story, but I would have enjoyed that element not being there, it was unnecessary. I think the way the Guardians movies have dealt with it has worked. With the scope of the more cosmic setting, the world saving feels natural."

  6. On FB, Michael said: "I think you hit the nail on the head here. As a superhero fan from way back I could care less about 95% of these films as a new superhero film seems to assault me about once every month."


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