What Makes a Superhero Movie ‘Super’?
With production of Captain America: The Winter Soldier now well underway, complete with daily photos of captured filming in progress, it’s been all about Captain America and Chris Evans around my house. After having recently re-watched the film, I took a look at the artwork on the front of the DVD case. From there, my eyes caught the critic’s quote that had been selected for the front cover. It proclaims that Captain America is “the best superhero movie ever!”
Wow. That’s a pretty big compliment. To put it in the words of Marty McFly, that’s heavy. But is it true? I mean, there’s a lot of superhero movies out there, more so than ever. What made this one so much better than all the other superhero movies out there? In fact, what is it that makes a superhero movie so great at all?
Here are the basic required ingredients you need.
To really put a value on whether or not a superhero film is good, we need to look at the superhero him/herself. And to do that, we need to go way back to the beginning. An origin story is about as important to a superhero film as a target is to a Terminator. Without it, there is no real drive. We can’t connect with the superhero, but less sympathize when things don’t go right or cheer when they do.
Let’s look at the classic comparison: Batman and Iron Man. Both started out as wealthy billionaires. Both are highly intelligent. So how does one become a raging egomaniac in an awesome suit while the other becomes a dark, reserved seeker of justice? For Batman, it was a combination of losing his parents at an early age and seeing a need for justice that had to be filled. For Iron Man, it was about his father’s shadow and seeing the destruction his own inventions had brought to the world, all the while distracting himself from the one thing keeping death at bay: the arc reactor in his chest. Both could have just hid themselves away with their billions and their businesses. Instead, they decided to do something about it.
A solid origin story also helps to set the tone for the kind of villains and challenges that they will face. Superman and Wonder Woman are from other planets. Thor is a god. Spider-Man is just an ordinary teenage kid. Captain America is the result of a military project. A good origin story not only defines the character, but allows us to anticipate what challenges they may face, and how they may feel about those challenges.
When I was a kid, my understanding of superheroes was very limited. All I knew was that they were the good guys. They were the guys who saved lives, stopped robberies (usually involving some form of purse snatching) and always won.
Boy, was I naïve.
No superhero nowadays is that cut and dry (unless you’re Captain America, in which case all bets are off). I mean sure, you’ve still got the guy who wants to be the hero, but you’ve also got the guy who doesn’t want it. You’ve got the superhero who follows the law, and the superhero who follows his own law. Being a superhero is a lot more depressing and a lot more taxing than our early cartoons made it out to be — just look at what it’s like trying to be a member of the X-Men. Our superheroes are super in some way, but in others, they remain just like us. And it’s something that connects us to them in once sense, but is disappointing in another. We want them to be above us. We want them to be the people we look up to. But it can be hard to look up to someone while they’re in the gutter.
But what makes superheroes great is the fact that they don’t stay down. They rise. They learn to adapt. They face their fears. And a superhero movie needs that. It needs Batman going into the cave he was terrified of. It needs Thor learning to make do without his powers, or Superman testing the limts of what his powers even are. A superhero movie needs the struggle. Otherwise, what is it all for?
Okay, I know this is going to be a bit of a stretch for some of you, but go with me on this one. While I understand that the very idea of a superhero running around with amazing gadgets is unlikely, no matter how cool it seems, there is still a true element of realism to all of the good superhero movies to come out recently. I don’t just mean the whole “moral to the story either”, though they do have that. They have those underlying and subtle details that connect us to the story. The privacy issue that causes Lucius Fox to nearly resign upon seeing Batman’s new invention. The war in the Middle East that Tony Stark is supplying with weapons. Captain America’s propaganda circuit. Attacks always taking place in major cities. Everything comes with an element of truth, something we can identify with. Okay, so some of us have been waiting in vain for a spider bite that gives us superpowers, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t remember what it was like growing up in high school (or even have nightmares about it still).
I was originally going to go into detail about how every superhero needs a proper super villain, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that all you really need is someone who knows the hero well enough to push all the wrong buttons. Look at The Joker. He’s not all that imposing physically, but mentally he’s a rabid badger. He knows just what to say and do to get what he needs. It also helps that he’s completely nuts.
But The Joker also knows how to play for high stakes. Nothing is on a small scale with him. And that’s what every superhero movie also needs. If the sake of the planet isn’t at stake, or the superhero’s life, or his love interest’s, or his best friend, then it needs it. Having the safety of all humanity on the line is always a good one too. So is the destruction of all reality. You get the idea. Most times the villain is little more than the vehicle tha gets the high stakes rolling. That’s why you have so many villains to choose from when making a superhero movie. Each superhero has faced countless villains. It’s just a matter of finding the one who poses the biggest threat, or who raised the stakes the most. That’s just one of the reasons why The Joker is the ultimate villain. He has no ceiling.
So that’s it. Of course there are other elements that you can add in: a good supporting group, an exceptional villain, a good story. But if you have these basic elements, the superhero fin begins to fall into place. Being a superhero is still a one-person job most of the time. Each deals with their own struggles and morals. Placing them at the centre and building from there allows for a stronger sense of identity, a stronger connection to the audience and finally, a stronger idea of what is at stake and what the ultimate sacrifice would be. After that, there’s nothing a superhero can’t handle.
Or is there?