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Superhero Movies: How are they Changing?

by David Frank

Superhero movies are becoming more and more ingrained in our culture.  They are some of the most profitable movies we have and they have quickly surpassed every other kind of blockbuster in sheer number.  They have also changed a great deal since the Batman Movie with bat shark repellant.  Some have been dark and gritty while others have been lighthearted and campy.  Some have been incredibly faithful to their source materials while others have blatantly ignored the comics.  But what is it we truly look for in a superhero movie?  What keeps us coming back every time a new one is released?  Most importantly, what will these movies be like in the future?

Why Superhero Movies?

Superheroes have often been referred to as the modern equivalent of the Greco-Roman Pantheon.  Each one represents some value we strive to attain, from wisdom to strength, to compassion.  However, in the beginning, when it came to adaptations of comics, we chose TV.  In a way, that medium makes more sense.  Much in the way comics can run forever with a new story each week, TV shows like Superman, The Incredible Hulk, and Batman were serials, meant to be consumed by children on Saturday mornings.  So, the advent of the superhero movie is a reflection of our attempt to make the childish and nostalgic into serious adult stories.

The Tim Burton Batman films are a clear example of this.  They incorporated dark tones and adult themes into a goofy Adam West TV show, just as the children who grew up with it were blossoming into adulthood.  But now we see superhero TV shows cropping up for adults such as Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D and Arrow.  This is because superhero movies have taken on a life of their own outside of nostalgia-fueled blockbusters.  They are franchise films, but also auteur films.

The Superhero Auteur Film

This was also sort of started by Tim Burton.  Prior to him, most superhero movies were simply trying to play towards demographics much like any other blockbuster.  Burton, however, subverted everyone’s expectations by making the films in his style rather than a comic book or blockbuster style.  Penguin in the sequel, Batman Returns is completely different from anything in the original show, and feels particularly like Burton’s other films.

Christopher Nolan continued this with his take on the Batman lore.  The Dark Knight has far more in common with the likes of Inception than the Tim Burton Batman.  Both deal with themes of truth and where it fails and the films are shot in very similar ways.  Not to mention, there are so many actors shared between the two movies.  Christopher Nolan wasn’t trying to make another Batman blockbuster, he was trying to make something all his own with the franchise, and this is a feeling that many of these films are beginning to have.  More of a burden is being placed on directors now because superhero movies are being given more directorial freedom.  However, this is creating a disparity in terms of the film version’s relationship with the comics.

 

That’s Not in the Comics!

Adaptations have always been a matter of conflict among fans.  Many believe that deviation from the source material is always bad, while others feel it is a necessity to make the adaptation fit the medium.  The fact is that when comic books are adapted, there is an absolute necessity to make changes.  Any given story in a comic is either a single issue, or spans several issues, either of which would be the wrong length for a movie, and even if a multi-issue story fit the movie length format, there would still be backstory to cover.  Mainly the changes result from the thematic choices of the writers and directors however.

Whether it was right to change the origins of Green Goblin and Electro to better suit the needs of the plot in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a matter of personal opinion.  Intellectually, I think thematic unity and a cohesive plot are more important than integrity to the source material.  But emotionally, I was pretty upset by (Spoiler alert) the shoehorning in of “Robin” at the end of The Dark Knight Rises.

 

So, What Now?

Superhero movies, to some extent, have been in a state of constant flip-flop for several decades between intensely dark and incredibly campy movies.  They run the gamut from the ridiculous, infamous dance scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, to the dark, brooding childhood of Clark Kent in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.  I think that slowly they are settling into a happy medium between the two.  After all, critics panned both for their respective styles but praised movies like the Avengers for having a nice balance.

We are also seeing a pattern of more obscure heroes coming to light with Ant Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy getting their own movies.  This is because the studios have stopped worrying about audiences having foreknowledge of the story going in.  They trust that the story will be able to pull audiences in on its own.

Studios are still trying to fit as many characters into their movies as possible.  The marketing for the Amazing Spider-Man 2 heavily featured the three villains, including Rhino, when in reality, Rhino is only in one scene.  They must be assuming that the more recognizable characters or actors in their film, the wider their audience will be.  For the most part, they’re wrong.  Some of the famously bad superhero movies such as Batman and Robin suffered from too many characters and too convoluted a plot.

Needless to say the number of superhero films will continue to increase as long as they remain profitable.  Now, DC and Marvel are both planning huge team-up movies with each member getting their own feature.  There are still plenty of superhero movies to look forward to this summer alone and dozens more in the next few years.

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