Ever since I was young I have been a huge fan of comics and in particular superheroes. I remember watching the first Sam Raimi Spiderman film when I was four and being instantly taken in by the wacky characters and outrageous action. It was from there that I picked up the 90’s animated series and found myself hooked on superheroes. I watched through the X-Men and Silver Surfer TV series, and then discovered the DC Universe through Batman the Animated Series. All of these characters resonated with me in some way that, at the time, I didn’t understand, and from there it was only a matter of time before I read my first comic books. Since then I have dabbled with many different comics over a whole range of genres, but the ones that stick with me the most are still the superheroes.
Over the past ten years the film industry has seen a rush of Superhero films, and as a comic fan I should be euphoric to see my childhood memories come to life on screen, and I was for a time. But in the years after the highs of films such as The Avengers and Dark Knight I have heard a lot of talk of superhero fatigue, and to be honest I can see where they’re coming from.
Dozens of Superhero films seem to be coming out each year, and each of them is trying to do something new, but most of the time they just end up being more of the same. Every few months I’m overjoyed to hear that one of my favourite comic heroes or villains is being put to screen but I often leave the cinema feeling a bit let down. And it’s not always necessarily because they are bad films, in fact many of them could still be called great films, it’s because of several reoccurring issues that no comic film seems to be able to avoid entirely.
Many people dislike these films just because they are sick of seeing superheros or because of the repetition of franchise films coming out twice a year, and I can definitely see that – in fact, I would probably be in the same mindset had I not been such a fan as a child – but that’s not the reason I feel the way I do. I love the idea of jumping into a film the same way comic issues do; expanding on these characters without viewers having to sit through an origin story every time. It’s the fact that nearly every time we go to see these movies we are bombarded with the same tired tropes we’ve come to expect from the genre.
And that brings me to my first and biggest issue with superhero films of late: the action. It’s something that all superhero films focus on exclusively, but only a small few of them pull off with success. What I believe any action scene needs to keep all but the most mindless of viewers invested is motivation, tension, and emotion. But since the mid 90’s so few films have been able to capture any of the facets that make up a good action scene, and it’s gotten to the point where films just don’t seem to try anymore.
I can’t begin to explain how frustrating it is every time I watch one of these movies to be enjoying myself for a good percentage of the film up until about the last forty minutes as it derails into yet another mindless CGI mess. The hero suits up, they meet with the villain atop a green-screen tower or ruined city, and hundreds of emotionless animated sandbags throw themselves at the hero until eventually the villain runs out of ragdolls and anticlimactically fights them one on one. Or alternatively: the hero suits up, they meet with the villain, and he or she transforms and/or calls upon a giant CGI monster and the hero bashes their head against it for fifteen minutes until someone comes up with a plan to defeat it that ends up having certain ramifications that don’t end up making a major impact on the plot anyway.
A good superhero action scene should be the climax of everything the film has been building up to for the last two odd hours. It should conclude character arcs appropriately and give a sense of closure afterwards while still being entertaining and compelling. We should struggle with the heroes, worry for them, and empathise with what they’re going through. Simply pitting them against seemly impossible odds doesn’t work when we know they’re going to win. We’ve seen it dozens of times so there’s no tension or sense of satisfaction when it comes to a close.
The next problem I’d like talk about is something the Marvel cinematic universe seems to struggle with a lot (though other brands are still responsible for this), and that’s the villains. Since superhero comics began, villains have always been a major part of the genre. They are the antithesis of everything the superhero stands for, or a contrast; showing what might have happened had the hero gone down a different road. And while villains may have started off somewhat trivial in the early days of comics, they have since become a staple of the genre, and something that is very important to get right.
But with recent superhero films, most viewers likely won’t even remember the villain more than a day after leaving the cinema. And while sometimes, maybe every couple of years, you may get a genuinely compelling villain, for every Loki or Joker is a dozen Malekiths. The reason that Superhero films can’t seem to do villains right is largely because they don’t have the time. They want to spend as much time as they can developing their heroes which is fair enough, the heroes are where these films excel (the clue’s in the name). But if they don’t have the time for fleshing out their villains then they can’t spend so much time building them up. I remember going to see Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time and being incredibly excited to see Ronan the Accuser. And they spent so much time in the beginning trying to build up this character, but for the rest of the film he was just… there, and despite how overpowered he was, he wasn’t really given any back story other than: “Justice” and “death to the Novacorps!” So in the end when the heroes finally went up against him there was no real pay off on his side of things.
But then you have the villain outings that were successful. Take Magneto in the original X-Men trilogy; as many problems as I have with those films I have to admit that they did their villain really well. He wasn’t as faithful to the comics as I would have liked him to be, but they took time to give him believable motives, and the fact that he was included in all three films meant people had time to at least see where he was coming from, and it’s because of this that he is still well remembered this long after the film’s initial release. And then of course you have the television outings such as Jessica Jones and Green Arrow. Sure, some of these series often suffer from the avoidable “monster of the week” trope, but every series has its central villain, such as Jessica Jones’ Killgrave or Green Arrow’s Deathstroke, and it’s this calibre of antagonist that should set the bar for comic book films. Take the time to make people fear or hate or even feel for your villains, but if you don’t have time for that in one film then keep them around for the next one, as long as you still give some sense of closure to your first film. But don’t expect people to fear your villain just because you gave them an infinity stone.
And lastly is the issue of referencing or foreshadowing for later films. Since Marvel did this whole cinematic universe thing, everyone else seems to be trying to mimic it, with DC now attempting one, 20th Century Fox with X-Men and Deadpool, and even Sony wanted to do one solely with Spiderman. However, the reason Marvel was successful with this in the first place was precisely because they took their time. It took them four years and five films to get all of the Avengers together in one movie, taking time in each film to slowly craft the idea of a shared universe. But with a film like Batman V Superman, where it’s the second film in the DCCU line up, and already has Superman, Batman, and Wonderwoman as well as several references to Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg, it’s just too much to cram into one movie.
And although I liked the way Marvel handled references in the beginning, nowadays most of their films are filled to the brim with teasers, nods or Easter eggs despite often having multiple post-credit scenes. This bugs me even more when these films often have so many plot holes, and so much room for expansion, that it really ends up taking away from my opinion of the final product. So many scenes dedicated to promoting future movies ends up subtracting from your current one.
So please Marvel and DC; take your time. Stop rushing your villains, and put some heart in your action scenes. Stop relying so much on CGI and explosions to keep viewers entertained and have some confidence that your audience won’t be put off by a bit of good filmmaking.