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The Proper Care and Feeding of the Superhero Movie

Superhero movies are consistently among the most popular box office releases. They’ve been around a long time, but it was the blockbuster success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 that really kicked off the modern era of superhero cinema. Since that time, there have been well over 35 such motion pictures produced. Most of them have done at least respectable business, and one of them, The Avengers, is now the second highest-grossing film of all time. But how long can superhero movies continue to maintain this sort of popularity? How long will it be until the novelty wears off with audiences and they grow bored? If superhero movies are to survive, a few simple ideas will need to be embraced by filmmakers:

Don’t keep retelling origin stories. Every time a superhero franchise gets rebooted, we’re subjected to a new depiction of the character’s origin story.  Batman’s has already been told twice on screen, as has Superman’s (most recently in Man of Steel). Most egregiously, Marc Webb’s 2012 film The Amazing Spider-Man retold that character’s origin story a mere ten years after Raimi told it in Spider-Man, and only six years after the last entry in Raimi’s original trilogy. We really don’t need to hear these stories again and again. Screenwriters love origin stories. They’re inherently dramatic and easy to write, since someone else (in many cases, Stan Lee) did the legwork of mapping out the plot a long time ago. Coming up with an original story that audiences haven’t already seen is much, much harder. Future superhero movies would wise to adapt any of the dozens of acclaimed comic book runs that have been published over the decades. Spider-Man has had many astounding adventures; we don’t need to keep seeing Peter Parker get bitten by a radioactive insect to enjoy him.

Don’t rely on the same villains all the time. Every great hero needs a great villain. Unfortunately, the villains in superhero movies have become pretty predictable. If it’s a Batman franchise, you can be sure the Joker and Catwoman will turn up at some point. Spidey will take on the Green Goblin sooner or later, just as the X-Men will take on Magneto. And Superman will always fight Lex Luthor or, if his chrome dome isn’t around for some reason, General Zod. Loki, who was the villain in Thor, was also the villain in The Avengers and will be a villain again in Thor: The Dark World. That’s three times in two-and-a-half years. While it’s true that all these bad guys also reappear frequently in the comics, there are plenty of other adversaries to draw upon. Hollywood has tended to go with the easy, recognizable choices. Going forward, superhero movies ought to mine some of the lesser known villains. I’d love to see a big-screen Superman take on Mr. Mxyzptlk (largely so I can finally learn how to pronounce “Mxyzptlk”). The simple fact is that more obscure villains will provide new threats and, consequently, new drama. On a related note, there should be a rule limiting each superhero movie to exactly one bad guy. Watching the hero fight one villain is exciting; watching him fight three villains only leads to unfocused plots and inadequately developed antagonists.

Don’t fall victim to stunt casting. Remember Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, where George Clooney was the Dark Knight and Arnold Schwarzenegger played Mr. Freeze? Or Catwoman, which cast Sharon Stone as the evil owner of a cosmetics company? Or Nicolas Cage as the title character in two Ghost Rider flicks? I’m truly, truly sorry to make you think about these movies. However, they do represent a very big problem: stunt casting. The characters themselves are the real draw, so it is not essential for comic book-based movies to cast huge stars. It can even be detrimental. Instead, it’s vital to cast good actors who will bring something substantive to the role. If they just happen to be a star — as Heath Ledger was when he portrayed the Joker in The Dark Knight or Robert Downey, Jr. was when he came aboard Iron Man fine. If not, that’s fine too, so long as it’s a good fit, first and foremost. Remember: Hugh Jackman was a complete unknown when he was cast as Wolverine in X-Men. Look at him now! (Well, maybe don’t look at Movie 43.)

Find new ways to make the heroes interesting. Usually by the third chapter of any franchise, the superhero starts to feel a bit stale. Their dramatic origin stories behind them, they can easily become afterthoughts in their own movies, lost amidst the special effects and stylized action sequences. A failure to add new elements to the hero’s personal journey often leads to disastrous results, such as an emo Peter Parker busting his smooth dance moves in a nightclub. More superhero films need to take their cue from Iron Man 3, which effectively deconstructed Tony Stark and set him on a fascinating new path for future sequels.

More female superheroes! After all this time, Hollywood still hasn’t been able to pull a Wonder Woman movie together. She and other superheroes of the feminine variety are overdue for some respect. Their front-and-center presence will shake the genre up in the best possible way. Sure, Elektra bombed, but that was because it was poorly written. With a solid screenplay, that character could work magnificently onscreen. Darkstar, Ms. Marvel, Scarlet Witch, She-Hulk, and the Wasp are just a few other superheroines who are ripe for the picking.  And while we’re at it, how about more superheroes of color? Surely, white men aren’t the only ones capable of saving the world, despite what some politicians would lead you to believe. Greater diversity in the genre will lead to new stories, new ways of telling those stories, and new viewers coming into the fold.

As you read this, over a dozen superhero projects are in various forms of development in Hollywood. For the continued success of this genre, which has brought so much enjoyment to so many people, let’s hope future films adhere to these suggestions. Excelsior!

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