The impending release of the most bloated Marvel movie to date has illustrated the inherent conflict at the heart of the superhero genre: the more you make your setting “super,” the less anyone can relate to it.
Peter Parker or Clark Kent don’t really have anything to tell us if they live in an orbital battle station near Medea V. They work precisely because they have to interact with the same world we do, the main difference being their super powers.
However, the more they use those powers, the more they alter the reality of the world, and slowly turn it into something completely foreign from the one we inhabit.
Some settings embrace the strangeness, creating a completely different alternate reality. Watchmen did this, as did X-Men and countless others. I give the creators credit for trying to consider the implications of their storylines, yet imagining a president Lex Luthor or Richard Nixon’s fifth term in office stretches the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.
When that happens, the setting starts to feel just as distant as a moon base or a kingdom in Westeros, undermining the whole concept.
Bring on the Wrecking Crew
The Avengers saga spans the galaxy and moves through time and space, which makes me and mine merely collateral damage when the skyscrapers get leveled and the planets collide. Given that these characters can smash whole apartment blocks with a backhand blow, I’m not entirely invested in who wins their epic struggle between good and evil because I’m likely to be dead either way.
Similarly, the pointless brawl in Man of Steel left me ice cold. Superman had to know that he was as invulnerable as his enemies, so hurling each other through office buildings would accomplish exactly nothing other than killing lots of innocents (though it did tie up a bunch of screen time).
Here again we have another inherent contradiction: the movies create a spectacle but at the cost of undermining any emotional investment in the story.
Let’s Get Small
Is there a way to tell a story about a superhero without undermining the human element? I think so.
I’m sure many readers are familiar with television adaptations like Smallville or Lois and Clark. Contemporary television has a lot of advantages over conventional movies. Advances in technology (both special effects and in home entertainment) make it possible to provide a big-screen feel while exploiting the format’s longer time frame for greater character development than one could ever get in the multiplex.
But that’s not to say its impossible to make a good superhero movie. One way to do it is simply to limit the scope.
The Crow remains one of my favorite films precisely because the stakes are small and very personal. A lot of superhero franchises start that way, but there’s this strange need to treat the characters like they are in a role-playing game and need to level up to harder opponents with each successive episode.
And thus we go from saving a neighborhood cat to reversing time itself.
It’s also true that physical distance brings emotional distance, so once the focus shifts to the nation, or the world, or even the galaxy, the component parts just don’t matter much. After all, who cares if your childhood home was wrecked during the boss fight? All of the Eastern Seaboard was destroyed with it as well.
How Many Times Can We Save the Universe?
Can one have relatable science fiction or space fantasy? Absolutely.
The original Star Wars had a galactic scope but still managed to keep things small and personal. Luke Skywalker is clearly a hero, but a very human one. He was bored with life on the farm and grieved over the death of his foster parents and his mentor. He was nearly killed by a snowstorm and lost a hand in close combat.
These are challenges that ordinary people can relate to. (And no, I’m not going to address the events of the new trilogy because I consider them to be vile heresy.)
Star Trek also managed authentic moments, though the sprawling and uneven nature of the weed-like franchise makes it difficult to generalize.
Still, there’s no question that the iconic film of that multi-decade setting is Star Trek II and the reason isn’t because the Genesis Device could become a terror weapon, it’s the way the film portrays the reality of a hero growing old.
James T. Kirk has cheated death countless times, and one would expect a certain bravado, but mortality is coming for him. His career has stalled, the steamy love affairs have ceased and he’s left wondering what might have been when his past comes back to haunt him.
That’s a powerful scene, one of Shatner’s best. For a fleeting moment he’s just another guy grappling with his life decisions. How many moments like this do we get in the superhero films of today?
Don’t Worry, We’ll Reboot it Anyway
Yet even the gut-punch at the end of Wrath of Khan was undone by yet another feature of the superhero genre: the reboot.
Marvel could very well slaughter the entire Avengers cast and other than some heartburn among the fans, we can be sure that in a few years they’ll all be back in their capes and tights ready for yet another go, complete with “re-imagined” origin stories and all that goes with it.
The interminable Dark Knight films attempted to give an actual life story of Bruce Wayne, but the next version of Batman rolled down the assembly line a mere four years later.
Again, it doesn’t have to be this way, but that’s the way it keeps going.
One can blame the greed of the marketing department, but comics by their very nature are resistant to having a definitive storyline. Things only got worse when the Social Justice Warrior brigade showed up and began queering and re-gendering everyone.
So What Comes Next?
I wish I knew, I just know that the present is unsustainable. Tony Stark was a fun and interesting guy eleven years ago. Now, I couldn’t care less.
Disney managed to run both Pirates of the Caribbean and Johnny Depp into the ground, and I expect they’ll do the same thing with The Avengers.
At that point, what happens is anyone’s guess. I’d like to think that the new, independent talent that is emerging will finally get it’s time in the limelight, but I’m also wise enough to know that the good guys don’t always win.