Ah, the radiant light of Comic-Con has been shed upon all of us. There’s so much news it’s almost impossible to keep up with it all. Social media feeds are now filled with all the best Quailman cosplay and, most importantly, we now have 107 new trailers of every nerdy movie you could possibly want. Most of those center around the biggest money makers: the superhero movies.
Nothing gets butts in seats like someone having some kind of super ability that will probably level cities as collateral damage. They begin each tale discovering their powers, having to rectify them with their (usually smart-ass) character traits, realize the bad guy can counter those powers, then they still end up beating the bad guy because of friendship or something along those lines.
Superhero movies are so formulaic that they are their own genre. This is why I see those new trailers and one thing keeps going through my mind: meh. We’ve had year after year of these same things. Most of them are fine, some of them are pretty fun, but at the end of the day, very few get me thinking deeper about them or lingering in my brain. Almost all of the MCU just blurs together in my mind to the point that I totally forget some of them even exist.
Yet, there are superhero movies that are some of my favorite movies of all time. What a dichotomy. Then I realized what makes those movies different. The best superhero movies aren’t even superhero movies at all.
Let me show you. (Oh and spoilers for all of these, just in case you have lots of catching up to do).
The Dark Knight: Crime Thriller Character Study
The Dark Knight is a tricky one because it really does seem like a superhero movie in the purest sense. There’s even a suit update. Nothing says superhero movie more than a costume/suit/ripped purple pants redesign.
The flare is there, but at its core, The Dark Knight is really just a crime movie. I would even say that Batman isn’t even the main character. He’s just that weird guy that everyone is waiting to see just how much you can poke before he completely loses his mind. As if dressing up like a bat and then redesigning that costume for optimal batness wasn’t crazy enough.
The Joker, on the other hand, has the most powerful scenes in the movie as we get to explore his motivations and plan unfold. This is about chaos and how it threads into society. One of the best lines in the movie is a meme now, but it stands at the core of what this movie is about. The Joker explains when war news about soldiers dying gets into the public eye, its normal, it happens, and people expect it. Then one high profile official gets taken out, and suddenly there’s panic in the population. It’s a fair argument that we as a society get used to specific kinds of tragedy. There’s a deeper theme here as we have this in-depth character study of the personification of chaos.
That’s no superhero movie folks, that’s a psychological thriller hiding inside a bat cave.
And if you still think Batman is the main superhero character of this story, let’s remember that Joker totally wins. The once good Harvey Dent is very dead after threatening an entire family, including the children, at gunpoint. Sure the public doesn’t know about it but that whole family sure does. The Joker broke him just the way he wanted to. Batman takes the blame for all the not so great murdering that Harvey Dent does and now is public enemy number one. Oh and Joker is still alive just waiting to bring his next set of chaotic sociology projects to Gotham.
What a fun superhero story y’all.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Space Opera
Of all the movies on this list, I think this one is the least superheroish of them all. It’s never really about superpowers or costumes, (although there is another suit change for everyone, played to 70’s pop fantasticalness during a montage), and Guardians of the Galaxy throws a curveball right into the MCU setting it IN SPACE!
Peter Quill is more of a pawn all this oriented Indiana Jones than any kind of superhero. Drax seems to have some more traditional superpowers but that’s offset by his inability to understand puns, so take that however you like. There’s a tree in there too, but weirdness does not a superhero movie make.
The plot revolves around ensuring this thing that can destroy entire worlds is either destroyed itself or put in the hands of Cruella De Vil who totally promised not to use it to be mean. Guys, it’s super fine.
For the most part, all of them are kind of just as vulnerable as anyone else. If they get shot, it won’t be all that great for them. If they float out in space, they…well they do ok, frankly. Not as good as Princess Leia but if they had the Force we would be skirting much closer to superhero movie territory.
Holy crap! Star Wars is more of a superhero movie than Guardians of the Galaxy! No…no I can’t handle this right now. It’s early, I haven’t even had my coffee yet. That’s an article all its own.
Speaking of Star Wars though, the climactic battle at the end of this movie plays out better than any battle in the Star Wars prequels. Chris Pratt gets a dick joke in there, and it’s smooth sailing once he holds onto the thing that can blow up planets and stuff.
In the end, it’s a space opera. A quirky, fun space opera that just happens to get linked into the MCU and now they all have to deal with these superheroes whos movies all feel the same.
I’m sure if something really serious happens and they all have to team up, Peter Quill definitely won’t ruin everything
Now for the opposite end of the spectrum of non-superhero movies. This one is so aware that it’s a superhero movie (as is the sequel) that it somehow isn’t a superhero movie at all anymore. If Deadpool can call out superhero landings and bitch about how Wolverine gets to die so he has to somehow follow that up in his own movie, then we are in satiric gold territory more than anything else.
And that’s the point, isn’t it? Deadpool is great because, in the comics and in the movies, he breaks the fourth wall. He plays on what we already know about this genre; that it’s filled with tropes we are all capable of recognizing at this point. What makes it so good is that Deadpool tells a story you care about in the process of making fun of the entire genre. I cared more about Deadpool’s loss of Vanessa than any of the dust turning superheroes in the war for those planet destroying things.
Movie genres get to a point where the same things have been done so many times that there has to be something thrown into the mix to change things up. Westerns went through the same thing (we will get to that even more in a bit). Look at something like Blazing Saddles. It’s so aware that it’s a western movie that most of the jokes revolve around making fun of those tropes that appear over and over. The rest of the jokes I certainly can’t repeat here.
Deadpool is that same response to an oversaturated genre. It makes fun of itself so that it can stand out differently from the rest.
Black Panther: High Fantasy
One of the biggest challenges a good fantasy tale has is creating its own mythos. The world building of a fictional world is a character in the story all its own. Sometimes that means creating languages that actually function as real languages, other times it means pulling from real-world medieval conflicts to create hyper-realistic political intrigue, but no matter what the focus, the world itself needs to feel alive.
Black Panther starts with this very concept. There is something more to the world than meets the eye. There’s a secret history no one knows about filled with some things that are so spectacular you might as well call them magic. It’s about royalty and good, noble kings that lead a progressive people. If that doesn’t sound like Tolkien, then I don’t know what does.
The plot of Black Panther revolves around us getting an in-depth look at the traditions and culture of Wakanda, the fictional fantasy realm hidden by magic (technology) set in the real world. Most of the time in superhero movies, the world building is pretty much done for the writer. It’s New York or set in New York, or sometimes it’s set in New York. We know what city life is, and our history seems to have played out the same in these comics and movies, only now there are people flying around that we are totally at the mercy of.
Black Panther gives us something completely new and barely even mentions the other superheroes that are hulking around somewhere in the world. (See what I did there…ok I told you I didn’t have coffee yet). When the story focuses on the ritual challenging of a king with a colorful pallet of costumes set against the traditional battle site of this ceremony, I began to realize I wasn’t watching a superhero movie at all. I was watching one of the better fantasy movies in recent years.
There’s even destiny that plays into the story. Black Panther is destined to have the Heart-Shaped Herb and when Killmonger gets his extremely attractive hands…I mean super bad guy hands on them, it feels wrong. This isn’t his kingdom.
Although we get why he was allowed in.
Here is the perfect blend of two genres that got so oversaturated combining them was the only logical conclusion to make for a fantastic movie.
This is such a non-superhero movie that it revolves around America not wanting mutants and probably any superhero at all anymore. Finally, a film that deals with the fact that a city can only clean up all that leftover Spider-man webbing before it gets fed up. (I know it dissolves after a certain time, just let me make a joke…God I need that coffee).
It’s in the title folks. This isn’t a Wolverine movie. This isn’t the X-Men. This is just Logan. He’s ultimately merely a man, and even his special abilities are wearing off to the detriment of his health. He doesn’t even want to be cured, his era is over, and he wants to die wandering the dusty lands of the Midwest. If that doesn’t say wonderfully depressing Western, then I don’t know what does.
Again we see character examination be the center of a superhero movie. It’s almost like they should do that more often, but I digress. Logan is trying to keep Charles Xavier, a man he respects, alive long enough to have some well earned days of peace at the end of their lives. This isn’t a story about overcoming some terrible thing that will destroy the world. In fact, the biggest danger is the aging Xavier that can’t control when his mind will wreck everyone’s brunch at the nearest hotel.
A superhero movie is rarely stark, this one takes that and not only makes the bleak landscapes something symbolic but also beautiful. Again, western storytelling 101. This western has the main hero slice people up with knives that come out of his fists, but still, he might as well be Clint Eastwood.
If all of that isn’t enough, the characters literally watch Shane, a western revolving around the titular character giving some peaceful settlers the chance to live in freedom. As Logan helps young mutants get across the border to their own freedom, it’s hard not to see that this modern western playing on those same notes.
Then, like any good western, there’s a little bit of loss at the end. The last time I watched this movie was with friends sprawled out in the living room. Each of us were wrapped in our own blankets, that mysteriously found their way to us from the ether, as we tried to hide every tear that came streaming down our faces. We failed, obviously.
Formulas in movies can be a good thing. They help a plot to become something structured and understandable. For thousands of years, we have used the same basic structure for our protagonists called the Hero’s Journey. It makes for something digestible.
Sometimes, though, it becomes too much. The genre and structure surprise no one. It’s inevitable. It’s storytelling. Sometimes you have to take that guideline and throw it out the window, and since it’s just an ideological concept you are tossing, it actually doesn’t break anything, and you can get back to writing your screenplay.
Sometimes you just gotta make a superhero movie that isn’t a superhero movie at all.
And finally get coffee.