Monday, May 11, 2015

What’s the Matter with Superheroes, Part 2: “This is Not A Good Concept” Cannot Be the Concept

For years, people have waiting for the superhero backlash to hit, but that day of doom has been continually delayed. I think people were really primed to hate Marvel Phase 2, but there was just one problem: the movies were too damn good. I can tell you that I personally was ready to bite the heads off of Iron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America 2, but dammit, I loved all three!

Now, however, the push back may be arriving: The reaction to Avengers 2 has been more mixed, the accompanying trailers for Fantastic Four and Ant-Man seem unpromising, and the trailer for Batman vs. Superman is downright despised.

I actually like Avengers 2 a lot, but I thought that one of the major storylines was a big problem, and connected to the big problem with that BvS trailer: You can’t call attention to the fact that this concept makes little sense.
In the original “Avengers” comics, Hawkeye was a cocky, wise-cracking jerk who just inserted himself into the team and then justified his existence at times when you least expected it. The movies, however, chose not to go with that version of the character, instead using the version from an alternate “realistic” version of the Avengers called “The Ultimates”. This Hawkeye is a humble, untalkative civil-servant, assigned to the team by the government to provide his vital archery skills.

This, of course, makes no damn sense --Why would they need an archer?? So if you’re Joss Whedon, how do you handle this non-sensical situation? Unfortunately, he did the worst thing: called attention to it, over and over.

This is a much bigger problem with BvS. The whole trailer is based on the idea that, “Hey, wait just a second, if Superman was real, we’d all hate and fear him.” That’s true, and it’s an interesting angle to take, and a natural one, but ultimately it’s not what the public wants to see.
I’ve been coy about it over the years, because it’s such an unpopular opinion, but close readers of the blog have probably guessed I actually disliked the original Dark Knight movie with Heath Ledger. Quite a bit. Here’s something I wrote about it in an email to friend:
  • There are no superheroes in the real world. Because superheroes wouldn’t make any sense in the real world. And that’s fine. When you write a superhero story, you get to create your own world. One where super-heroes do make sense. And why not? It’s fair. It’s allowed. After all, superheroes are just a metaphor. A metaphor for the will-to-power. But stories like this do the opposite. They keep asking niggling nit-pick questions like, “Yeah, but what if there was some psychopath who was so obsessed with you that they threatened to kill random people until you took your mask off? Then what would you do?” Well, of course, then, logically, you’d take the mask off. But we all know full well that’s not going to happen in the movie, so what’s the point, other than to just rub the whole unreality of the “masked vigilante” premise in our faces? It’s an ugly, sadistic and utterly false premise. Writers only use it point out to the reader/viewer that they’re smart enough to have figured out that superheroes don’t actually make any sense. Well congratulations, Einstein. But you get paid the big bucks to dream up situations where they do make sense, not ones where they don’t.
Last time, I talked about how “Daredevil” teased us with the possibility that he was just demented, then tried to make his actions logical after all, which disappointed me. Likewise, I think that Hawkeye only works if he’s a bit of a nut. The more you try to make his presence on the team make sense, the bigger of a hole you dig for yourself.


Harvey Jerkwater said...

That's exactly the problem "Man of Steel" had -- they kept picking at the "how would this work in the real world?" The problem is that the core requirements of the superhero genre avoid that question explicitly. There's a difference between a story about people with superhuman abilities and superhero stories. If you take the idea of Superman and treat it with realism, like an SF story would, you get a nightmare. A superhero story is a different critter.

The superhero genre is rooted in three core ideas:

1. Wearing a silly costume to combat problems is an option.

2. Major problems with the world are incarnated and practically assailable, which is to say, big problems are caused by specific people who can be punched in the face, and the punching of said faces would help the world.

3. Standard social structures and mechanisms cannot handle the threats faced by superheroes.

As long as you keep to these, you’re fine. Muck with any, unless you’re deliberately messing with the genre, and you’re in trouble.

Skip the first rule and you have a standard action movie. James Bond fits that mold nicely. Skip the second rule and you have strange stories – costumed adventurer(s) confronting major problems that aren’t embodied in particular villains. Maybe that is a way to describe James Gunn’s “Super” and other “real life superhero” movies? Skip the third and you’re into some scary territory.

For Daredevil to make sense, he has to be up against a force so immense and powerful that going to the cops is not an option. They set up the Kingpin as that force, and it works passably well.

But it's a risky strategy, because Fisk is closer to a real-world threat than a metaphor for something. Really he violates rule #3. But the show pretends he doesn't. Problem is, for Fisk to be a threat that makes him fit #3 means that either law enforcement is a joke or that the very concept of the rule of law is a joke.

Superheroes need supervillains to make sense, and Fisk is a borderline case.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Okay, there are probably other requirements for the genre, but those are the ones that come to mind.

Another problem with the "street level" heroes is what they're "about." Superheroes are power fantasies, but they are about power over different things. Superman is about power overcoming our mortal shortcomings. Spider-Man is about power overcoming pettiness. Wolverine is about power overcoming fears of artificiality and loss of the inner wild man. Batman and Daredevil are about fear. Superman overcomes our limitations by flying; Spider-Man overcomes our pettiness by being selfless in the face of jerks; Wolverine overcomes artificiality by being a force of nature at all times; and Batman/Daredevil overcome our fear by frightening the things that frighten us.

Problem is, as the saying goes, "fear is the parent of cruelty." And so those particular heroes can veer into cruelty far, far too easily.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, the thing I kept thinking while watching "Daredevil" is "This needs more ninjas." It's fine to have Kingpin if you also have The Hand and other more mythical groups that justify the need for a superhero like DD, but the Kingpin alone doesn't cut it.

j.s. said...

I feel like Matt's just writing circles around the biggest reality check problem of all with these superhero narratives -- that the all-powerful good guys don't ever actually end up killing anyone.

Harvey mentioned SUPER, which was a nice try at taking the violence in these films more seriously. But I can't ever think about Batman's vigilantism without instantly comparing it to even darker films like DEATH WISH and TAXI DRIVER. And isn't Batman much more analogous to Travis Bickle or Bernhard Goetz or George Zimmerman than the KKK?

The most realistic aspect of Batman's origin story is that random baddies who he can never even hope to track down kill his family right in front of him. So he grows up compelled to seek vengeance omnidirectionaly, against all criminals for ever after. I can certainly relate to that. It's always been a part of my fantasy contingency plan should I ever be so similarly and dramatically unfortunate.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, I had a whole bit that I cut out of yesterday's piece (before it went up) about viral-vigilantes Charles Ramsey and Surfer Kai, both of whom had their stardom tarnished when it turned out that they also used violence to solve other problems. The fact is that Batman would also be beating Robin and DD would be beating Karen: if you resort to violence to solve societal problems you're also going to unleash it on others. Look at Zimmerman's ever growing rap sheet!

But that's just another reason why you can't be too realistic about these things. (Of, if you're going to be realistic, you have to show the hero struggling to overcome his violent impulses so as not to ruin his relationships, as with Jason Bourne.)

Come to think of it, there was a good moment in Iron Man 3 that foreshadowed Avengers 2 in which Iron Man's unmanned armor menaced Pepper while he had a nightmare: beware the id of a superhero!

Adam W. Parker said...

Matt, I'm not sure I understand where you're coming from on the subject of The Dark Knight being too "realistic". Hopefully some more concrete examples could help me understand. But I want to pose a question.


Any Superhero/Fantasy story is absurd when taken to its logical conclusion. So, I think what you're saying is "don't take it logically". But we still require Gravity and Physics and motivated heros/villains.

The problem is - we want to have our cake and eat it too. "Because he's evil" is no longer an acceptable motivation for a villain (we also want to revel in the murkiness of morality) so then we get into psychology-->politics-->religion.

We see China refuse to extradite Lau in TDK and we're like "China? Gotham? International Law? Is this real or fake?"

We see Superman in a church and we're like "Wait, he exists in the real world? I thought he was supposed to be a metaphorical savior. What does he think about Hindus and Muslims?" But he can step into a bank and stop robbers and we don't ask "Is that bank crooked? Does he believe in capitalism?"

I guess what I'm getting at is that some people think Superhero films should stick to basic, personal, emotional problems rather than deep philosophical and religious problems.

But as we know, these things are connected. Even Pixar's The Incredibles starts off with a Superhero being sued for stopping a man from committing suicide.

So Matt, how deep can/should Superhero films go?

j.s. said...

There actually is a D.C. universe comics character who embodies a lot of these tensions and contradictions more realistically. He's called, natch, Vigilante. I half remember reading some of these comics and being drawn in by the way they addressed the inherent craziness of doing what he was doing. I didn't even realize that some of them were written by Alan Moore.

Matt Bird said...

Adam: Well, yeah, Dark Knight wasn't really going for realism, but I was just referring to the aspect of "But a secret identity wouldn't work if..." that I mentioned in the post.

J.S.: That Moore two-parter in "Vigilante" was great!

Another problem I had with the Daredevil show (and a reason it needed more ninjas) was that they fell into the same trap as the movie: He's a super-hero defense attorney, so he gets them acquitted and then he tracks them down and beats them to death! In the comics, DD worked better as a class-action attorney for the disadvantaged than as a criminal defense lawyer, for precisely that reason.

That's why the Adrian Chase version of Vigilante that you're referring to made more sense, on the surface, because he was a prosecutor, and it's far more "ethical" to say, "Well, I couldn't nail 'em by day so I'll nail 'em at night!" Nevertheless, the concept was always falling apart: His moral qualms kept the audience from enjoying the book.

The book was wildly uneven: It had several great issues, but just as many didn't work. (Incidentally the book ended at issue 50 when he committed suicide! Talk about a character undone by his internal contradictions!)

By contrast, Marvel's Punisher (also wildly uneven, but with more good runs) was less conflicted, but in some ways more fascinating, because writers could give us glimpses of his complex and bizarre internal ethos, trying to understand the ways in which HE was able to reconcile his action. This was especially true when his ethos was tested in interesting ways.