Wednesday, May 07, 2008

On the Successes and Failures of Superhero Movies

Natalie and I saw the new Iron Man movie over the weekend and were much impressed by it. So much so, in fact, that it led to a late-night discussion at Denny's (which is the natural environment for late-night discussions) over why the Iron Man movie worked (in our opinion) so well and why so many other superhero movies have been disappointments. This, in turn, led me to consider the general factors that influence the success or failure of such efforts and why making superhero movies is a risky (albeit potentially lucrative) venture.

Character Matters
Outsiders to the genre often make the mistake of thinking that superhero movies are primarily, or even only, about the pyrotechnics and the effects. They believe that people who like superheros are only really interested in over the top fights where hyper-muscular beings punch one another into and through major structures.

Given that the central defining characteristic of the genre is, in fact, super powers (or their technological equivalent), such a misconception is understandable and, indeed, a superhero comic that never had super-powered combat scenes would be rather dull. Never the less, a comic that focused solely on fight sequences and spectacle would also be rather dull for the typical fan of the genre. Big fights are a part of the draw but what really keeps the attention of fans and leads fans to a state of loyalty to a title or a character are the story lines and, even more fundamentally, the characters in those stories.

If you ask a fan why a given character is his favorite, the answer is rarely only going to be that said character has cool powers. More often, the real reason is that the character is an interesting person and the fan has come to know and love that character's persona.

A lot of adaptations pay only minimal attention to their characters who are often treated as mere props for the powers that those characters possess. A good example of both successful and unsuccessful character adaptation can be found in the X-Men movies. Hugh Jackman has been justifiably praised for bringing the character of Wolverine to life in a manner that is simultaneously true to the comic as well as being interesting in its own right. By contrast, Halle Barry's Storm comes across as flat and lackluster in spite of the fact that she does, indeed, look the part and in spite of the fact that her character exhibits all of the powers that the Storm of the comics possesses.

Seriousness is a double-edged sword. Superhero comics are based upon a basically unrealistic premise: that there exists humans who have demi-godlike powers. On top of that, the tropes and storylines lend themselves to silliness. Pick nearly any hero and look up his or her entry on Wikipedia and it's difficult not to walk away with a feeling that the entire history of the character is built upon an endless layer of absurdities. Even the most grim and gritty stories in the genre have an essential silliness built into them.

In spite of that, if the stories are the work at all, they must take themselves seriously. The genre demands a willing suspension of disbelief (SoD) from the audience and, given how deeply at odds to reality the very fabric of the genre is, it is a very easy thing for an audience to lose that sense of suspension. A good superhero story has an internal logic that it needs to adhere to in order to maintain the SoD. Many directors, however, think that the unrealism of the genre means that they can approach it frivolously. Joel Shumacher's Batman films are good demonstration of why this is a bad idea. By presenting the audience with a camp environment that went out of its way to emphasize its childishness, he made a series of films that existed only to be mocked.

It is, however, possible to be too serious. The genre is flexible and artists such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore have proven that, in capable hands, it is possible to use the genre to create serious works of art. Never the less, most superhero stories suffer from efforts to turn them into high art. I suspect that this was at the core of what went wrong with Ang Lee's adaptation of The Hulk. What ought to have been a fun and enjoyable movie was turned into something dense and opaque in an attempt to create high art. While the character of the Hulk does lend itself to a certain degree of introspection regarding the conflict of reason and emotion (and any number of other topics), at the end of the day it's a story about a man who occasionally turns into a giant green monster. Even though Lee is a perfectly capable director, his desire to turn the Hulk into something intellectual and serious was a case of poor judgment.

The Fan Boy Effect
The fans of a comic series are the best and worst friends that a director has. A good film must court the fan base but, at the same time, it needs to appeal to an audience that may not be especially (or at all) familiar with the character.

Hard core fans tend to be obsessives. Any deviation from the source material is looked upon with grave suspicion and every decision a director makes is subject to endless rounds of second guessing in the chat rooms of the world.

A good director needs to know how to thread those worlds. The best directors are those that show that they understand and respect the original works while, never the less, being willing and able to modify the stories for the needs of the screen. It is entirely possible to be too faithful to an original work just as it is possible to be too contemptuous of it.

When Sam Rami was working on the first Spiderman movie, there was a great deal of debate in the fan community over Rami's decision to make Peter Parker's web shooting ability part of his body as opposed to the web-canisters that the Spiderman of the comics uses. Many fans felt that organic webs were a blatant and disrespectful violation of the canon. Rami and his supporters argued that, in spite of the canisters prominent history in the mythos, they were an unnecessary and, frankly, unbelievable element when translated to film. I believe that history has proven that Rami's intuition was correct: having Parker shoot the webs out of his wrists is much more intuitive for anyone who isn't already intimately familiar with the original stories.

The Perils of Origin
As a general rule, when films have sequels, the first movie is generally better than the second, the second is generally better than the third, and so forth. Although the sample size is smaller, superhero movies seem to follow rule where the first movie is usually weaker than the second, the second is usually the strongest, with subsequent movies being progressively weaker than either.

It has been suggested that the reason for this is that the first movie is almost invariably burdened with the task of telling the superhero's origin. This can seem rather counter-intuitive to comic fans given that good origin stories are the stuff of legend. Who would Peter Parker be without the tragedy of his Uncle's death? How much of Superman would be left if not for the elaborate myth of the end of Krypton? Origins aren't only crucial to understanding who these heroes are, they are some of the very best stories that the genre has produced.

Why then are origin stories such a detriment when brought to film. A big part of it is that film and comics are different media. A story that works well in the bright four-color paneled world of a comic can easily seem contrived and even fairly boring when brought to screen. Paradoxically, this is particular true when the character is popular enough that the general public is familiar with the character. Most people know that Superman was born on Krypton, that he was sent to Earth, and that he was raised by the Kents. Consequently, being forced to sit through an origin that they already know can be a boring thing. When people are less familiar with a character (as is the case with, say, Iron Man) it's actually easier to interest the audience in that story.

Because the origin story is such an integral part of the genre, however, directors are loath to dispense with it. So a good director has to find a way to tell a familiar story in an unfamiliar way. Both Tim Burton's original Batman movie and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins dealt with the origin of Batman but even though the basic elements remained the same the execution, style and emphasis were wholly different. Consequently, very few people felt that the latter simply retrod the ground laid down by the former. Doing this, however, requires an exceptional degree of talent and many directors simply aren't up to the task of making the origin story as interesting as it needs to be.

And So Forth
Anything that can make a non-superhero movie bad can do the same to a genre film. There are an infinite number of ways to ruin a film from slipshod continuity to poor casting to tin-eared dialog, etc. All the ordinary problems that face any movie confront the director of a superhero film. However, in addition to those normal pitfalls there are additional ones. A good movie can be ruined by bad special effects. Sometimes the very project is an uphill battle because the character is either not well known outside of the genre (such as Elektra) or is simply not that great of a character to being with (such as the Sub-Mariner).

There are so many difficulties facing this style of movie that one might feel surprised that any of these movies can succeed, much less succeed spectacularly; however, when a superhero movie does hit all the right notes, it can tap into that same mythic well that makes the comics such an enduring part of our cultural landscape. The original Superman movie promised that we would believe that a man could fly... and we really did. Rami's Spiderman brought us into the conflicted world of Peter Parker and made us see why his powers were such a burden upon him. People were able to see past the obvious spectacle of the X-Men movies into the deeper message about prejudice and bigotry.

Most of all, a good superhero movie can also bring out a feeling that is purely childlike without being at all childish. It can make us feel happy, joyful and hopeful. It is for these very reasons that the misfires and the failures are so utterly disappointing. It's not merely that the failed movies are bad, it's that we sense that they could have been something so much better than they were. Granted, one may well wonder if any adaptation of something like The Punisher or Daredevil could have risen to the occasion, but it remains the case that we always hope that they will and on those occasions when such a movie does succeed it is a genuinely marvelous thing.


magidin said...

Welcome back! Not much else to say, really... (-:

Marvin the Martian said...

Glad your finger is better! Type gingerly.

I am looking forward to "Iron Man" but question the choice of Robert Downey Jr. I loved the comic - it was one of the only ones I followed with any regularity, because it was completely believable - man enhanced by technology. Movies made from comics I think generally suck. X-Men and the Tim Burton Batmans are a happy exception, and Punisher. I wish they'd done more with Hellboy. Never saw the Hulk movie(s), wasn't impressed much by the Spiderman movies. But I want to see "Iron Man."

Andrew Lias said...

Thanks, guys.

I was actually very pleased with Downey's performance. He managed to play someone who is both arrogant and yet charismatic, which is no mean feat. A little too much arrogance and the character is simply unlikeable. A little too much charisma and the arrogance can seem affected.

I'm not enough of a fan of the original title to swear that he captured the role perfectly, but I have read enough of them to say, with confidence, that he's come very close to capturing the persona of Tony Stark.

I do realize that a true fan of the series is going to be harder to please, but I think that both Downey and Favreau -- who are also fans of the original work -- approached the project with a sense of respect for the source material.

I think that you'll be pleasantly surprised by the result. In either case, I hope you'll put up a capsul review on your blog, Marvin.

magidin said...

I've never read the original comic (the only Marvel titles I every really "followed" were the early runs of Daredevil and of Fantastic 4 (in Spanish, at that). But I believe that there is no single "character of Tony Stark", just as there is no single "Bruce Wayne"; at different times, the character has been portrayed differently in the comics. So I think arguing about "capturing the role" from the comics is a bit misleading: there is no single thing to capture there. From what I understand, mind you.

Andrew Lias said...

I take your point, Arturo, but I also think that there is a sort of meta-character that most successful characters follow.

Peter Parker, as an example, has been portrayed in a quite a few different lights, but he can always be recognized by his smart-alec attitude which overlays a set of deeper insecurities.

To take another example, Wolverine has been portrayed as everything from a nearly feral beast to a fallen quasi-samurai, but there is an overall consistency to the character of Logan that anyone familiar with him would recognize.

It is also the case that, over the years, the accumulated mythos of a character tends to push that character towards a certain equilibrium. The early Batman isn't anything like the modern incarnation. It's been argued that the campy TV series (to say nothing of Shumacher's interpretation) is actually truer to the early incarnations of the character. Never the less, Batman has become the brooding, serious and quietly tormented soul that modern readers are familiar with as successive interpretations have focused on the tragedy of his origins and the quixotic nature of his war against crime.

While there is no One True Tony Stark, I think that there is a phase space of Starks that cluster around a set of characteristics that fans of the series would recognize and accept.

magidin said...

As a fellow picker of nits, I hope you won't mind: the campy Batman was not really the "early incarnation" (well, okay, 'early' relative to today), but rather his second incarnation (early 60s). In his first incarnation, Batman was dark; the Joker, for example, was a psychotic killer who murdered several people in his first appearance alone, before turning into the jokester with the gimmicks during the second (campy) incarnation. (The Joker turned psychotic killer again in the early 80s, which is also when Batman went back to brooding).

Otherwise, yes: there are sundry character "points" that a 'real' Tony Stark (or a 'real' Clark Kent, or a 'real' Bruce Wayne/Batman) have, even though the way the spaces in between are filled up varies a lot. So you might argue that the movie depiction does or does not hit those points, regardless of just exactly how it fills in the spaces in between.

Andrew Lias said...

Fair enough. :)

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .