Like many people, I like superhero shows and movies. When I was very young, my favorite Saturday morning cartoon was Mighty Mouse, and I’ve never stopped watching super heroes since then. I watched the Justice League cartoon. I watched most of the superhero entries available on TV growing up. I watched Wonder Woman, 6 Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, Incredible Hulk, Greatest American Hero, and who knows how many others. The genre has always been a staple. I believe that I’ve seen every super hero movie produced in the last 15 years, and I see some trends that are really interesting to me, and some that I wish would just go away. I wanted to write some of my thoughts on what I see happening.
For me, the start of the modern superhero era would probably be Donner’s Superman and Superman 2. These two movies were a surprising success for me. The reason is is surprising is that of all of the superheroes, Superman has always been my least favorite. He is way too undefined. What possible superhero has super strength, the ability to fly, super speed (even faster than the speed of light necessary to turn back time as seen in the first movie), super breath, laser vision, x-ray vision, impermeable skin, super hearing, and probably others. The combination of powers makes Superman so unreasonably powerful as to be (for me) uninteresting. Even so, I really enjoyed these early movies. These were the first movies (for me) that brought superheroes to the theater, and there was something so enjoyable about that that it was able to succeed even with it being Superman. The fact that Christopher Reeves played Superman certainly helped. He made a very likable superhero, so it worked for me.
But for me, the first superhero movie that I was truly excited about would have to be Batman (Michael Keaton). For me, this is the movie that defined how a superhero can be successful. It had a large streak of darkness in it (and given that a superhero is someone who is fighting some evil force, a dark streak is almost a necessity). But the most important thing is that it kept the scope of the movie small enough that the subject could actually be covered in sufficient detail. There was one hero and one villain (Jack Nicholson who is still the best Joker), and every effort was made to get to introduce each with enough detail to become truly interested in both. The scope of the conflict was also reasonable (control of the city). Batman stands (in my opinion) as one of the best superhero movies ever, and the model which most others have tried to follow (failing in most cases). Unfortunately, Batman also serves as a model in another way. Sequels were never able to recreate the success of the first. A series of poor (or downright bad) sequels followed.
The next truly successful superhero movie was X-Men, and unfortunately, this one started a new trend: superheroes as groups rather than individuals. You cannot completely fault the movie of course… these groups all came from comic books, but the comic book stories evolved over many years giving fans a chance to get to know the heroes well. When you have that much time to work with, you can involve many characters. But it’s much harder to do that in a movie that lasts two hours. This is immediately obvious in the first X-Men movie. The heroes consist of Wolverine and a bunch of other guys you never get to know very well (I never read the comics, so though I knew of this universe, I was not familiar with any of the specific mutants). Watching the original X-Men, the only two characters other than Wolverine that made any difference to me were Professor Xavier and Magneto. Everyone else (Storm, Cyclops, etc.) were just seconds. X-Men also expanded the scope of the conflict… it showed the start of a war between humans and mutants that would engulf the entire world. The saving grace here was that this marked the early stages of the war and it was still localized.
For me, X-Men succeeded… but it also marked the beginning of a trend that, for me, meant that future superhero movies were going to be significantly less interesting. It succeed when it focused on Wolverine. It failed when it tried to involve too many others of the X-Men. And, like Batman, it was followed by a string of inferior sequels.
Next came Spider-Man, and it was one of the best. It too focused on one hero and one villain. The scope of the conflict was small. It was one of the strongest entries in the superhero lexicon. It’s difficult to say which of Batman and Spider-Man I consider the better movie.
Then came the start of another horrible trend… the reboot. Along came Christopher Nolan who rebooted the Batman story. And worst of all, he succeeded completely, and he wasn’t plagued with inferior sequels. His Batman trilogy were successful on every count… and everyone took notice. They were so good that I only rank Keaton as better by a small margin. Unfortunately, the lesson that was learned was that “reboot = good“. What they should have learned was: focus on one hero, get a good writer and director, and tell an interesting story focused on that one hero. The Nolan trilogy didn’t succeed because they were a reboot. They succeeded because they were good! Sadly, those lessons got lost.
So we started reboots, and over the years, we got a LOT of them including Hulk (though in this case, the reboot was actually better than the first movie), Spider-Man (twice), Superman (twice), Batman (once more), X-Men, and others are sure to come. It’s fine to swap out the actor (as many other franchises have shown), but you need to somehow advance the story rather than restarting it every 2-3 films.
This brings us to the Marvel universe. Marvel had had a lot of success, and their next project was to bring an entire universe to the screen. These consisted of Iron Man (the first of which was excellent), Captain America (which was pretty good), and Thor and Hulk (which were mediocre in my opinion). The one thing that they had going for them was that they introduced them one at a time so you had 1 or 2 movies each to get to know each of the heroes.
Once these were all introduced, Marvel then combined them into the Avengers. The Avengers succeeded mostly because we had already been introduced to most of the characters. However, it also failed in a few ways. First, it threw in some additional heroes that you weren’t as familiar with (Black Widow, Hawkeye) but are expected to care about as much as the other Avengers. Luckily there were only two of them and Black Widow had at least been introduced earlier (Iron Man 2). The other significant problem is that the scope of the conflict was opened up way beyond the point where you could focus on it. In a story, the conflict is every bit as important (and in some ways more important) than the characters. When the scope covers a conflict at the level of a family, a town, or a single business, it is possible to get to know the conflict, to relate to it, to be interested in it. When the scope becomes less focused, it becomes almost a distraction.
A good example of this is the Die Hard movies. When Die Hard was in a single building, the location became a strong positive element of the movie. When it was expanded to cover an entire airport, it was still pretty good. But as the location grew to cover a city, or the entire internet, it lost focus and was no longer the strong character that it could have been.
Once the conflict is the entire universe (as it was in Thor, and the Avengers), the conflict becomes noise rather than a vital part of the story. Also, in the quest to make the conflict bigger, where do you go once you’ve already fought for the universe? This was a problem with Thor 2 (The Dark World) and especially Avengers 2 (Age of Ultron). They just couldn’t make a bigger conflict than had already been done… so they just made it louder… literally. More explosions. More noise. Less story.
The problem of too many heroes was especially visible in Avengers 3 (it was called Captain America: Civil War, but it was really an Avengers movie) where the cast of major characters expands to include Winter Soldier, Falcon, War Machine, Black Panther, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Ant Man, Spider Man. Most of these were introduced in earlier movies. Of these, Ant Man has had his own movie, but all of the others were new or secondary characters from earlier movies. Spider-Man was familiar of course, but his was a rebooted Spider-Man so it’s hard to know whether to treat him as a familiar character, or a new and unknown one. Probably somewhere in between. Add in the regulars (Iron Man, Captain America) and you’re left with so many characters, most of which are unfamiliar, that what you end up with is a complete mess. It is impossible to focus on the characters, and it’s only going to get worse in the future when they’ll surely bring back Hulk and Thor, and possibly add some others. In my opinion, this Marvel universe has completely deteriorated to the point where I am considering not watching future installments.
This problem is also happening on the DC side of things. Batman vs. Superman took a relatively new Superman (from Man of Steel) and introduced a new Batman (this was a reboot of Batman, so we’re as yet unfamiliar with him) in addition to a completely unknown Wonder Woman. The upcoming Justice League movies will complicate things by introducing others including Aquaman, Flash (a reboot), and Cyborg. I’m not looking forward to the Justice League any more than the next Avengers installment. I frankly expect both to be horrible.
The X-Men franchise appeared similarly derailed with the X-Men: Apocalypse installment. Lots of heroes. Lots of action. No investment in any of the characters. I watched it… and didn’t care whether they succeeded or not.
That pretty much sums up the bad part of the superhero trend. Luckily, there are some good points too.
Guardians of the Galaxy almost succeeded. At the least, it was one of the few interesting superhero movies that year. It introduced too many new heroes (ALL of which were totally unfamiliar to me), and the scope was out of control, but at least it tried to be a little new by introducing a lot more humor into the mix. By not taking itself too seriously, it managed to be interesting despite it’s failings. Unfortunately, watching previews for the next installment make me fear that it is going to expand on the bad points rather than the good ones. It’s introducing more players (which is a big mistake… we need 2 or 3 movies just to get familiar with the set we’ve already got), and the scope isn’t any smaller. I’ll watch it, but I’m currently expecting to like it less than the first.
The biggest movie surprise of the past 5 years was Deadpool. I was concerned about it being in the X-Men universe, but the story managed to turn that into a positive rather than a negative, much to my surprise. The humor in Deadpool was by far it’s strongest point, and of these, the funniest jokes were the ones that poked fun at the X-Men. Watching the previews for Deadpool, I was very cautious. So many movies manage to show all of the good scenes in the trailers (which means that the movie has a few strong minutes and a couple hours of mediocre content), and I was worried that Deadpool would fall into that category. Instead, I got a movie that was laced with humor (a dark, somewhat sick humor which was the perfect fit for the movie), which focused on a single hero with a very limited conflict.
Watching the previews for Suicide Squad, I was hoping for a similar situation there… but there I was disappointed. The movie succeeded wonderfully when it concentrated on the humor of the heroes (or anti-heroes), especially Harley Quinn. Unfortunately, it did that for a total of about 10 minutes of it’s running time, all of which ended up highlighted in the previews. The remaining 2 hours of movie were a chaotic fight to save the planet by a bunch of people I didn’t know, and barely cared about. Suicide Squad was easily the most disappointing superhero entry in the past 5 years, not because it was the worst, but because it was one of the few where I was actually hoping for something better, and it failed completely.
So for the future, I may or may not watch the future Avengers, Justice League, or X-Men installments, and when I do, it will definitely be once they’ve come out on Netflix. I will instead watch for those rare, but hopefully not extinct, movies like Deadpool which focus on a character rather than a mass, on a story rather than a CGI effect.
And speaking of Netflix, let’s now go to where the most interesting superhero action is happening. Oddly enough, the Marvel studio (responsible for the very worst of what is happening in the theaters) is also responsible for the best of what is happening. The fact that it is the same studio is a source of concern for me… and several things have happened which support that fear.
So we’ll start with Daredevil. When it came out, it was easily the best thing to happen to the superhero genre in a decade. It succeeds in several ways which had been virtually ignored for some time in the superhero genre.
First, and most importantly, it takes one hero, and builds a show around him. This hero is presented as a character rather than a super power. He is smart, but he makes mistakes. He is powerful, but far from invincible. With 13 hours (in season 1) to develop the characters, we end up with hero that we are interested in, that we understand, and that we care about what happens to him. With that much time, we also have a handful of secondary characters that, though not as fully developed as Daredevil, still have the time to become real characters.
Second, we have an environment and a conflict that are are developed enough to become another character in the show. Hell’s Kitchen is not somewhere I would want to live, but we root for Daredevil and his friends as they fight for it. We care about what happens there.
And third, a villain is introduced who is smart (smarter than the hero if the truth be told), who is powerful (but also not invincible), and who is developed sufficiently that we understand him and even relate to him to an extent. Fisk is easily the best superhero villain since the Nicholson Joker, and should be included in a list of the greatest TV/Movie villains.
The second season of Daredevil was also good. It suffered a little by not having a focused enemy. Initially, the Punisher filled that role, but he of course turned out to be an ally. The real enemy of the second season was the Hand, and though they are interesting, they are not quite as interesting as Fisk was. The Hand suffers in one way by being hidden. We are not given the chance to get to know them the way we got to know Fisk, or even the Punisher. However, the Hand does provide an enemy that is well suited for Daredevil, and the other Defenders; they are suitably powerful and scary (by always remaining hidden in the dark); and they keep the conflict focused. This remains a fight over Hell’s Kitchen (and perhaps Harlem).
Next came Jessica Jones, and once again we are given a fully developed character. In many respects, Jessica Jones is more interesting than Daredevil. Like him, she is powerful, but far from invincible. She is surrounded by some very interesting secondary characters. And she is supplied with an amazingly scary villain in Kilgrave.
Even though it was well understood that Marvel was building up the group of four heroes that would form the Defenders, they took their time linking the characters so that when they actually form, it should be a fairly smooth transition. With Jessica Jones and Daredevil, the links are forming with Hogarth and Claire (and of course Luke Cage appearing in Jessica Jones). Even though the four heroes will form a group, there are some critical differences between this and the Avengers/X-Men/Justice League groups. First, they are continuing the single hero series (Jessica Jones season 2 and Daredevil season 3 are both confirmed, and I suspect that we have Luke Cage season 2 and Iron Fist season 2). And while the single hero series appear to be standardized on 13 episodes, the Defenders series will have 8. So the focus still seems to be on individual heroes, with them banding together as needed.
With Luke Cage, I began to have some concerns about the universe. Luke Cage definitely has some good points. The story is clearly focused on Luke Cage, and like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, he is a smart and interesting hero. The environment is very focused, this time on Harlem. Going into the show, I had hoped that Luke Cage would be in Hell’s Kitchen too. I’m not familiar with the comic books at all, so I didn’t realize that it wouldn’t be set there, and I felt that keeping the environment firmly centered in Hell’s Kitchen would be a way to limit scope creep of the conflict. However, Luke Cage did such a good job at creating the culture and feel of Harlem that I quickly changed my mind. The two environments are close enough that interactions between the two will not need to be forced, and they can still keep the environment as an integral part of the story.
Luke Cage also introduced a very interesting team of villains in the form of Cottonmouth and Mariah. These are powerful, intelligent, villains, and like Kilgrave and Fisk, they develop through the series so you get to know them, understand them, and even sympathize with them to an extent. Unfortunately, at the midpoint of the season, the show made a mistake. They replaced Cottonmouth. The fact that they killed Cottonmouth was acceptable… it allowed Mariah to emerge as the primary enemy. This was fine. I like being able to end a story, so killing Cottonmouth was acceptable. Also, Mariah was able to expand to fill the void and may prove to be an even better villain on her own. Unfortunately, they added in Diamondback. Diamondback represents the biggest mistake of the series. Diamondback is NOT as well developed (they try, but his story never seems anywhere near as complete or compelling as the Cottonmouth/Mariah story), and he is the player closest to being just one-dimensional super power (in the form of his suit) instead of a fully developed three-dimensional character. It is my hope (though not my expectation) that Diamondback’s role is complete and that he will just go to jail and stay there. That’s my hope (though realistically, I expect that he’ll be back).
Of even more importance is the introduction of the Midas bullet and the suit used by Diamondback. Both are crossover elements from the Marvel/Avengers universe. My single greatest fear for the Defenders universe is that it will cross over into the Avengers universe. The Defenders universe contains 4 heroes of rather limited power. Imagine them fighting a villain that was a match for Thor or Hulk? Any villain that could destroy the universe would complete dwarf the Defenders. I do not see any way to successfully merge the two universes, especially considering how flawed the Avengers universe is, and how out of proportion it is to the Defenders. Leave the two completely separate! So, when elements of the Avengers began to cross over into the Defenders universe, I began to get worried.
Even worse is that there was no reason to introduce the Midas bullet at all. Luke Cage already showed that he was vulnerable to damage when he was shot by a shotgun in Jessica Jones. His skin may have been undamaged, but the shock of the blast almost killed him. There was absolutely no reason to introduce a bullet that could penetrate his skin.
That brings us to the last of the Defenders: Iron Fist. Unfortunately, the flaws really show through in the series. The main problem is that Danny Rand is DUMB! He is naive and trusting far beyond what he should have been.
In his training to be a great warrior, wasn’t he ever trained to be suspicious of people? Wasn’t he ever taught to recognize the evil as well as the good in people? I know that if I were training a warrior to defend me from a force as powerful and as deceptive as the Hand who are masters of deception, I would make sure that my warrior was taught to recognize both good and evil.
Yet Danny immediately accepts Ward and Joy Meachum’s statements at face value. Even worse, he immediately embraces Harold Meachum as family, completely ignoring the question of WHY he is still alive. He immediately accepts as allies Colleen, Claire, Bakuto, and others. A telling scene is when he is in the mental hospital and the doctor has been convinced that he really is Danny, so what does Danny do? He immediately starts telling him about K’un-Lun and talking about the door between dimensions being open. If Danny was raised to guard the entrance to K’un-Lun, would he really want to be telling random strangers about K’un-Lun? And would he be so naive as to not realize that talking about doors between dimensions was perhaps not the best choice of topics in that situation?
The other three Defenders have personal flaws and demons to fight. All of them have been shaped by various tragedies and events. And each character is a reasonable fit for someone who had survived those events. Danny is not. He demonstrates a complete lack of survival skills and traits that would be ingrained in a warrior trained to fight a force like the Hand.
Another problem I have is that Danny’s skill is fighting, but he appears no more competent than Daredevil or Jessica Jones. And his fighting style, which really should be somewhat unique, is indistinguishable from Daredevil. His fight with Bukoto was especially telling. Despite supposedly being a far superior fighter to Colleen, Bukoto was able to hold him at bay, and yet Colleen was able to defeat him rather quickly.
All in all, I’m a bit concerned about Iron Fist. Given that the next series will be the Defenders, hopefully the influence of the other three can salvage the character, because he really needs help. However, with three of the four being quite interesting, the Defenders groups has shaped up pretty well. Throw in that a Punisher series (another promising character) and despite the concerns I have, there should be a fair number of good entries in this universe.
So, for the future, what do I want to see (regardless of whether I expect to see it or not)?
I’d like to see movies that focus on single heroes, preferably safely removed from these mega-universes. I’d like to see Marvel continue the Defenders universe, keeping it completely separate from the Avengers, with a primary focus on the individual hero series with periodic Defenders installments.
Also, although I like the dark superhero movies, it would be nice to add in more humor. It can be dark (like Deadpool) or more light-hearted (Guardians of the Galaxy), but it makes for a nice change. One other thing…. I want Incredibles 2 to be as good as the first!