Superhero Storylines Stopped Working a Long Time Ago


It’s not breaking news that Hollywood is in something of a Superhero Phase, a phase that has done nothing but intensify over the past few years. From 2008-2011 approximately 40 superhero movies (!) were released, 17 of which made over $100 million domestically. Include international totals and another three — Hellboy II, Green Hornet, and RED — passed the century mark.

Forty superhero movies in three years is crazy enough, but even more insane is that almost half of them were, by Hollywood accountants’ standards, successes. Nevertheless, there’s a growing sense that the movie industry is setting itself up for failure, with George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg predicting an “implosion” of sorts as reliance on easily-marketable, mass-audience-approved “films” (read: superhero movies) becomes more and more prominent. There’s a lack of originality and creativity in studios’ development choices, and evidence of that slow decline is the assembly-line-production of, among other things, comic book properties.

But the problem isn’t necessarily that Hollywood keeps going back to the superhero well for another series of reboots, it’s that every time they do, it’s an origin story and — spoiler alert — origin stories for superheroes are all essentially the same. The characters may be different, and the circumstances shuffled around a little, but it’s always an unsuspecting — maybe even reluctant — individual granted amazing powers and then some villainous threat — that just so happens to epitomize or prey upon our hero’s weakness/fear — needing to be overcome for the hero to become, fully, who we paid to see.

Sam Raimi’s Spiderman came out in 2002 and provided audiences unfamiliar with the character a story of how Peter Parker became the web-slinger. Flash forward to 2012 ‘s The Amazing Spiderman and we have … a story of how Peter Parker became the web-slinger,but with the Lizard instead of Green Goblin. Now, with Man of Steel out we have a more Terrence Malick-y attempt by Zach Snyder to give us a biography of Superman and explain why he can fly and why he’s so strong and, really, audiences don’t go to something like Man of Steel to learn how Superman can fly, they just want to see him fly.

It’s ironic too that such care is given to explaining who a superhero is and why they exist when the inherent appeal of a comic book hero for Hollywood is the built-in audience that already knows who he/she is. It’s redundant and lazy, which is reinforced by comic book movies that don’t consider the origin story an absolute necessity when establishing their world(s). Marvel’s Thor, which had every right to be about how the title character came into being, instead jumped right into a world where he was Odin’s crown prince and dropping Frost Giants with lightning bolts. Scott Pilgrim vs The World does an amazing job of seamlessly acclimating the audience to a world where kung-fu fights and video-game powers are common while also progressing the plot.  

Walk into any comic store and you’ll see multiple visions of the same superhero: Spiderman, Superman, Batman, Iron Man — you name it — all have multiple story lines existing independently of each other, and every story doesn’t begin by explaining who they are. Some do, I’m sure, but creators know if someone is picking up a Spiderman 2099 comic they’re at least familiar with who the character is. If Hollywood treated its audience with just as much respect, people wouldn’t feel a need to roll their eyes at the sight of another superhero movie.

But we roll our eyes now because, for the most part, we’re given calculated attempts at banking on name recognition and establishing franchises, where urgency isn’t placed on telling interesting stories in the adapted character’s universe but instead whetting our appetites for the inevitable sequel(s). It’s the sequels, Hollywood tries to reassure us, the “later movies,” where you’ll actually see him/her be the character you paid to see. For now, we're left with bland attempts to introduce characters we already know when, really, we just want to see where they're going.