This Is How Superheroes Die
Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
The most interesting superheroes are the ones with the most conflict of character. They have issues. They struggle deep inside, like you or me. They do things based on principle. Those principles develop through hard and often complicated experiences. Once the armour is off, they are more than just who they play in public.
Hold on, doesn’t that sound like good characterization in general?
Marvel may have developed a winning formula for the ‘art’ of the superhero film but it is by no means perfect. The formula simply hits all the right buttons at the all the right moments. There’s a reason you can place virtually every Marvel film on top of one another and get structurally the same film. Change the names, change the settings but the dance steps are the same.
The issue is that with this narrative, the dance is bound to fail. The dance is to a symbiotic rhythm: the beat gets faster and the dancers move more furiously, however, they can’t keep the pace for long. Eventually, they won’t just stop — they’ll collapse.
Superhero movies are bound to fail. It is a Pyrrhic struggle. The more the superhero becomes a superhero — the more they are portrayed as the person in the suit — the less effective they are at making us care what they do in that suit and why.
The strength of the superhero genre is that is allows us an escape. To imagine that we can fly, we are strong, we can be invisible. All the possibilities imagined in youthful exuberance. Except these characters are also written in ways that allow us to relate. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how high they fly, how much they can lift, or where invisibility takes them.
Therein lies the rub.
The superhero narrative swirls around characters that are increasingly underwritten. As the films become more popular culturally, they are becoming a less relevant narrative. The characters are slowly fighting a losing battle towards irrelevance. If we don’t think they’re in some way like us, its only so long before we seek a character that is.
The major player in the superhero genre in cinema is, undoubtedly, Marvel. The sinews of the Marvel cinematic universe are bound to a few key characters: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, and Black Widow. It is their failings in character, then, that are most glaringly on display.
Iron Man was first. Played in the first installment with visceral id by Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark still represents the ideal cinema superhero. He had moral issues, grappling with a life’s work that had wrought destruction and ultimately, enabled those he thought he was fighting. He was smooth talking and fun. We could connect and escape simultaneously into the fantasy of Tony Stark as our superhero surrogate.
Since the first film, Stark has become a raging egomaniac. He butts heads with everyone even hinting at being level headed. His only conflict is how much more of a dick he can be. In the comics, apparently he’s an alcoholic. He is nowhere close to such personal struggle on screen. If he is, it’s in his own head – not ours.
Then there was Thor, a carbon copy of Tony Stark in virtually every way. He’s like a post-modern fantasy performance based on Iron Man. He was introduced as having a massive ego that got him into trouble just like Tony Stark. He was disrespectful to authority just like Tony Stark. He was royalty, another way of saying rich and pampered – just like Tony Stark. Perhaps the most Tony Stark thing about him is that Chris Hemsworth plays him with the same level of zeal as Downey Jr. The biggest issue with Thor, then, is this: he’s no Tony Stark.
Captain America was third. He still stands as the most consistently well-drawn character of the bunch. Steve Rogers was a pipsqueak who wanted nothing more than to serve his country and do what was right. Then he took more PED’s than an NFL player and boom, he was gifted the ability to do so. He represents an American idealism pre-World War II. He stands up for values. He struggles with lost love, the soldiers’ guilt (and maybe some PTSD), and trust issues. These don’t affect Captain America in only The First Avenger: he does this in The Winter Soldier and both Avengers appearances. These dramatic characteristics evolve as well. Steve Rogers isn’t the ideal cinema superhero. He’s more. He is the ideal cinema superhero character.
Captain America is so well drawn it does him a disservice being in The Avengers because he has to essentially ‘play dumb’ and pander to the overt caricature relationships throughout those films. Imagine a room full cinema spies: Captain America is George Smiley mixed with Roger Moore’s James Bond, xXx, Ethan Hunt, as well as Ecks and Sever.
Which brings us to The Hulk: the quintessentially misused superhero. Perhaps imbued with more character drama than any superhero, he is also, coincidentally, the one most consistently a failure. The Hulk is the most like us. He struggles with his emotions (literally). He has issues in relationships with those he loves. His greatest strength, his mind, is at the mercy of his shortcomings.
Aren’t all we humans like that? Except on film, it’s only when he’s at his biggest, green-iest is he appreciated. When he’s embraced the anger and destroying everything around him, we like him. Except, as character, this is supposed to represent a form of conflicted catharsis. He destroys everything around him to deal with what he can’t inside. Which, in Marvel’s narrative, is cool.
Of course it isn’t only Marvel facing this character narrative dilemma. DC has long struggled with this relationship. Whereas Marvel has Hulk, DC’s golden goose, Superman, suffers from the same problems.
Superman is one of — if not the most — fascinating superhero characters we have. This is because dramatically, he has the most conflicted existence. To the entire world, he is a perfect specimen, an ideal our species is to strive for. Superman is a Jesus Christ-like figure. He therefore holds more responsibility than any superhero there is. To uphold higher values of morality, not to kill and so forth, makes his every move and decision weigh greater than any other superhero.
***This is partially what made the tragedy of Christopher Reeves so acute: the man who played the perfect being lived in a body limited by a devastating injury. He became the a pseudo post-modern version of the Superman narrative***
What would a person with those decisions weighing on their mind be like? How would they cope? This is further complicated by the fact he must hide in sight; integrating into regular society as if he is one of us and in those situations, repress his talents.
The failures of these two superhero giants is not reserved only on one front. It is incredibly remiss of Marvel to stab their flag in the ground as the place for great superhero narratives and then ignore entirely the one female character they have. Black Widow, played by the always-engaging Scarlett Johansson, is the only Avenger (that matters) without a standalone film. What’s more, her engaging backstory and character issues make her one of the most watchable. Marvel can hardly claim to be the best superhero storytellers in cinema and not have a story that appeals to women other than on a superficial level.
Despite all of this, we know that Marvel and DC has a built-in out for their narrative miscalculating. A rather simplistic one: more movies. When you’re main batch go stale, bring in additional characters. When the main batch go dry, re-cast.
Because, why not? For Marvel in particular, it may just (i.e. likely) energize the entire product once new standalone films follow in the footsteps of Ant-Man. Currently, Doctor Strange (starring Benedict Cumberbatch https://youtu.be/rT1nGjGM2p8?t=3m15s), Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Inhumans are slated to come along by 2020. By then, a second Guardians of the Galaxy will be trolling it’s way to faux-cult classic level of geekdom and become the new Marvel flag bearer.
More movies and new casting may add some new energy, but it waters down the superhero canon even further. How many times can Tony Stark quip before the character stagnates? Marvel can give us Guardians of the Galaxy and Peter Quill – but Tony Stark dies. In Hollywood-speak, Tony Stark then dies for real: Robert Downey Jr. gets replaced.