Much ado has been made over the past few weeks about the nature and shortcomings of superhero movies. Marvel films especially have been under the microscope.
While as fans, critics, or fellow storytellers (whichever category you happen to fall in) it’s useful to discuss the flaws we see, it’s also helpful to remember the strengths.
One comment on my post last week remarked on the “this needs fixing” mentality. So amid the criticism (which is good and necessary), let’s tackle the issue from the opposite angle.
What are superhero movies doing well?
**Caveat: Posts such as this that explore broad topics are difficult to manage lest they put everything into a single box and overly simplify complex situations. My goal isn’t to make blanket or absolute statements, but rather to discuss general trends.**
1. Connected Storylines.
DC has done a decent job, though the lack of stories set in the same universe has somewhat hindered their effectiveness to this point. Hopefully that will change with the release of several more films over the next few years.
Marvel, on the other hand, excels here. As a fan, one of my favorite things about watching a Marvel movie is the abundance of easter eggs, cameo appearances, and subtle references to happenings in the larger MCU.
Setting separate stories in the same fictional universe provides a number of benefits that serve to strengthen the overall storytelling.
- Cohesion across stories.
- Ability to craft plot arcs that span more than one film.
- A sense of a larger world outside that of the specific story on screen.
- Characters filling in different roles: e.g. in The Avengers the team being co-heroes instead of individual heroes.
- Added character interaction and dynamics.
2. Action, Action, and more Action.
While an overdose can certainly provide a lethal blow to the greater levels of intricacy and character development that make a story resonate, you have to hand it to Hollywood on this score.
Action, as a storytelling device, plays a primary role in the creation of a well-rounded narrative. It’s like salt: too much, and the result is disgusting, but too little, and the story becomes bland.
No matter whether you favor Marvel and DC’s universes, it’s impossible to deny they both pack the action into their films like gunpowder in a musket. This leads to fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping scenes, as the heroes courageously dash from one daring feat to the next.
Sure, it gets tiring. But it’s still fun to watch in moderation. The greatest benefit it provides is giving the heroes a stage upon which to let their powers glow in full glory.
One of the worst fates a superhero can suffer is for his/her really cool power to have its time to shine stolen. After all, the powers are what make the stories unique and awesome.
3. Imaginative Worldbuilding.
One of the greatest perks to any speculative story is the chance to explore the fantastic. To go places where the imagination soars, where the impossible becomes reality.
For all their faults, superhero movies hit the nail squarely on the head when it comes to worldbuilding. Whether it’s a setting on earth flooded by Chitauri warriors, a highly-advanced alien planet, or a mysterious blending of our reality with another, the worlds that form the backdrop of superhero tales are often brimming with creativity.
Stories fill many roles, and for speculative fiction especially, one essential element is to induce a sense of otherness, either enormously big or subtly small yet pervasive. An entire system of planets and interstellar travel or a city on earth yet with one citizen whose presence changes everything.
Such are the storytelling elements that cause audiences to dream, to become part of the story, to let their imaginations revel in the myriad possibilities awaiting.
After all, isn’t that one of the greatest benefits a story can give?
4. Diverse Character Casts.
By diverse, I mean exhibiting variety.
In their backgrounds, upbringings, life experiences, races, motivations, temperaments, skills, and goals. Each is an individual stroke upon a larger canvas. Each has a unique life with a different path, a different story, a different perspective on a certain situation.
Many of the movies to date have certainly drawn out compelling characterization. The Dark Knight Trilogy and Captain America: Winter Soldier leap to mind as two stellar examples.
And thanks to the presence of the previous three points, heroes enjoy ample opportunity to exhibit their superhero awesomeness.
Superhero Movies Are Great
Many films contain more fantastic pieces than the ones mentioned here. And a good number have coalesced into breathtaking, riveting tales.
Taking a step back, are superhero movies all plummeting toward demise in a final blaze of fiery glory? I highly doubt it. Are they pristine and flawless? Certainly not.
Each have strong points and weaknesses. Perhaps the storytelling techniques could use improvement, but that’s not stopping people from flocking to the theaters, and ultimately, the end goal is entertain an audience. On that score, most films have delivered.
One final point to note. When it comes to entertainment, the rules are much more flexible and subjective to personal taste. Thus Guardians 2 may be enthralling for one fan, while another much prefers Man of Steel. Neither view is inherently wrong.
And that just goes to prove the age-old maxim: you can’t please everyone all the time.
What are some of your favorite elements in superhero movies?