Earlier this week, Matt Zoller Seitz published an article on Rogerebert.com in which he elucidated a common critical complaint against superhero films as currently practiced by (mostly) Marvel and the studios that have leased their characters, and Warner Brothers, which, as we all know, has a lock on the entire DC universe.
Basically, the veteran critic alleges that the studios are more focused on making money than making art, which results in a cookie-cutter approach to the genre's hallmark action scenes. He writes:
"Shots of people fighting inside and atop collapsing and burning structures all feel basically the same...Sometimes the camera shakes a little, sometimes a lot. Giant creatures roar and stomp in more or less the same way, across CGI'd landscapes rendered in more or less the same way...The bashing is choreographed and shot and edited pretty much as you expect, with few aesthetic surprises. You hear metal groaning and rubble crashing to earth. Walls crumble, craters open, bridges collapse...and somehow none of it has the visceral or dramatic weight that it should...The bigger the canvas, the more boringly typical the action becomes."
The thing is, a "Hey you kids, get off my multiplex lawn" argument this isn't. MZS states from the jump that he doesn't hate superhero movies ... and he's kind of correct. Don't get me wrong: As currently practiced, modern superhero movies are enjoyable, sometimes highly so. But they can also be largely forgettable, leaving us feeling like Peter Parker: Our senses are briefly tingled, then it's over and there's not much to think about other than, hey, our wallet's empty. Here's how to fix that.
[We're issuing a spoiler warning throughout for movies up to and including Captain America: The Winter Soldier.]
1. KILL PEOPLE
And keep them dead (If you can). We know that when a movie's called Iron Man, and RDJ is signed for 10 more, that he's probably going to make it to the next one, which drains the movie of tension faster than a damaged repulsor. Raise the stakes by making supporting characters as expendable as a Westerosi wedding party. Face it: Happy Hogan is not getting his own movie. Neither is War Machine, for that matter. When you sacrifice characters like Jean Grey or even Otto Octavius, the heroes feel it, and we feel it. Thought experiment: How much better would Winter Soldier have been if Nick Fury didn't make it (or, at least, if they had saved the reveal that he was still alive until Cap 3)?
2. STEAL FROM CLASSIER SOURCES
Christopher Nolan pinched loaf all over the Batman mythos by having Bruce Wayne get over his parental murder issues, marry Catwoman and move to Italy, but managed to make an interesting movie anyway because The Dark Knight Rises pinched *plot* from Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, lending the film an additional depth of storytelling that's often missing from the guy-gets-powers/learns-to-deal-with-powers/defeats-bad-guy formula. The Black Widow/Cap on the run scenes in Winter Soldier summon scenarios from '70s conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor (in case the Robert Redford appearance didn't underline that for you). Grab inspiration from other genres and mix and match at will. Picture Batman playing detective in Chinatown, or Dr. Strange investigating The Shining.
3. SKIP THE ORIGIN STORIES
We get it: They're superheroes, they have powers. They fight crime and stuff. The audience is smart enough to put the pieces together. Though they're becoming scarce, we've all seen movies before that aren't based on pre-existing properties. Sometimes you have no idea who the lead character is supposed to be or what they do. By ten minutes in, you've got most of the information you need in order to get on with things. David Fincher famously turned down Spider-Man back in the '90s because he wanted to do the death of Gwen Stacy as the main story and relegate Spidey's origin to the opening credits, feeling like he could get that out of the way and get on with a more interesting movie. Sony didn't like, so we got the Raimi movies instead, at least one of which (the second one) is one of the best superhero movies ever made, and another that's one of the worst (the third, obvs). Speaking of ...
4. TOO MANY/NOT ENOUGH VILLAINS
One clearly defined antagonist (or antagonizing force) is enough. More often than not, by the film's climax we're looking at a grab bag of villains, none of whom are fully developed enough to be a credible threat (see: Spider-Man 3) or someone's army of disposable aliens/robots/minions/whatever (see: The Avengers). Both Marvel and DC have a library full of really evil mofos, and we usually get a hammy mess like Julian McMahon's Dr. Doom or a low-rent finger-tenter like Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw. Archenemies should be more than a nuisance, exuding Hannibal Lecter or Darth Vader levels of menace. When a movie has one of these (Heath Ledger's Joker or either young or old versions of Magneto), it's usually a win.
5. CLEAN UP CONTINUITY BY BUILDING FRANCHISES ON STORY ARCS, NOT CHARACTERS/TEAMS
DC seems to be heading in this direction, though it's too soon to really tell. Marvel, on the other hand, is content with giving us at least three films based on each character, and in most cases, that's two more films per guy than we really need. Introduce your players, then let them loose. Make the brand name the important thing, not the characters (think "Marvel's Secret War"). That said, this is more difficult for Marvel, since, thanks to various licensing arrangements, they can't get their most popular heroes in a movie together. But DC can do Identity Crisis. They can do Tower of Babel. They can do that weird Grant Morrison one where the Justice League fights the White Martians. Use who you need. Red Tornado turns out to be a fan favorite? Give him a movie then, if you must. Do it the other way around. This approach also keeps continuity tidy, freeing up studios to refresh their casts with each new set of films.
6. ABOUT THOSE ACTION SEQUENCES ...
Zoller Seitz covered this pretty well, and mentions the intriguing, yet not entirely effective, Hulk by Ang Lee. But there's an Ang Lee masterpiece that can be instructive for informing fight scenes with more drama, and that's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As Lee said in a 2001 interview, "Fighting is to be used as an extension of internal feelings. Exchanging blows is like exchanging dialogue. We didn't do anything revolutionary, but I think the refinement we did makes a significant difference. And treating the movie as a whole. It's not plot-plot-plot, talk-talk-talk, when you can't wait for the next fighting scene." Lee elaborates, using the fight between the two female characters as an example: "There's a lot of jealousy going on. Sour feelings. They have to exchange not only in words, but in their looks and the way they kick -- one is more blue-collar, the other is more graceful. Or in the rooftop chase scene, that's [Michelle Yeoh's character] Shu Lien chasing her future happiness, and it's about her chasing something in the dark, a black figure. It's like she's dealing with her inner dragon, hidden dragon. And she's more grounded. The other character is flying, and Shu Lien is bringing her down to the ground." It's called subtext. Give us some, and you've earned your things crashing into other things. And finally, for the love of Odin, take it easy on the CGI, wouldja?
Do you think Matt Zoller Seitz is right about the state of superhero films, or are you happy with the on-screen action the way it is? Where would you like to see the genre go from here? Share your thoughts in the comments!