Pop 20

Super hero formula evolving

by Aaron Sagers


30 July 2008


In only 10 days, the Batman defeated the Joker, delivered a one-two punch to Harvey Dent and amassed more than $300 million at the box office. But despite the enormous success of “The Dark Knight,” old Bats is going to need help from the entire Justice League, and maybe the Avengers too, to defeat his newest nemesis, The Pundit.

Along with Iron Man and Hellboy II, and to a lesser extent, the Incredible Hulk, Batman won over both critics and audiences this movie season, but no victory can be had without a cliffhanger and a setup for the next villain. This time that challenge is coming from media types who are suggesting there’s nowhere to go but down, and that the bubble will burst on the “super hero movie” genre following the artistic peak that is the Batman sequel.

cover art

The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Eric Roberts, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

(Warner Brothers)

Review [17.Jul.2008]
cover art

Iron Man

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Leslie Bibb

(Marvel Studios)

Review [1.May.2008]
cover art

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, John Alexander, Luke Goss

(Universal Pictures)

Review [11.Jul.2008]

Most notable among The Pundit’s crew of henchmen is movie critic A.O. Scott of “The New York Times.” Scott, a writer I typically enjoy, gets it wrong when he says “‘The Dark Knight’ is as good as a movie of its kind can be” and that the movie represents the beginning of the decline of the genre. Scott’s argument is that the rules of the super hero world (hero accepts destiny, dons outfit, battles baddies in climactic fight of good vs. evil, stuff explodes) leads to a genre-killing repetition and drain of originality.

But I don’t think this summer o’ spandex-clad super heroes is necessarily going to give way to a winter of capes-and-tights discontent anymore than one could say that other genres like horror, romantic comedies, westerns or sci-fi will ever be dead.

First and foremost, “formulas” aren’t necessarily bad for a movie genre. Yes, they give us a list of things to expect, but that’s OK if you’re simply pursuing junk food entertainment. There isn’t always a need for pop-culture to constantly nourish and lead to personal growth. If audiences needed a “point” to big-screen pyrotechnics, then Michael Bay would be making movies about Optimus Prime watching a plastic bag blow in the wind and finding there’s so much beauty in the world that his Prime Matrix can’t handle it. So Hollywood should continue to deliver fun but empty super heroics that will rot our brains. As long as it’s pretty decent, audiences will keep the genre alive and continue to consume it like Kyle XY on a Sour Patch Kids bender.

But the formulaic, popcorn entries of the super hero movie genre shouldn’t detract from the potential any more than Thomas Kinkade should discourage any aspiring artist. Like other genres, super hero stories can also be more than that and they are – at least on the printed page.

Any fanboy can tell you that you need only be familiar with comic writer names like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis or Brian K. Vaughan to know that super hero books can be more than a villain-of-the-week, punch-drunk medium. As a visual and literary art form, super heroes have grown up quite a bit since Captain America was punching Nazis in propaganda books in the ‘40s.

The super hero formula has evolved, and we’re not talking about the Super Soldier Serum here. Even since Stan Lee gave heroes everyday problems like making rent in 1962, the characters have been deconstructed, reconstructed and deconstructed again. After reading about Robin and Supergirl’s death, or about a crazed future Batman fighting a fascist Superman, the late 1980s were enough to make me want to steer clear of the Hall of Justice.

Then, thanks to a lovely yet clueless relative, I received a copy of “Watchmen” by Alan Moore. A brilliant book, comic or otherwise, “Watchmen” is a Cold War up-is-down and we’re all up a river in a barbed-wire canoe super-hero murder mystery. The very grown-up book cemented my idea that in the comics, villains could be heroes, heroes aren’t that good, the day isn’t necessarily saved and just about everyone is a little nutty.

Meanwhile, the movie version of the super hero character is only now exiting adolescence. Instead of the beginning of the end, “The Dark Knight” is really just the first cinematic entry that shows our super-powered icons having their wings, or capes, clipped in a modern world that resembles our own. And if done right, the R-rated movie adaptation of “Watchmen,” will firmly push super hero movies into adulthood. (And based on the mind-blowing trailer, it looks like it is definitely being done right.)

“The Dark Knight” may be the best super hero movie to be released. So far. But it’s not the peak of the genre any more than “Romeo and Juliet” was the peak for Shakespeare, or “2001: A Space Odyssey” was the peak of the sci-fi genre. As great as those works may have been when they were introduced, there were better installments yet to come.

Yes, there will more purely, and puerile, comic book fare that kills a few hours in a theater but isn’t “important.” But as long as there are rich and diverse stories to be told, the super hero genre will continue to take flight.


Entertainment columnist Aaron Sagers writes weekly about all things pop-culture. He can be reached at sagers.aaron AT gmail.com.

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