The Gritty and the Real: Unpacking the Realism Trope in Superhero Films

Within a few days of each other last month, director Zack Snyder and producer Simon Kinberg employed virtually the same language to describe and defend two of their respective and recent superhero projects. Here is Snyder in Forbes on Man of Steel (2013):

…I think with Superman we have this opportunity to place this icon within the sort of real world we live in. And I think that, honestly, the thing I was surprised about in response to Superman was how everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, you know? How tightly they cling to those ideas, not really the comic book version but more the movie version… If you really analyze the comic book version of Superman, he’s killed, he’s done all the things– I guess the rules that people associate with Superman in the movie world are not the rules that really apply to him in the comic book world, because those rules are different. He’s done all the things and more that we’ve shown him doing, right? It’s just funny to see people really taking it personally… because I made him real, you know, I made him feel, or made consequences [in] the world. I felt like, it was the same thing in Watchmen. We really wanted to show it wasn’t just like they thought, like the PG-13 version where everyone just gets up and they’re fine. I really wanted to show the violence is real, people get killed or get hurt, and it’s not fun or funny. And I guess for me, it was like I wanted a hero in Superman that was a real hero and sort of reflected the world we live in now…”

– Mark Hughes, “Exclusive Interview With Zack Snyder, Director Of ‘Batman Vs. Superman’“. Forbes. 17 April 2014.

And here’s Kinberg at Hitfix on the Fantastic Four reboot:

“As Singer created with the original ‘X-Men’ movies, Christopher Nolan created with the ‘Dark Knight’ movies, Jon Favreau and Marvel created with the ‘Iron Man’ movies, all the best superhero franchises – Sam Raimi did it with with ‘Spider-Man’ – they create a tone and that is the thing that defines them,” Kinberg insists.  “It’s not the stories that differentiate them from each other.  Sometimes the characterizations aren’t that distinct. It’s that the tone is different and in some ways [that’s because of the] lessons learned from the original ‘Fantastic Four’ movies, but also because of Josh Trank’s natural instinct for more realism, for more of a dramatic approach to things. This will definitely be a more realistic, a more gritty, grounded telling of the ‘Fantastic Four’ and no matter what people think about the cast”.

– Gregory Ellwood, “New ‘Fantastic Four’ will be a more ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ movie than the original“. Hitfix. 20 April 2014.

The keywords here are all variations on “real”: “real world”, “realism”, “realistic”, “really”. These terms have a particular currency for critical discussions and creative engagements with films made from comics, particularly superhero comics.

In an immediate sense, the invocation of “the real”, and elaborations like “gritty” and “grounded”, or claims regarding the “reality” of the violence in a film, are meant to connote something about the “adult” or “mature” possibilities of superhero adaptations. Snyder makes this explicit when referencing his approach to Watchmen (2009), but also in his comparison of Man of Steel to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, which he implies is far more adolescent or childish than his (and writer David Goyer’s and actor Harry Cavill’s) for its lack of “real” violence or consequences.

A quick, and logical, response to assertions of realism in a superhero movie is to point out that such characters not only don’t exist, but only exist as stories. So, basically, “Get over yourselves Messrs. Snyder and Kinberg.” While such a retort can be satisfying, as well as being literally true, I also think that this response misses an important point about Hollywood film, and, particularly, the kinds of spectacles under discussion here.

When viewers go to a movie like Man of Steel, or the latest installment in The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek franchises, most know that Superman, or hobbits, wizards, and warp drive, don’t exist. Nonetheless, most also want to feel as if what they are seeing on screen could be real. There is little that dooms a Hollywood fantasy more assuredly than a perception that its depiction of the fantastic appears “fake”.

This aspect of film realism is primarily visual. Simply, do I believe what I see? However, both Snyder and Kinberg clearly mean for their heroes to be “real” on levels other than the visual. It is not enough that I believe my eyes when I see Superman fly or Reed Richards stretch his arms across a room. Snyder and Kinberg also want me to believe that these are “real” men, making “real” choices, with “real” consequences in the “real” world.

Those aspirations are fair enough, and as Snyder suggests, are often shared by the people who make the comics on which these films are based. However, I still think that the particular vision of what it means to be “real” at work in the Kinberg and Snyder interviews is problematic and requires unpacking to be fully understood and critiqued.

From Snyder’s interview, in particular, being “real” transparently means being violent, and implies people getting hurt, even getting killed. It’s important to note that the background to his remarks in Forbes is the ending of Man of Steel which not only has Superman killing the villain but doing so with little regard for civilians caught in the middle of the fight. In other words, in Snyder’s version of “the world we live in now”, were Superman to exist, he would prioritize killing his protagonist over keeping people safe.

In Kinberg’s case, the movie is still in production, and one can only speculate as to what a ‘gritty, grounded and more real’ Fantastic Four will look like. However, Kinberg, particularly in beginning his list of referents with Christopher Nolan’s Batman, clearly understands that there is a context in which his film will be received, and in that context, it is important to have your work be seen as “serious” somehow, an attribute that few would attach to the prior Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007).

Those prior films were only marginally successful in bringing The Fantastic Four to the big screen in franchise form. That being said, whatever their flaws, director Tim Story, and the stable of writers who made these movies, did get at least a couple of essential things right about the cast of characters, namely the importance of family and that the members of the quartet are all, essentially, ordinary people with established lives who have their powers foisted on them by accident and without consent. Based on their comics histories, Sue, Reed, Ben, and Johnny are, if anything, less likely than Clark Kent/Superman to be credibly made into cold killers.

In the comics, The Fantastic Four and the entire Marvel Universe were given a harsher alternate imagining with the launch of the Ultimate line of titles in 2000, which demonstrates that there is material enough to fashion or re-fashion these characters in different ways and still remain within the Marvel canon. But fidelity to the source material is a different question from the “realism” of an adaptation, at least in the sense that the quoted filmmakers are using those kinds of words.

Snyder certainly, and Kinberg likely, are expressing, or maybe rehearsing, a common critical stance that sees negative, bleak, or cynical outcomes as making for more authentic fiction than positive, hopeful, or idealistic results. Sad is more real than happy. Violence is more real than mercy. Revenge is more real than justice. Everyone has their tastes, but a taste is a preference. For some, those preferences might be grounded in a particular worldview, but just as tastes are markers of subjectivity and not external reality, views are not reflections. And, at some point, you may need to account for what you’re unable or unwilling to see from your particular vantage point.

Snyder is still answering questions about Man of Steel because asserting the reality of what Superman would do as a defense of one’s film begs the underlying questions of what, and whose, reality is being enacted. The matter of what Superman, or the members of The Fantastic Four, would really do, in any situation, is unanswerable. The closest you can get to characters like these is to look at the comics and related media, such as video games and animated TV shows and movies.

Following Man of Steel, Some critics and reporters did search for other cases where Superman has been shown to have killed (see, for example, Leslie Gornstein, “‘Man of Steel’ Controversy: Does Superman Go Too Far? (Spoiler Alert)“. Yahoo! Movies. 17 June 2013), and the conclusion to be drawn from these efforts is that yes, as Snyder asserts, you can find instances where Superman at least arguably chooses to kill, but this is a clear exception in how the character is depicted.

There’s no simple choice to be made between a real (adult) Superman and an un-real (adolescent) Superman. The only sense in which Snyder’s Superman is any more “real” than anyone else’s is in relation to his own, authorial, sense of the world he imagines the character inhabits. If that is a hard and violent world, fine, but accept ownership of that view, and don’t act as if your choices are beyond you.

One way in which Marvel’s characters have been used to ‘reflect the world we live now’ in both the comics and on film is by locating them in real-world locations, notably New York, but also other cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Marvel characters are accessible figures in their storyworld via media, as celebrities, and as icons of pop culture. In some cases, they are even people’s neighbors. This conceit allows for humor and satire about heroes, heroism, and hero-worship that shows or comments on aspects of the media saturated lives lived by many readers and viewers of Marvel books and films. Notably, here, it is an approach to realism that is not, inherently, gritty or violent, but can be light and humorous, as when Tony Stark has to deal with overly solicitous fanboys or crowds of people are shown taking part in a pro-mutant rally when the X-Men show up.

Reality isn’t a stable referent, and what feels real in a film will largely be a matter of context and of the particular reality being shown on screen. In the case of superheroes, the aforementioned visual level of reality is likely what brings audiences to the theater. Millions more see the films based on the comics than read the books. Most of those moviegoers likely could care less how the Superman in Man of Steel conforms to canon, however that is defined, but what they likely want is an opportunity to imagine what seeing Superman in the “real world” might be like.

For readers of the comics, a live-action film is also an opportunity to see the characters from a different perspective, embodied by an actor and projected 30 feet high. In both cases, there’s a desire for wonder, to see and imagine something “impossible”, not the superhero as a metaphor.

The superhero film that incorporates a notion of wonder best isn’t a live-action film or one based on a comic; it’s Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004). This theme is directly addressed in a scene between Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and the neighbor kid, who is always hanging around the driveway on his tricycle.

“What are you waiting for?”, asks Mr. Incredible.

“I don’t know. Something amazing, I guess,” says the kid.

Mr. Incredible sighs and responds, “Me, too, kid.”

If you can get that right, that something ‘amazing’, you can still grit up your film or have your hero kill the villain, but I wouldn’t start there. There’s no shortage of comics one could read for dirty, ugly, or morally ambiguous superheroes. The only thing that can be done with film better than comics is spectacle. Thinking otherwise betrays a lack of respect for comics and pretentiousness about film.

While superheroes, in both comics and film have, for lack of a better word, “matured” beyond the simplistic themes and fantasies of the earliest comics, these characters are still rooted in some concept of fun or “wouldn’t it be cool if …” Modern filmmaking technology makes taking that speculation from page to screen far easier and more real, in a visual sense, than has been previously possible, but that also means that it can be taken for granted. The best superhero films never sacrifice the wondrous to ‘the real’.