Upscaling The Superhero Movie

Jess Ennis /
Mar 14, 2017 / Film & TV

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any studio in want of a good box office hit need look no further than a good old superhero movie.

In the last decade or so, we’ve been somewhat spammed with men in capes, men in suits, men with hammers, and women with woefully undeveloped backstories. For the most part, they’ve done their job well – the perfect mix of a huge CGI budget, a strong lead casting decision, and largely very good writing that does it’s best to bring something fresh to the genre. But no matter how good the film might be (the first Iron Man, for example, is perhaps the perfect 21st century classic superhero movie), there comes a point when the classic superhero movie is no longer good enough.

Enter Netflix’s Defenders series. Enter Deadpool. Most recently, enter Logan. Someone, somewhere, noticed that the majority of the people who see a superhero movie for more than just the stunts were no longer content to sit through films with a flimsy narrative and undeveloped characters just because they were fun. As the various superhero universes expanded, it became apparent that audiences wanted something deeper, something tonally and thematically different to the surplus of films we’d seen up until that point.

This alteration has happened rapidly, too. 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier marked the mainstream superhero movie’s shift towards something more complex. Part action, part political thriller, with a whole lot of social commentary on privacy and modern warfare thrown in, The Winter Soldier developed select Avengers with aplomb, giving them fleshed out private lives, which just so happened to intersect with the narrative’s larger events.

This was a theme that continued with the Marvel’s Defenders series launched by Netflix; Daredevil, AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and soon, Iron Fist. Every series was gritty, more adult in both nature and content. Taking down psychopathic mobsters, dealing with sexual assault and trauma, and attempting to navigate the human condition, the series took the superheroes that we’d heard of before – in Daredevil’s case, seen before – and spun them well-structured, poignant, and dark new stories.

And then came Deadpool. If ever there were an antidote to the darkness of the Defenders, Deadpool was it. Yes, violence was taken to a new extreme, but so was humour. Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson was a wise-cracking mercenary who attempted to hunt down the man who’d ruined his life and abducted his girlfriend, but it wasn’t just the personal vendetta of an untraditional anti-hero that made the film so different from what we’d seen before.

Structurally, the film played out with flashbacks and flashforwards everywhere, breaking from the sometimes repetitive linear composition of the atypical genre film. It was R-rated, meaning that it wasn’t a superhero flick limited to one hastily whispered ‘Shit!’ – it was a film rife with gruesome fight scenes, more swearing than an oil tanker filled with sailors, and some of the dirtiest humour going. And it was great. But the most exciting part was the breaking of the fourth wall that came to characterise Deadpool’s comic series. Far from the neat containment of the heroes we’d seen before, Wade knew he was in a film, knew he was a character, knew that he was being watched by an eager audience. In as many ways as it possibly could, Deadpool rejected the superhero narrative and built its own new and exciting interpretation of the genre.

And our latest magnificent addition to the new subversion of the superhero legacy is James Mangold’s Logan. Set apart from the X-Men universe around it, and hailed as Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine, Mangold’s Logan is a triumphant defiance of every movie that had built its anti-hero from the off. It’s R-rated, self-referential and a little bit gory, just like Deadpool, but it’s the movie’s tonal departure that makes the most impact. Mangold himself professed to having thought of the comic-book genre as ‘bloated’, so here we see an active rejection of that – whilst the stunts and production values might not seem vastly different, the film has a viscerality to it, a rawness and an intimacy to it that we haven’t seen developed to quite this extent.

In Logan, our anti-hero is an exposed nerve of a man. Charles Xavier, the once great and wise telepath, is now an old man, losing his mind and with it, control of his powers. The story revolves around the fate of a young girl who is, in every way, a shade of Logan himself. It’s a superhero movie, yes, but it’s about family, about the frailty of the human condition and about legacy. In certain parts, it plays out like a thoughtful familial road-trip movie. It’s filled with beautiful shots and a cinematic scope that builds tone throughout. In short, it’s the rebirth of the superhero movie that takes it towards a fusion between a family drama and an action-thriller.

And really, that’s what this surge in the superhero movie’s range is all about. It’s not about rejecting the classic model, or saying that we no longer want it full-stop; hell, the response to Captain America: Civil War last year tells you everything you need to know about the longevity of the genre’s formula. But by taking these stories in different directions – Daredevil (though TV) towards the mobster-gang thriller, Deadpool into the adult comedy territory, and now Logan into the cerebral drama – we’re being afforded a whole wealth of complex characters, and rich writing both in plot and dialogue. We’re being exposed to new themes, dealing with darker issues, we’re even getting exciting soundtracks. We’re getting, to turn a phrase, the best of both worlds.

After all, if the superhero movie celebrates the extraordinary, it seems only foolish to consider allowing the genre to become boring.

Get Volume #17 here.

Words by Jess Ennis

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