If the modern superhero film turning into assembly-line product is what should not happen to the superhero subgenre, then what should happen? Studios should take a look at what made the most memorable superhero movies truly great: the guiding vision of a talented filmmaker. Like any art, film is fundamentally a medium for an artist’s personal expression, with the director as the primary storyteller. Take creative control away from a director, and more often than not you’re left with a film without a distinctive voice or perspective, and therefore without a soul. Superhero movies need this perspective if they’re to represent the most prevalent of all modern mythmaking figures. Just as we identify great variations on heroes in the comics by their authors (Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Stan Lee) and their perspectives, great variations on superhero movies bear the mark of their directors.
Why not start with the most popular and well-respected of all modern superhero movies? What made Christopher Nolan’s Batman films great wasn’t their fidelity to the material or appeal to comic book fanboys. The real appeal, beyond comic book superfans, is Nolan’s use of the Batman myth as a tool to tell a story of the 21st century’s greatest fears- terrorist attacks, spread of fear and chaos, watchdog governments, economic peril, the threat of facism- and the story of a deeply flawed man whose desire to do good arguably stokes the fires of evil even further. The films fit in to Nolan’s career of films about men who deceive themselves and others, often with good intentions, only to sink into moral murkiness. It’s a pulp film with intelligence and a beating heart. Furthermore, Nolan’s trilogy is a closed and completed story, ultimately more satisfying than an open-ended series that will eventually peter out. Yes, comic stories last longer, but these are two different mediums, and what works for one won’t work for the other. Here, it’s a story that was finished the way it was meant to be finished.
But with so much emphasis on Nolan, other great superhero movies, even ludicrously successful ones, are lost in the mix. Bryan Singer does not create the same frenzied anticipation and feverish adoration with his films that Nolan does, nor should he. His non-superhero films (Apt Pupil, Valkyrie, the solid but overrated The Usual Suspects) haven’t had the same kick that make his X-Men films so fascinating. But Singer’s take on the X-Men story bears the distinctive mark of its creator. Stan Lee used human reactions to mutants in X-Men as an allegory for racial prejudice, not to mention fears of mutations in a nuclear age. Singer, an openly gay director, takes those ideas and runs with them, turning the X-Men movies into tales of prejudice against those who were born “different” (hint hint), whether or not they had a choice, and how they fit in to an era where science meddles in genetic codes. Anna Paquin’s Rogue, in particular, is a fine example of how a teenager might deal with a new identity. This is part of what made X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) so frustrating, aside from Brett Ratner’s mediocre direction and a rushed feeling: the storyline (a possibility for a “cure” to being a mutant and its implications) feels like something that would fit nicely into a completed trilogy, but lesser talents got their hands on the script.
Side note on Singer’s decision to direct Superman Returns (2006) instead: I found Singer’s take on the Man of Steel joyless, dull, wildly miscast, and with far too much reverence for the original series. Yet Singer’s concept of an alienated Superman fits into the director’s filmography, and even if Singer’s sensibility wasn’t right for the character, it’s still more interesting on a theoretical level than Matthew Vaughn taking Singer’s model for a superhero movie and simply repeating it in a period setting.
Speaking of Superman, where does he fit into the modern superhero tale? Richard Donner’s original Superman (and the half-Donner half-Richard Lester directed Superman II) were spectacular films in their own right. They fit right in with the original Star Wars as a return to the giddy heights of pure, unadulterated mythmaking in late-70s film, with a winning combination of screwball comedy humor, gee-whiz action, and just enough seriousness to suspend everyone’s disbelief. They bear Donner’s motto of “verisimilitude” and provide a basic model for the superhero movie. Yet many question whether or not the Man of Steel belongs in the era of modern superhero movies, or if he’s too pure and noble to fit. Answer: yes, he does. Certainly there would have to be re-telling of the Superman story, but a Superman story done well could call into question the very meaning of what makes a superhero, or how legendary figures interact with modern times. Zach Snyder’s aesthetic is often too fetishistic and artificial, but his interest in examining legends in his films could lead to a fascinating film, even if it’s flawed.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies perhaps follow the Superman (1978) model more closely than any other series, and yet the first two Raimi films stand out on their own as perhaps the most creatively successful superhero movies next to Nolan’s Batman movies. Spider-Man was always about taking the larger-than-life mythmaking of Superman and making him more relatable to everyday people. Raimi then wisely follows the model of the first two Superman films while telling a tale of an everyday teenager through his own sensibility. Raimi’s films often deal with normal people in extraordinary situations (The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell, A Simple Plan), and his take on the superhero movie fits that distinction. Peter Parker is what happens when a normal person becomes a superhero, rather than the son of an alien or a billionaire. Raimi is also one of the most talented pulp filmmakers of his generation, and so his kinetic camerawork, whip pans, and sparing but effective use of POV make for some crackerjack action sequences that he wisely combines with bigger than life emotion and goofy comedy. If modern Marvel movies are disappointing, it’s because none of them boast the same creativity that Raimi’s Spider-Man films do.
Instead, original movies and reboots follow The Incredible Hulk’s model of telling a story in a routine blockbuster way so as not to frighten people off the way Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) did. This is particularly depressing considering how strong Lee’s film actually is. Unlike The Incredible Hulk (2008) or Iron Man (2008), Lee’s Hulk is a film of mesmerizing sequences and unique style. It features both a powerful War on Terror allegory (powerful adversary only gets stronger as the military attacks it) and a look at the dark side of technology straight out of the best pulp films. Lee also captures the duality of the superhero (two identities in one person) better than any filmmaker other than Nolan with his Batman trilogy and Sami Raimi with his Spider-Man films. Sure, it’s a bit of a mess and the last twenty minutes don’t work. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a model of what a superhero movie should be, whereas The Incredible Hulk is what the modern superhero movie unfortunately is.
However, there are still happy exceptions to the rule: with The Avengers (2012), Joss Whedon took the Marvel Cinematic Universe and put it through his own sensibility as a director concerned with the sacrifice, and clashing personalities forced to work together, mythic figures of good and evil, and the meaning of heroism. It made years worth of build-up more than worth it because it felt fresh and unique even as it dealt with characters we’ve known for years, but it also had the unintended effect of showing just how unambitious the films leading up to it were.
More exciting still is Guillermo Del Toro, whose Hellboy movies have shown a director with increasing ambition and storytelling chops as Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008) further. Del Toro’s gifts at telling fantastical storylines, combined with his identification with misfits, makes Hellboy potentially one of the strongest superhero series ever made. That Hellboy 2 set up a sequel more intelligently and organically than any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have is telling. It feels less like a story that’s going to go on because fans demand it and more like a story that has to go on because it must go on to be completed. Here’s hoping Del Toro gets a chance on Hellboy 3 after he completes his 800 other slated projects.
There may be more to join them still: Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fame has signed on to direct Ant-Man. Wright understands and appreciates nerd culture better than most modern superhero movie directors, so his self-aware sense of humor could lend itself to something great. It’s unfortunate that most superhero movies are being given to television directors like Alan Taylor and the Russo Brothers (director of the upcoming Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) who haven’t shown much of a distinctive stamp in their film work. But there are still a few shining exceptions out there, waiting to be made into examples to turn this gilded age into a true golden one.
Max O’Connell is a senior film studies and theatre student at Ball State University. When not watching films or reading/writing film criticism, Max enjoys arguing with people. Right at this moment, he is arguing that anyone who thinks E.T. is anything but a masterpiece is a low down dirty dog. He also bears a striking resemblance to one of the guitarists of the now defunct indie band Ponytail [Editor’s note: only sorta]. Go read more of his blatherings about film here.