How Not to Make a Superhero Movie
Originally printed in Speakerphone, September 10th, 2008
Reprinted with Permission
Now that The Dark Knight has come and gone, there rumors that it is already considered by many to be the greatest movie ever made in the course of human history. If Jesus Christ himself selected a themesong for his second coming, the movie-going mob would force him to pick that static-esque background music that filled most of the two and a half hours of screentime.
There is no doubt that The Dark Knight is a good movie, even perhaps a great movie. However, as with any superhero movie, a person's appreciation of it stems directly from their appreciation of the featured superhero. As Batman is one of the most iconic comic book figures ever created, it makes sense his character would draw massive crowds even amongst types not normally associated with comic books and the reading thereof.
Lest this rant descend into a much-belated review of The Dark Knight, let me quickly summarize my feelings about the movie before moving on to the real point of this article. In simple English: great movie, could have been better, but could have been much worse. I truely was suprised to find myself enjoying the Joker as much as I did, as it was so considerably different from the comic book version. But this reimagining of the Joker worked in the new Batman movie world of dark gritty crime. And that is the point. Even though some superhero movies take considerable leeway with their comic book sources, they still manage to create compelling storylines and character interactions. However, many more superhero movies take considerable liscense with their sources and end up being terrible. Consequently, this article is my small list of tips on how not to make a superhero movie.
I must first draw attention to a trend in superhero movies where the authors/producers kill off major characters, perhaps in an assumption that the audience either cares greatly about the deceased hero and will watch the rest of the movie with shock that their precious world has been shattered, or that the audience hates the character, at which they will react to the character's death with glee and write fan-fiction about the movie director and producer forevermore. The creators of Spiderman 2 danced around this edge with attacking Spiderman's Aunt May and putting her in the hospital, but they pulled out at the last moment and decided to let her live. However, this trend also results in many pointless deaths. Take The Dark Knight for instance. In an act that suprised no one, Bruce Wayne's former love interest Rachel was killed off by the Joker. Whenever I discuss this plot point with others, this is the moment where I usually start ranting about refridgerators. And for good reason.
There is an esoteric comic book term called a "fridging", which is short for the phrase for "women in refrigerators syndrome". This term was coined by comic book author Gail Simone in the mid 1990s. It takes its name from the comic book Green Lantern. In it, the current Green Lantern Kyle Rayner 1 had a girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt. One day Kyle came home after a long day of fighting crime to find his apartment empty with a note on the table telling him there was a surprise in the refrigerator. And what a surprise it was. While he had been gone, a supervillain came to his home, murdered Alexandra, and stuffed her corpse in the refridgerator for him to find. Since then, the phrase "Woman in a Refrigerator" has become synonomous with the dismemberment, mutilation, crippling, or death of any female character in comic books done so in order to further the development of the more important male character.
The reason I bring this up is that this is exactly what happened to Rachel in The Dark Knight. Her death was one of the things that sent Harvey Dent over the edge, furthering his character with the death of hers. But this is my point: deaths such as this are epidemic in sequels. Take the third X-Men movie, for instance. All five Cyclops fans on this planet were incensed that he had approximately two minutes of screen time before getting vaporized by Phoenix. He wasn't even deemed important enough to warrant a proper death scene, instead just disappearing with everyone simply assuming he died. Although he had a large role in the first two movies, in the final movie it feels as if he was just shoved aside to make way for more Wolverine.
Next, do not randomly change things from the comics (or even earlier movies) for no reason at all. This is not a condemnation of the idea of change. Like I wrote earlier, the Joker was considerably altered in The Dark Knight, but it worked very well. Likewise in X-Men 3, the introduction of Phoenix was completely changed from the comics 2, but still worked well. However, Spiderman 3 introduced some changes that did not work quite so well. Chief among these was changing the killer of Uncle Ben from the burglar in the first movie to the Sandman character. The movie received a considerable amount of flak for this change, and rightfully so. While the "revelation" of Sandman being the killer does add some greatly needed depth to him, it drags down the rest of the movie. The central and much repeated concept of Spiderman is "with great power comes great responsibility" 3. Much of that point was tied up in the fact that Spiderman had a chance to capture the burglar with his powers and consequently prevent his uncle's death. By completely changing the burglar to a person Spiderman never even met prior to the third movie, this point is rendered completely moot.
Finally, bigger does not necessarily mean better. This is what I have termed the "Trilogy Problem". When a first superhero movie comes out and does reasonably well, the producers focus on making the sequel bigger with more characters and villains and special effects, usually with great success. Then the third movie comes around and once more the producers try to up the ante again by adding even more characters and villians and special effects. The only difference here is that with the third movie this technique fails, and the movie winds up being lackluster at best.
Much of the problem stems from having too many plotlines in a film. Spiderman 3 had three different plots: Harry Osborne as Hobgoblin; the Venom costume; and the Sandman thing. Any one of these could have been enough to fill a decent movie. Two of the plots together might be chaotic, but could have worked very well. All three together is simply too much stuff for one movie to focus on. Rather than bulding a deep plot with good characterization and meaningful scenes, the film jumps from plot to plot, from action scene against one villain to an action scene against another, until the entire movie is just a jumbled mess. X-Men 3 suffered from this exact same problem. They first introduced Phoenix, then the plotline with the mutant cure 4 then finally the return of Magneto and his lackies. Once again, this movie was a jumbled mess. The Dark Knight almost suffered from this problem too. While all the movie advertisements prominently featured the new Joker, the audience was shocked with the introduction of Two-Face.
Now, I believe that no comic fan in the audience was surprised by the fact Two-Face appeared in the movie, for everyone who knows Batman knows that Harvey Dent is cursed by God himself to always become Two-Face in any medium. Rather, I was surprised that Two-Face had a leading role in the latter half of the movie, and was apparently killed off at the end. Prior to seeing the movie, I assumed the Joker would scar Two-Face at the very end of The Dark Knight, leading into the third movie which would pit Batman against Two-Face. This plot was crammed into The Dark Knight alongside Joker, but it managed to work. It was chaotic and the plotline jumped around slightly, but the movie pulled it off fairly well. Had director Christopher Nolan shoved in one more character, it would have failed. It is my sincere hope that Batman 3 will not repeat the mistakes of Spiderman 3 and X-Men 3, and will manage to stay focused on one or two villains.
Comic book movies need to be very focused, or else they are just too jumbled to make any sense. Batman, with his lengthy history and massive library of stories to draw upon, needs to be extremely focused. Producers always have the overwhelming desire to make sequals bigger with more explosions and villains, but we already went down this path with Batman. It was called Batman Forever. Remember that movie? You don't want to.
1: There have been a shit-ton of Green Lanterns. I could list them all in chronological order for you, but Wikipedia exists for a reason, kids. Look it up yourself if you care (which you don't).
2: In the Uncanny X-Men comic book, Phoenix is originally an omnipotent psychic entity from the far reaches of outer space that merged with Jean Grey when the X-Men were suffering a bad re-entry (from outer space). Jean Grey then turned evil and was ultimately killed off (again in outer space) but this was later retconned by having the evil "Dark Phoenix" Jean Grey be revealed as a complete construction of Phoenix, while the "real" Jean Grey was in some type of recuperative pod hidden under the sea. From this convoluted explanation, you can probably realize why the movie simplified all this to just "untapped mutant potential".
3: That was the central concept before the latest "One More Day" story arc, which changes Spiderman's moral to "Divorce is easy when you make a deal with Satan". It also retconned out the fact that Spiderman revealed his identity to the entire world because Iron Man asked him nicely, but at least that one deserved to get retconned out.
4: The movie plotline of a mutant cure was shamelessly ripped from Astonishing X-Men, which at that time was being written by Joss Whedon. It seems that the entire creative team at Marvel believes that Whedon's writings are derived from the sweet nectar of God himself, and consequently try to push his plots into every thing that Whedon has not managed to get his claws into yet. Yes, I am still pissed off at Whedon resurrecting Colossus and then killing/exiling Kitty Pryde. Why do you ask?
Word Count: 1,792 words with footnotes, 1500 without footnotes
Article written August 26th, 2008.
Published online September 10th, 2008.