Can Superhero Movies Be More Than Superhero Movies

The following was commissioned by Flickering Myth


When the Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer superhero landed on the web, it seemed Marvel had delivered their promise to make this Spidey flick a teen movie. Until the Vulture appeared and it swerved into the required superhero CGI action. The difference was — wait for it — stark. The trailer raised the question about whether superhero movies can segue into other genres. Can they become more than a superhero movie?

Kevin Feige has been on about this for a while. Homecoming is a teen movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a spy caper, Ant-Man is a heist film. It’s a way to diversify similar products. It’s a bit like when a car company brings out a new model. It’s pretty much the same as the last one but has enough new features to make you want it.

Of course, there are things that the films can’t shy away from. Any narrative as binary as good vs evil has to end with a clash. It’s inevitable. Bond films always have to end with a tussle between 007 and a particular film’s nemesis. Star Trek has to end with the Enterprise crew facing off against the alien threat. Superhero films have to end with some sort of conflict between the hero and the villain.

Captain America: The Winter Solider @Marvel
The Winter Soldier is no where near Three Days of Condor //©Marvel

The Winter Soldier was supposed to be the paranoid thriller of the MCU. To some extent, it is. The scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) hides knowing there are “ears everywhere” by playing music and talking about his wife is pure paranoia. It is also too cliché. When someone says “1970s spy thriller” it’s the first type of scene that comes to mind. The Winter Soldier, and most of these movies, just tip their hats at the genre they want to emulate before they rain helicarriers from the sky. The nods just result in no one claiming The Winter Soldier is the same type of film as Three Days of Condor or All the President’s Men. Casting Robert Redford does not a paranoid thriller make.

The MCU is not the only universe struggling to appropriate other genres. DC’s Man of Steel wanted to be a first-contact movie that featured a superhero. It takes its pseudo-intellectual tone from films like Contact and The Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then, it blows up a city because superhero movies seemingly need mass destruction and Zack Synder is overcompensating for Bryan Singer’s subdued Superman ReturnsMan of Steel probably needed a human villain if it wanted to tell a first-contact story about acceptance and understanding from the POV of an alien.

The Dark Knight ©WarnerBrothers
The Dark Knight is the one superhero film to escape the boundaries of the superhero movie. It’s a crime film with a superhero //©WarnerBrothers

However, one film has managed to segue into another genre — The Dark Knight. There is a reason Christopher Nolan’s film is at the top most “Best Superhero Movie” lists. There is a reason the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominations. Nolan’s film is a crime film with a superhero. He strikes a perfect balance between both genres. Maybe it’s because he has a true ensemble. Maybe it’s because he places the emphasis away from Batman — the true heroes are the people of Gotham. Maybe it’s because he subverted the inevitable final conflict between good vs evil. Whatever alchemy he created, his film is the only one so far to create a superhero film that supersedes its genre.

Other films have come close. Spider-Man 2‘s laser-focus makes it more of a tragedy-slash-rom-com than a superhero movie. Still, Spider-Man gets in the way. X-Men: First Class‘ commitment to its sixties setting almost makes it more than the usual smackdown. There is nothing wrong with blending elements from one genre with another. Some of the best films ever have done this. But, the superhero genre struggles to supplant its tropes.

Good luck Spider-Man: Homecoming.

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