I love superhero movies, as a genre. I am a comic book fan, so that’s not surprising. But I know a lot of people who aren’t comic book fans nor understand the appeal of the superhero movie genre. Many complain about the plethora of superhero movies and the dearth of other options, especially for summer blockbusters. So I’ve created this guide for the non-fan of the genre who might like to understand why these movies are currently so popular, and are wondering if it might be worth it to try this genre out. Warning – this a looooooong entry.
First, I’d like to say that I completely understand people who don’t like a particular genre of media. Genres have rules and narrative conventions, and sometimes those are just not to the taste of everyone. For example, in the horror genre, the villain/evil wins. That’s just the narrative convention. So that means, for example, in a movie with a chainsaw wielding maniac at a summer camp, at most only one of those kids and/or counselors is going to make it out alive. And no matter how obnoxious the kids and/or counselors, I just can’t cheer for the chainsaw wielding maniac. Therefore, no matter how well done within the genre of horror, I am not going to like that movie. If if the rule of the genre says the chainsaw wielding maniac is always going to win, I’m not going to like that genre.
Superhero Narrative Convention:
Superhero movies have certain narrative conventions as well. First and foremost, the battle between good and evil is generally pretty straightforward, except for Batman. Second of all, the hero will win and victory will generally be pretty complete, except for Batman. Superhero movies, in general, are fun and lighthearted and not Very Serious Business, except for Batman.
Okay, I’m pausing here a moment because otherwise almost every sentence will end with, “except for Batman.” Batman is technically a pulp hero, not a superhero. Batman is a thinly disguised rip-off of the Shadow with a touch of Zorro thrown in for good measure. The pulp genre is different from the superhero genre, and almost all the differences between most superhero movies and a Batman movie come down to this fundamental difference in the characterization. Batman is a pulp hero in a superhero world. Because of that, Batman movies are somewhat outside the superhero genre conventions.
Okay, resuming. The morality in superhero movies tends to be pretty straightforward. Good is good, evil is evil, and Captain America punches out Nazis. And that’s the reason the genre tends to be so black and white; the rise of superhero comic book coincided with WWII. The roots of the genre have remained, even while the world has gradually turned gray. On the reverse, the villains will tend to turn the strengths of a hero to weaknesses. So, while a hero wants to catch the villain, in general the hero will value life above all else, which is why villains tend to use human shields so often. Superheroes also tend to wear colorful and impractical costumes, as do the villains. Again, this is derived from an era when good and evil were distinct, and were made to look distinct (the equivalent of white and black cowboy hats). Superhero movies are trying to be family-friendly, which means PG-13 sanitized violence, sexual innuendo, but not a lot of gratuitous nudity, sex, or gore. I don’t think this means that the movies aren’t mature or adult, or deal with adult problems, although I think some people might view them that way. Then again, I’m on record as my favorite superhero movie being an animated “children’s” movie.
In the comic books, superheroes very seldom kill any villains. Part of this is because it is exhausting always creating new ones, and part of this is the idea that a superhero shouldn’t resort to the same kind of tactics as a villain (i.e., the superhero values life and justice). However, Hollywood has decided that a movie won’t be satisfying to a movie-goer unless the villain dies. I’m not sure why since the goal of pretty much all superheroes is justice, and that is including Batman. So the movies often end not with the villain just being defeated, but being destroyed as well. This is becoming less true, and I for one am glad of that.
Also, Hollywood has decided that a satisfying movie experience that will garner big bucks in the summer months is ending with a splashy, high-stakes, CGI-heavy battle royale of some sort. The superhero genre lends itself very well to this kind of finale, and it is heavily exploited. This can cause the movies to feel somewhat the same, and that is a pity. Unfortunately, as superhero movies have become inexorably tied to the summer blockbuster, I don’t see this changing.
A Brief Overview:
Superhero movies aren’t new; there have been various attempts for a few decades now. However, the ever-increasing use of CGI, and better CGI, and some brilliant marketing, has made the genre one of the big cash cows. But as with any movie, special effects only are not enough to make it good, or even watchable. The best superhero movies, like the best movies, are well-written, well-paced, well-acted, well-directed, and have appropriate use of special effects. Superhero movies also lend themselves to the franchise model of marketing, which can confuse and confound the non-fan. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best example of this, and gets its own entry due to the extent of the grand plan. Most other superhero movies come in sets of two, three, or four. Marvel, to me, also best exemplifies the genre, and other studios I think make slight to significant missteps with their handling of the genre. Through the entire genre, a high suspension of disbelief will make them more enjoyable (which is not to say I give fridge or chomper logic a pass).
What Does All this Mean?
Well, if you are a person who doesn’t care for a story where good triumphs over evil in a pretty straightforward story, then superhero movies are probably not for you. If you are a person who prefers a lot more gray in their world, then superhero movies are probably not for you. But there are some exceptions, and some that are less black and white than others. I’m listing my recommendations in order, so those at the top are most highly recommended (i.e., 1-3). Again, this excludes the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I will elaborate upon later (goodness knows this is already long enough).
1) The Incredibles – this is my favorite superhero movie, and I think one of the best. Since Pixar created these characters there’s no cumbersome back story for non-fans to feel they’re missing out on. There are complex character dynamics, an overarching question of what good are superheroes, what motivates a villain, and some in-jokes and jabs at the genre (“No capes!”). The costumes are colorful, and there is a final fight, but it’s not the CGI spectacle that too many movies indulge in. It’s well-written, thoughtful, and an overall very good movie. Honestly, this is a really good introduction to what the superhero genre can be, although it might potentially set the bar too high for later entries.
2) Batman – of course Batman is the exception. As I said, Batman is a pulp hero, not a superhero. His victories come at a high cost, are never guaranteed, and are never final. The people he loves die or get hurt all the time, and the villains often get the upper hand. I recommend Tim Burton’s Batman and Nolan’s Batman trilogy, although I will say that for all the shades of gray, the sides of good and evil are pretty clearly illustrated. For non-fans, here is the story of a man struggling to become something more, and fearing what that could be. I should also note that The Dark Knight is the best of Nolan’s trilogy, but Batman Begins is pretty good and should be watched first. Unfortunately, The Dark Knight Rises is something of a let down. I think non-fans could probably skip it, frankly.
3) Spider-man – so there are two dueling trilogies for Spider-man, one complete, and one filming. Without getting into the nuances of character that a non-fan probably doesn’t care about, I’ll try to parse the differences and my recommendations:
a) Raimi’s Trilogy – I like this much, much better. I think it does more justice to the character of Peter Parker and is in general a better set of movies. But Raimi was drawing inspiration from the Silver Age of comics, and some non-fans may find the movies cheesy and quirky. I personally think that’s part of the charm. Also, they are good movies in general (well-written and all that) even if the CGI is already a little dated. I recommend Spider-man and Spider-man 2 (in that order) but not the third one. There were a lot of problems with it and even fans could probably skip it.
b) Sony Reboot – I don’t like this set at all. Here Peter Parker is an Emo Hipster Skater Kid and doesn’t take responsibility for a damn thing. Also, the CGI is splashier, although this is probably just a result of the advances in the technology between the two. However, these movies are trying to be Very Serious Business, and are not cheesy, or, to me, charming. But many people have sung the praises of the first one, so perhaps this is exactly the kind of movie the non-fan will enjoy. The Amazing Spider-man was better than Amazing Spider-man 2, which buckled under the weight of its own cast of characters and having a lack of a clear story to tell; instead it was a series of hasty (and rather cheesy Silver Age in tone) introductions to characters who will appear in Amazing Spider-man 3: The Sinister Six. I personally find that choice odd since non-fans are probably more likely to be put off by that kind of jumbled mess of characters that are thrown at them with little to no back story because unlike fans, they have no outside knowledge to draw on to fill in the significant gaps.
4) The Hulk – now, this movie is firmly in the middle on whether a non-fan will enjoy it. Fans didn’t like it very much because of the dark tone, but I can see where the director was trying to go. This is, above all else, the story of a very disturbed individual and the damage he inflicts on his son. This movie could be titled, “Sins of the Father” and be equally appropriate. There is a lot of angst, anger, and betrayal. There is not a lot of the Hulk in this movie, which is good since the CGI is a bit lacking. The scenes are also shot somewhat like a comic book, which some cuts and transitions that otherwise don’t make sense. There is a battle royale at the end, but it’s short and somewhat confused. Still, this is fundamentally the personal journey of a troubled man to find out exactly how troubled he is.
5) X-men – the X-men movies stripped the X-men of a lot of the comic book cosmetics. I personally don’t think this was a good choice, but I’m a fan of the superhero genre as is. People who think the costumes are silly or absurd probably won’t mind. The world hates and fears mutants, and they are outlaws who commit a lot of actions that are technically criminal. This is as about as gray a world the non-fan will find outside of Batman (which, again, I think isn’t that gray on the whole). Xavier and Magneto have a complex relationship that highlights the weaknesses of both their principled stances. X-men, X-men 2: X-men United, X-men: First Class, and X-men: Days of Future Past are the ones to watch.
Warning – These are all related. The first movie is stand-alone (even if the plot is somewhat silly), the second is a direct sequel (and quite good), the third is awful and you shouldn’t watch it, “First Class” is a prequel (and decent), and “Days of Future Past” is a prequel–reboot-sequel (and pretty good). If all of that sounds way too confusing, first, that’s pretty much par for the X-men in any genre, and second, start with the first two and see how that suits you and then maybe move to the others. Part of my guide is to both warn non-fans of the pitfalls of the genre and try to recommend an easy place to start. This set of movies (not to mention the Wolverine spin-offs [seriously, don’t mention them]) probably isn’t an easy place to start, but this set of movies has a darker tone with grayer morality than some of the others I’ve listed.
Next are the movies that I don’t think non-fans will care for. I could be wrong, so I’ll include a description and why I think they are lacking. The ones at the bottom are the ones I would least recommend to someone who isn’t a fan of the superhero genre.
1) Blade Trinity – the trinity, not the name of the last movie. These movies feel somewhat less like superheroes movies than they did before “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Blade, who is a hybrid human/vampire, fights evil vampires. It gets kind of gory, but the tone never quite says “superhero.” It’s more urban fantasy or horror, I guess. So I’m not sure by recommending this set if I’m actually recommending a proper superhero movie rather than a supernatural action flick. And with what seems to be the problem with many trilogies, the third movie isn’t even worth watching.
2) Fantastic Four – the two movies have all the narrative conventions of a superhero movie, but somehow the whole doesn’t come together. There are colorful costumes, science-defying powers, and an egomaniacal villain who wants to do…something… Yeah. Unfortunately with a weak villain the movie couldn’t be very strong. And while the heroes are decently represented, they have no worthy foe. The second movie is slightly better, actually, because the villain is more villainous, but I just think overall a non-fan would find them kind of silly and not very good. Hell, I’m a fan and I thought they were kind of silly and not very good.
3) Ghost Rider – quite unfortunately, the Ghost Rider movies manage to combine the lack of traditional superhero conventions of the Blade Trilogy with the poor construction and silliness of the Fantastic Four movies. There was a kernel of something that could have been dark, brooding, edgy, and interesting in the original and sequel, but that was never properly realized. That said, the Ghost Rider (who is not on-screen enough) looks damn cool. Still, good CGI does not a movie make.
4) Superman – if you are not a fan of the superhero genre, then movies about Superman are probably not the ones you will like. Superman is a god who acts like a dork and really, truly tries to save everyone. He wears a bright, colorful costume, he is an array of scientifically-impossible powers, and is fundamentally one of the nicest people in the world. He is honest. He is genuine. He is not dark. He is not brooding. He saves the day. That’s what he does. That said, if a non-fan really wants to go all in, I’d actually recommend starting with Superman 2. That presents what has become a more typical superhero plot, but also has more action than the first one, and is a much more even movie. The original Superman is kind of a psychological movie, which is good, but it’s an A+ movie with a F ending tacked on to it. As for the other two of the original set of four, well, the less said the better. And for the reboots? Superman Returns was kind of slow-paced and possibly too cerebral, and as for Man of Steel? My thoughts on that have been made quite clear. I think it’s a terrible example of the superhero genre.
Conclusion – Like most people, I just want others to like the things I like. I want others to share in my joy. So when I try to share my joy at watching the awesomeness that is Rocket Raccoon (not technically a raccoon) and I receive a blank stare, I feel compelled to explain why I like what I like, and why I think they might like what I like. So here is that whole long entry in a nutshell – Why I think a non-fan might like what I like. So try it and maybe you’ll like it too.