Specific Scenes That Superhero Movies Have Perfected
Now that superhero films have moved from being special attractions to being our main way of relating emotional experiences to others, we've started to notice that they do a bunch of the same things. Common tropes pop up and propagate across the genre, but rather than look at these scenes cynically and say "Well, if they repeat things, they must not be good, unlike my short story collection about consumerism and young love," I think we should embrace them.
Because when these tropes and scenes are done right, they can be some of the most fiercely entertaining things that we've ever seen. And when they're done wrong, they make us beg for a painless death. Here are 12 cinema tropes that superhero films have both taken to the next level, and beaten to an unrecognizable, insufferable pulp.
The Superhero Introduction
The superhero introduction has to be both powerful and mysterious. It has to satisfy you enough so that you're not anxious when the costumes don't show back up for another 40 minutes, but also leave you desperately wanting the title of the movie to kick some more ass. It has to leave you saying "Oh shit. That's it?!? That was great!"
It also has to balance with the fact that we're not living in a world where a guy saying "I'm (insert hero here)" is rare enough to cause people to clap. We get a dozen of these introductions a year, so by the time we hear "Hi! I'm Thor's younger brother Randy," most of the time, we just wish they'd move along to the actual story.
The Movie That Failed At This: Fantastic Four
On one hand, you get to know the four heroes before they get their powers. On the other hand, you're so fucking tired of them when get their powers that you start to wish that radiation poisoning was more of a thing in comic books.
The Movie That Did It Best: Batman
By the time Batman whispers "I'm Batman" and hops off the roof, you're not really sure what his powers are. Gunshots took him down pretty easily, but he also kicked a dude through a door and has boomerangs that are shaped like mini versions of himself. While we'd later learn that his powers include scowling and hitting ninjas in the dick, the opening to Batman leaves us hanging. After years of Batman comics, we thought we had who Batman was nailed down pretty well. Now, it could be anyone's guess.
Establishing the Love Interest
The love interest is the superhero's primary link to a world that doesn't include beating up clown terrorists and aliens. They normalize the hero, without making the hero's feats seem any less shit-your-pants awe-inspiring. They need to be more self aware than the hero, and more equipped to handle the side of the world that the superhero's secret identity doesn't handle so well.
Our biggest problem with this trope is that when you have a giant dude thing in a cape, it's easy for screenwriters to focus on that and ignore the love interest entirely. So you get a ton of character development that stops with "Here she is. She's a scientist. That means she's smart. Okay, back to the falling buildings."
The Movie That Failed At This: Spider-Man 3
Dad, he's in a band, and he has a sweet trucker hat collection.
Gwen Stacy is introduced to give the story a little "Will they or won't they?", but it's hard to accomplish that when your character descriptors are "Has a face" and "Not Mary Jane Watson."
The Movie That Did It Best: Superman
There is no part of this movie that isn't adorable. Even Gene Hackman.
"You've got me? Who's got you?!?" says a lot of what you need to know about Lois Lane in this series. She's funny, energetic, inquisitive, and everything that Superman isn't. It flips over the old "Oh, MY HERO" trope of women getting saved by burly men in colorful fetish wear and makes it into something that isn't so 1934. Most importantly, it places them as equals. Sure, Superman can seemingly invent a new power whenever he wants to, but Lois Lane will call him on his (and everyone else's) shit for the rest of their lives.
Establishing the Villain
They can be loud or quiet. They can explain their whole backstory in one long monologue or never even tell you their name. But they have to be a threat from the get-go. And they have to make audiences say "I'd be perfectly okay with watching a whole movie about this thing." If the supervillain isn't a threat, the movie will devolve into Powerful Person vs. Insane Halloween Shop Customer.
It's even worse if the supervillain isn't a character. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done a lot of cool things, but its worst offense is its revolving door of villains that are there to claim that they've had what's rightfully theirs taken away, and die.
The Movie That Failed At This: X-Men: The Last Stand
Sorry, comic book fans. Everything you've ever loved is dumb.
The Juggernaut's second line is "Let me out of here. I gotta pee." It's heartbreaking.
The Movie That Did It Best: X-Men: First Class
Put this on my tombstone. I don't how, but just do it.
Thanks to his World War II origin story, and to the fact that Michael Fassbender could make me divorce my wife just by asking me to, you know that shit's about to go down from the moment Magneto enters the room. And then he does a scene that's half X-Men and half Casino Royale, and boom. You've got a villain that people will watch for the rest of a franchise. He's a villain that's definitely the Magneto we love, but still full of surprises, which is what you need when you're dealing with a beloved character that's been around for 50-plus years.
Related: 55 Villains We Should Root For
The World-Building Part
This sets up the world and the moving pieces in it. By the time the movie gets to its final stretch, it's mostly going to be shit blowing up, so this is the time that filmmakers use to actually make you care about whether or not the characters escape all the shit that's blowing up. If it fails here, the movie will be called "popcorn entertainment" and will be treated like a leprosy victim by critics everywhere. If it succeeds, it will be hailed as a "triumph of the genre," and you'll get to read thinkpieces about it from now until the end of time.
And oh, can it fail. You can throw in every comic book reference you have -- usually a guy saying to another guy "No, thank YOU, Mr... FREEZE" and still end up with a jumbled pile of name drops and disappointment. If it doesn't come together cohesively, you may as well not acknowledge the source material at all, because it's an affront to comics and movies alike when you think that people will be satisfied with your pandering attempt at reciting a Marvel encyclopedia and calling it world-building.
The Movie That Failed At This: Batman Forever
While Bruce Wayne thinks about getting in Nicole Kidman's pants, the Riddler teams up with a middle-aged man to make Gotham watch more TV. It's a plan that can literally be stopped with two punches, and it sets up Gotham as a miserable place to not only live in, but to watch as well.
The Movie That Did It Best: The Dark Knight
"Eh, I think it's a little overrated." Shut up, college Daniel.
The Dark Knight puts its characters in a state of ease while putting the audience in a state of unease. Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon are toasting each other and fondling their own egos, thanks to the fact that Batman is helping them lock up some gangsters. Meanwhile, the Joker is preparing to dropkick Gotham in a way that the city could've never prepared for. So not only does it show off the rules of the world, it also shows that all of those rules can be broken at any time. Which is something that's said, like, 20 times in that film. We get it, Christopher Nolan. Ya' got THEMES.
Training Montage/"Watch What I Can Do"
The training montage shows the hero flexing a little bit. This bit usually comes after the initial "Wow, I've got powers!" thing wears off, and "Fuck, I've got these powers" sets in. It gives the hero a chance to not be as broody as they'll become later, but since we're dealing with a two-hour movie, it does need to show why exactly we're supposed to be so impressed with them.
It also gives the movie a chance to show us why we might regret paying for a ticket later. Because if a hero isn't interesting when they're bumbling around, they certainly won't be interesting when they're stoic later. If the "Watch What I Can Do" scene fails, there's a good chance that you're about to sustain one long yawn for the next 90 minutes.
The Movie That Failed At This: Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad tries to blend its "Look what I can do!" and "Hero introduction" scenes, and despite spending an agonizingly long time trudging to the point of the movie, you never quite get a hold on the characters. That guy's an asshole, that guy has fire, and Harley Quinn. I've never seen a film try to rip joy away from fantasy quite like Suicide Squad did. It has the sense of wonder of a dead clam.
The Movie That Did It Best: Deadpool
This scene wins the Oscar for Best All Of It.
It helps that Deadpool is so fully realized as a character that his montage of quipping and fighting could stand as a mini movie on its own. Having the hero cast comic-relief glances at the audience while they learn how to properly jump over buildings or whatever is good in its own right, but Deadpool ignores the idea that we need to see what the hero looks like as a clumsy moron and moves right to the need to see them at the height of their power.
The Mid-Movie Showdown establishes most of the prime dilemmas that have been hinted at until then. Whether or not they face their antagonist for the first time isn't the main issue here. The issue is that, even with all of these sweet-ass powers at their disposal, what important thing does this hero still have to overcome? They can shoot laser beams out of their laser dick. What's holding them back from being the LaserDickMan that they dream of being? This scene establishes that.
This scene can also establish the onscreen chemistry, or lack thereof, between a hero and villain. Like many things on this list, you imagine, for years, what it will look like when someone makes a movie out of your favorite fight scene between your favorite characters. And in a tragic number of superhero films, this amazing daydream is rendered into a boring stare off or a soulless backflip contest.
The Movie That Failed At This: Blade: Trinity
When this movie came out, I skipped my grandmother's birthday party to see it. Christ.
What should be a scene of Blade feeling the pressure of facing the greatest, most unstoppable vampire in history devolves into Blade and Dracula chasing each other across some rooftops. "When in doubt, have Blade run after someone." -- The motto of the Blade films.
The Movie That Did It Best: Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2
How's that great responsibility thing workin' out for you?
Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films did a great job of showing us a Peter Parker that didn't handle distraction very well. You're fighting an over-sized helmet and fucking Tevye, Spider-Man. Shouldn't you be able to get some more hits in? Not when he's constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure that Mary Jane and Aunt May are alright. These movies, in the span of two kickass action sequences, nail down one the biggest themes in Spider-Man: as long as the people that he loves are around, he's probably going to get his ass kicked a lot.
Sad, Angsty Superhero Shit
This trope can manifest itself in a variety of ways, usually in a masked version of "She doesn't want to go to prom with me." Showing that the protagonist has hit a wall in their efforts, the Sad Angsty Superhero Shit scene gives audiences time to reflect on such weighty issues as "It's hard to find love when even your cod piece is shaped like a little bat" and "The world doesn't accept you very easily when you're green."
Why we've tended to rebel against this is pretty easy to see: Though usually deemed as started by The Dark Knight, every once in a while, both superhero comics and movies fall into an inescapable pit of navel gazing and tears. I'm not going to claim that superhero things are supposed to be an orgy of WHIFF BAM pleasantries, but after a while of watching Batman sit with his head in his hands, I do start to wonder why fun has abandoned me so.
The Movie That Failed At This: The Dark Knight Rises
Bane is pretty cool, but all of the emotional notes of The Dark Knight Rises feel false and lackluster. What should be hard hitting, deeply impactful moments come off like the actors are desperately trying to improv their way out of their character arcs.
The Movie That Did It Best: X2
The fact that Brian Cox isn't in every movie means that corruption is still rampant in Hollywood.
When William Stryker wheels out his mute, telepathic Boo Radley of a son, all of the themes of the X-Men series come crashing down on the audience. It's no longer about protecting humanity from other mutants. Don't get me wrong, you feel sorry for Magneto and all of the horrors that he's endured, but at the end of the day, it's Magneto's choice. X2 makes you question how exactly in control this anemic creature is of his own powers or even of his own bowel movements. And it raises the question: What's more horrifying? The thing that definitely hates you, or the thing that might hate you?
The Big Twist
The big twist often comes with answering a question that has plagued the whole movie. After two hours of flying around and throwing tanks, it can invigorate the film and give the movie what it needs to push through to the end.
It can also be laughably manufactured. It's such an overused thing in not only the superhero genre but in all of cinema that we start to groan at the first hint of mustache twirling. We're so burned by bad twists now that they don't even have to be surprising to get a reaction from us. They just have to be organic. They just have to feel like they're things that should've happened, instead of things that were added to flip a dull story over.
The Movie That Failed At This: The Wolverine
Note to plot-twist makers everywhere: If you want to reveal that a guy has been evil the whole time, but you only have two guys overall and one of them is Hugh Jackman, maybe just hold off on that for a bit.
The Movie That Did It Best: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
"Hail Hydra" launched memes like rats escaping a flooding sewer. And for good reason. The revelation that Robert Redford, America's grandfather, is part of the super Nazi group is immensely satisfying. I mean, it sucks that the Sundance Kid is actually a giant asshole, but until John Wayne comes back from the dead to reveal that he's a Skrull, no other actor would've worked as well in that situation.
Race To The Finish
The plot is now rocketing toward its end, and characters are dropping off like flies. The superhero film is boiling itself down to its most important aspects to prepare for the big finale and, after nearly a whole film's worth of problems, everyone is out for their own brand of redemption. Or they're just frustrated and looking to beat up someone. One in the same, really.
So many films poorly time this chunk, though, so instead of the rush of inevitability, we get the superhero equivalent of a guy that can't muster up the courage to ask someone to prom. It kicks the dirt, looks around sheepishly, and when it comes time for Spider-Man to deliver the knockout punch, we're already disillusioned with the idea of fantasy as a whole.
The Movie That Failed At This: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Listen to a song that was actually put on the soundtrack of this movie. Really gets you in the mood to hate it.
Never properly building anything, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 attempts to cobble together some motivation for the villains and for every other character in the film in the last half, resulting in a movie that simultaneously feels like a rush job and like it absorbed a tiny sequel in the womb.
The Movie That Did It Best: Captain America: Civil War
Eventually, the movie will underwhelmingly close with a conflict between Captain America, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man. However, the massive fight in the airport is the perfect way to set it all up. People are being taken out of commission, new powers are being shown, and future rivalries are being set up for later films. Add in the new wildcard character (Spider-Man) and you have a sequence that energizes what had started to become a pouty massacre of good intentions.
Sometimes, the thundering orchestra stops, and the hero you're watching says something that is only fitting in that moment. No other combination of circumstances would ever do it justice, and that's why, despite it being a stranger form of badassery than the movie intended, you will never be able to replicate its intensity.
But you'll certainly repeat it to your theater pals. Saying the dumbest lines from the dumbest action films made up half of what my friends and I said to each other in ninth grade. And I'm pretty sure that the studios didn't pay 20-million dollars to an actor to have them be mocked by small-town, skinny teenagers everywhere.
The Movie That Failed At This: X-Men
"Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else." It was as if the X-Men screenwriter paused for a second to look into the notebook that I write in when I'm drunk for inspiration. Too bad he couldn't have added in lines like "Transformers, but with all dildos" and "What if Russell Crowe ate me?"
The Movie That Did It Best: Blade
Words to live by.
"Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill." It's true, Blade! Some motherfuckers ARE always trying to ice skate uphill. Sadly, I've never been able to tell them. Usually, it comes out as "Mistakes are just chances for growth, Kaitlyn," or some shit like that.
It's here, dudes. The showdown that you've waited a whole movie for. The culmination of important forces are now clashing in a way that will hopefully tie up the entire plot, or the section of the plot that this particular movie is trying to tell. It's also the part of the movie that sells the most toys, so you better get it right, otherwise Hasbro is going to be super pissed when their AVENGERS HEADQUARTERS EXPLODING THOR PLAYSET undersells.
Sadly, many filmmakers use this as a time for showing off every special effect that your film has at once, only to learn that you have to build an effective finale. You can't just pour all of your Legos out on the floor and call it a climax.
The Movie That Failed At This: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Surprisingly, a muddled film leads to an ending that makes you wonder if the people behind the movie had even been paying attention to all the stuff that they just wrote. Logan and Victor Creed are set up as brothers that took different paths, but by the end, they're two growling guys that happened to have done a lot of things together.
The Movie That Did It Best: Batman Returns
Batman Returns is also the best Christmas movie. Nothing says "holiday cheer" to me like a vomiting Danny DeVito.
Everyone's arcs come to a terrific close, as they're all treated as equally important and they're all intertwined. Christopher Walken's Max Shreck makes one final move that is totally fitting of his ego and pathetic standing as a human. Catwoman ignores Batman's attempt to mansplain happiness to her and kills Max Shreck. The Penguin tries desperately to take out the one freak he's jealous of (Batman) but ultimately fails. And Batman is the last one left, watching a penguin funeral procession, and acting as a vigil to the fact that sometimes lost souls are meant to stay lost.
The Conclusion (That Totally Allows For A Sequel)
Half of the city is destroyed, but somehow, things are better than they were before. The heroes, bruised and battered, get to ride off to their next mission or just sit and ponder over all of the trials that they went through. And the audience pleads that the film hurry up and get through all of the "You know, you aren't so bad... friend" stuff to get to the best part of the movie: the mid/post credits scenes.
And because of the reliance on mid/post credits scenes, we get conclusions that aren't really conclusions. They're high fives before the notable stuff happens. Shoehorned good feelings before we find out about the spinoff we'll look forward to in two years.
The Movie That Failed At This: Hulk
While hiding in a different country, Bruce Banner's eyes turn green, which is supposed to represent that dang ol' Hulk might be at it again. Instead, it represents the fact that none of the last two hours mattered.
The Movie That Did It Best: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
Hellboy and his group of misfits spend the entire movie being controlled by an organization that claims to be looking out for their best interests and protecting them from a harsh world. And even though Team Hellboy puts their lives on the line over and over again, this organization staunchly maintains that Hellboy is best when he's under their command. At the end, Hellboy and his buddies all decide to quit. Sure, the outside world might be scary, but not being able to make their own choices? That would be unbearable.
We had a movie series that was 90% about a red Ron Perlman's fists and we could only make 2 of them?
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