5 Ways To Keep Your Superhero Movie From Being Terrible
Thanks to Marvel/Disney's seemingly impenetrable formula for box office success, we now get more good superhero films than bad ones, a reality that seemed impossible in 2005. But while this has led to way fewer Elektra-style disasters, there are still studios that haven't quite figured out what makes these movies work. As a free service, we're providing this handy guide.
Don't Quip Your Way Out Of Every Emotional Moment
Marvel films have always had this problem. It's not that the lines aren't funny. For instance, I laughed at this exchange in Doctor Strange, when the villain is meeting the titular hero:
Kaecilius: "How long have you been at Kamar-Taj, Mister ..."
Kaecilius: "Mister Doctor?"
Strange: "It's Strange."
Kaecilius: "Maybe. Who am I to judge?"
It's amusing enough, but it bizarrely comes right after the villain killing a guy. It's a combination of A) putting the joke in the wrong spot and B) making the joke self-referential. ("Isn't this character/premise ridiculous? It's OK, though, because we're mocking it ourselves!")
Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, despite their reputations for being brooding slogs through the psyches of bodybuilders, actually had plenty of quips -- Alfred to Bruce, Bruce to Alfred, Rachel to Harvey, Batman to the camera. But the goal is never to mock the movie's own premise or undercut the drama. Here's the hero and villain first meeting in The Dark Knight.
There's quite a lot of comedy in this scene: an oblivious couple is hooking up, Harvey's cut off before he says some expletive, and Heath Ledger manages to be quite the joker. But imagine if the comedy instead went:
Batman: "OK, that's enough, Krusty. You're not scaring anyone with that whole 'hobo who raided Prince's dumpster' shtick."
Joker: "You! I was just ... uh, what was I saying?"
Batman: "Was he monologuing?"
Rachel: "Yeah, he was monologuing."
I'm pretty sure that's not far off from how Marvel would have done it. When the villain first attacks in Age Of Ultron, the next thing we hear anyone say is Banner apologizing for landing on Black Widow's boobs while missiles still explode around them. When Tony first meets Loki, he says, "Make a move, reindeer games," which is true to his character, but why does the movie want us laughing at Loki's costume? Does it not want Loki to intimidate us? If the movie thinks his costume is dumb, why not redesign it? If it thinks the entire concept of flamboyant villain costumes is stupid, then aren't we the butt of that joke, since we paid $15 to see it?
Black Panther largely avoided this, but it still had to interrupt the resurrected T'Challa's family reunion with M'Baku saying "Are you done?" Iron Man 3 had a surrendering henchmen say, "Honestly, I hate working here, they are so weird," which is hilarious, so long as they don't expect us to care about Rebecca Hall being killed right before that. It's a gag that some writers still think they have to include in the movie. They're wrong.
You Hired A Good Actor To Play The Villain -- Now Let Us See Their Face
Thor: The Dark World had two fantastic actors in it: Christopher Eccleston and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Eccleston is best-known for playing the lead in Doctor Who, and was a main character in my favorite show of this past decade. Akinnuoye-Agbaje played a main character in my favorite show of the previous decade, and was one of Marvel's original choices to play Black Panther.
But if you didn't recognize them in Thor, that's fine, because this is what they looked like in it:
Two great actors, slathered in plastic body armor goop and thus rendered unmemorable as actual performers in the movie. After this, Adewale starred in Suicide Squad, wherein he played Killer Croc. And they gooped him there too, and he was totally forgettable.
The human brain is programmed to react to facial expressions, and controlling your face in subtle ways is half of acting. Put that face behind an inch of latex or CGI, and much of it gets lost -- you're handcuffing their ability to connect to the audience.
Oscar Isaac is great in almost everything he does, but his prosthetics in X-Men Apocalypse rendered him incapable of facial expressions. James Spader gave his best Joker diction in Age Of Ultron, but they had to go with CGI with that character, so it's basically just voice work. When Warner Bros. realized that no one cares about blobs like Batman v Superman's cave troll, they changed Justice League's villain to be more human ... but they made this human face entirely using CGI for no good reason, turning it into a PS2 cutscene.
And while we have yet to see Infinity War, the trailer makes the film look like a lot of great, emotional scenes interspersed awkwardly with shots of Thanos' big dumb purple face. I suppose they were stuck with that, because they've been dropping Thanos into various movies for six years, but you have to wonder whether they wish they could undo it, knowing what they know now. Spider-Man's Michael Keaton and Black Panther's Michael B. Jordan both added a layer of humanity to those films because, well, they were allowed to be humans. In Thor Ragnarok, they could have rendered Jeff Goldblum as a blue CGI alien/demigod (to match the comics), but instead they just bathed in his Goldblum-ness.
It doesn't matter how cool you think your mask or creature design is -- a great actor will always be cooler.
Be Visually Distinct
One of the biggest issues with modern Marvel films is that they all look just fine. They're turkey sandwiches on wheat bread. You can eat them and enjoy them and only know that you're missing out when the waiter passes your table carrying some kind of sizzling plate of fragrant meats and peppers that makes you wish you were living that customer's life.
There were some cool and weird shots in Batman v Superman, but I won't list them because they're pretty much just good still images instead of scenes, so they don't give us much to learn from. But you know what we can learn from? The Inception-esque scenes from Doctor Strange. That movie may not have been that revolutionary in terms of plot or dialog or characters, but it gave us visuals that stick in your brain. Also cool to look at: Ultron's birth, shown through cubes in virtual space instead of, say, a robot's eyes opening. It is further notable for being the first time since Iron Man that we've seen two characters in a Marvel movie have sex.
Compare Doctor Strange to the portals in Thor: The Dark World. That film was all about world-hopping, and every world was a collection of different rocks to break. Or the battles in Iron Man 2 and Age Of Ultron, in which the heroes are forced to fight massive armies of robots that all look like ... I don't know, a bunch of assets copied and pasted from some FX rendering software? Or the massive airport fight in Captain America: Civil War, which was a spectacular brawl trapped in the MCU default location: an interchangeable landscape of dull greys and browns.
Thor Ragnarok got love for all the weirdness of the new planet it introduced, and there, it's because Marvel found a director (Taika Waititi) with a specific, very weird vision and gave him free rein. If only they could have figured this out sooner. Marvel was going to have Ant-Man directed by Edgar Wright, who's known for framing every shot in some quirky, engaging way. But they lost Wright and hired some other guy famous for inoffensive comedies, resulting in Marvel's most generic movie. Marvel/Disney absolutely has the tools (or could hire the tools) to make every one of their movies pop -- it's weird that it took them this long to stop being so cautious.
Stop Demanding 20 Minutes Of Extended Universe Tie-In Stuff
Remember how in Age Of Ultron, Thor abruptly leaves everyone and gets a vision of the Infinity Stones? That's a great example of a scene that made no sense for the story whatsoever -- it existed solely to tease future movies. And if it was trying to give the audience information, it failed; some viewers already knew about the Stones, and the scene just confused everyone else.
And yet the Stones Cinematic Universe is about as good as it gets when it comes to this kind of "Let's stop the movie to advertise future movies" scenes. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was weighed down by setting up a bunch of other movies that never came. It showed a hallway of Spider-Man villain stuff for a Sinister Six movie which Sony later shelved, and they hired a known actress to deliver two lines as someone named "Felicia," presumably setting her up to play Felicia Hardy despite not signing her to do anything later.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice was so desperate to launch its universe that it stuffed an ad for its sequel into its own title, and all its prep for later films looks even worse after seeing Justice League. It had an awkward Flash "dream" sequence that was never mentioned when Batman and Flash finally met. A computer's trailers for upcoming DC films show the creation of Cyborg, then when Justice League came, they revealed Cyborg was created AFTER the previous movie. Lex cackles insanely about knowing of space demons coming, then in Justice League, there's no connection between Lex and the demons, and also, Lex is sane again.
Despite all that forced marketing, Justice League wound up the least-viewed DCEU film of all. Meanwhile, the best and most successful DCEU movie, Wonder Woman, despite immediately preceding the franchise's big crossover film, didn't bother planting any extended universe nonsense. It's almost as if people want to see actual, complete movies, not films that act as a series of extended trailers.
Write Some Climax Other Than The Hero Beating The Villain In Combat
Promoting Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Samuel Jackson said something I'm not totally sure he cleared first with the studio. "Like I told you backstage," he said, "this one actually has a story, has a plot! Y'know, it's more than bad guys punching good guys, and good guys punching bad guys." He let slip that by default, superhero movies always end with the villain getting punched and absolutely nothing else happening.
People complain that movies keep having the hero and villain getting the same powers and facing off. Either that or the heroes battle a swarm of villains, or the heroes all combine their powers to defeat the villain. The villain loses the fight, then the movie ends. But for that ending to matter, there's got to be something more than that.
I'll even take the hero vs. hero vs. ambiguous character climactic fight in Captain America: Civil War. There, at least you have the additional layer of complexity with Tony and Steve winding up on opposite sides, and most importantly, everyone is taking it seriously.
Or you have X-Men: Days Of Future Past, where the final hurdle is to save Trask instead of killing him. Or movies can convert the villain -- Mystique in that film, Bucky in Winter Soldier, or Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2. It's not even about being nonviolent on moral grounds -- these are action movies, after all -- it's just about giving the heroes a more complex, difficult task. Something that challenges their character and keeps the audience guessing a little bit. This is part of what made The Dark Knight a classic. Punching doesn't save Gotham in the end. Instead, it's a difficult sacrifice on Bruce Wayne's part that the audience likely never saw coming.
Hell, one of Joker's last lines in The Dark Knight is, "You didn't think I'd risk losing the battle for Gotham's soul in a fistfight with you? No. You need an ace in the hole." Clearly, he was talking about all superhero movies. Clearly, he meant "A fistfight is a lame climax. We need more."
Get to writing your own super-script with a beginner's guide to Celtx, and maybe one day we'll get the perfect hero movie.
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For more, check out 6 Reasons Heath Ledger's Joker Ruined Comic Book Movies and Why 'Logan' Is The End Of A Superhero Era.
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