If you told Hollywood in the '80s that multiple sequels of superhero movies would make billions of dollars, then you're the a*****e behind Superman IV.
DC, Warner Bros
And you'd have come closer to killing Superman than Lex Luthor ever did.
But 20 years later, it's working. Modern movies are generating more superheroes than Take Your Child to Work Day at a toxic waste recycling plant, and more money than the resulting lawsuits. But too many are ending up with the same formula: anonymous nobody, tragedy/accident, things keep getting worse until they're forced face their problems, and everything somehow works out wonderfully. Superhero movies shouldn't have the same structure as Lifetime specials about abusive husbands. Which is why I've come up with dozens of ideas to improve movies. True, most are about how the Kaidanovskys survived in Pacific Rim, but until we get an awesome Russian Giant Robot prequel, thereby completing cinema, here are six story elements other movies can try.
Foiling bank robbers was once the easiest way to show a superhero standing up for justice. Now it's the laziest way to show a scriptwriter not paying attention for 70 years. Innocent civilians still have their money stolen in vast quantities, but banks no longer need robbers to manage that.
Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty
"We asked Superman to just drop the money because we've always wanted to try this."
Modern banks are protected by insurance networks more indestructible than adamantium. Even if the world dies in nuclear fire, some exclusive bunker will hold an accountant etching ledgers in his own blood, mixed with engine oil from the ventilation system to make sure it stays in the black.
"I still have all the big numbers, but there's no food left. Luckily, I'm too rich to be bothered by this incredibly subtle moral."
Even if the bank were to fail, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation ensures people get their money back. Which means your hero isn't fighting for justice but lowering insurance premiums. Which they'll negate by smashing the place up and killing people. Even the insurance company would tell them to get their ass out of the building faster than the speeding bullets their presence will cause. An untrained uberhuman leaping into a hostage situation is selfish: They're the only person guaranteed to be fine in the ensuing hail of automatic fire.
In Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker endangers everyone in the bank, including his own Aunt May, trying to stop Doc Ock from taking someone else's money. Money Ock would otherwise have mechanically strolled off with. Nobody died, no thanks to Peter "Let's start a fight with the homicidal maniac in a crowded civilian area" Parker, but the collateral damage easily cost more than could have been stolen. They took out dozens of apartments and cars in their building-side battle. They were barely out the door before they destroyed a taxi. Which brings us to ...
If your cinematic street battle destroys even one car, that person's life is screwed. Screwed! You're either the first of a new breed of hero, a lone light in a world of crime, or a new breed far beyond mortal law, and various other things said by both "trailer voiceovers" and "insurance-payment-denying lawyers in the letter claiming it's not covered by their insurance." Losing a car isn't inconvenient -- it's crippling, a savage financial attack which can seriously impact the rest of someone's life in terms of employment, kid's education, medical fees, everything.
Christopher Robbins/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Peter Parker has a hard time at work? My heart bleeds. No, literally, I have serious heart problems
and lost my job when that a*****e wrecked my car."
Super-movies indulge in the awful simplification that as long as nobody dies, everything is fine. But you can ruin someone's life far more easily than you can end it. And all those cartoon super battles where they happily explain that they got the civilians clear before Lex's murder-bots level five city blocks? Civilians live and work in those blocks! People just lost their livelihoods, their medical insurance, and some of those people will now die earlier because of those background explosions. It just takes longer. How many small businesses can survive a total premises loss? Only big businesses bounce back from that. I wouldn't be surprised if "killing Superman" was a cover story for expanding LexCorp to dominate the world.
DC, Warner Bros
And no, Man of Steel, flat out killing thousands of people isn't better.
Obviously we don't want superheroes to start being careful. But it would be nice to see civilians react as something more than a casualty count evil high score. The final act shouldn't be the hero standing up to the villain while civilians flee. It should be an entire city descending to beat both to death with cries of "f**k these guys." Or the first villain to appear in Times Square falls under an actual hail of bullets.
Both superheroism and science-fictionry suffer from hotshots skipping the scientists' quarantines and tutorials to get out there and kick ass! Hooo-ah! He doesn't have time for all this nerd s**t! You know, this nerd s**t that makes all the things he's doing possible in the first place. The implication is that science, standard practices, and safety checks are stupid chores designed to get in the way of the jock fun. So those dumb scientists had better listen to the tough guy!
Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty
"Commander Hero McGuffingetter was right: His c**k IS bigger than average!"
People like the idea of the hotshot natural talent doing things scientists can't, because that means it's just not their fault that they're no good at anything. They'd rather suck in peace than work to improve.
Just once I want to see one pay for it. Specifically, I want to see Jake Sully from Avatar pay for it. (Avatar was a superhero movie for furries; they just snuck it past us by making us stare at computer nature wallpapers for three hours to turn off our higher functions.) They spend six years shipping him to another world and countless billions of dollars pouring him into a super body through a mind link he could dedicate the rest of his life never understanding, and he can't take one minute for the safety checks? He muscles the geeks out of the way, flashing every one of those poor geniuses back to high school, then sprints out the door. I would have loved to see his unprepared neural system fuse as an uncalibrated body floods it with synaptic overload, then collapse as his damaged brain defends itself by deciding that his new body is paralyzed too. Let's see them build a big blue wheelchair for the impatient a*****e.
20th Century Fox
"You do know our pure and natural society kills and eats the disabled, right?"
Also, just once, I want to see "overloading" a machine immediately break it. Because it was overloaded and couldn't take it. That being precisely what overloading means.
"This is your captain speaking. I just overloaded the engines and now we're all gonna die. Who knew 'percent' only goes up to a hundred?"
Not so much a big ship as a baby Star Destroyer.
This isn't just for the movies, this includes the comics and cartoons, even the video games, anywhere. The S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier is meant to be a mobile city of justice, a floating fortress of immediate retaliation, but its only function is being blown up by bad guys. The government would be better off funding "Freebird" encores in oil refineries. They could only cause more regular explosions in the sky if they moved Groundhog Day to the Fourth of July.
S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel don't bother with alarm clocks -- they just wait for the next detonation.
Just once, I want to see this immensity of ass-kickers actually kick ass. And not as a quick joke: I want the heroes to spend the whole movie finding big, bad villains, then blot out their sun and just win. Because the villain isn't an entire superpower with an insane military budget and a hardware fetish, and simply can't have anything on the scale of the helicarrier. That is the whole point of a helicarrier.
Superheroes are often the greatest at something before they even get their powers. But you simply can't be good enough at some things to beat other things. It's full-contact rock-paper-scissors: The world's greatest backflipper can't evade even an average-to-middling automatic-weapon-user.
"Wow, chum, it's way easier from this side of these things!"
We should see heroes go up against things they actually can't beat with their current strategy, forcing them to learn and try new things, instead of brooding for the second act before trying the same thing harder. Wolverine already has a lot of problems, and charging into machine-gun fire shouldn't be "soaks up a few hits then starts stabbing everyone"; it should be "immediately collapses into a pile of shredded guts because his indestructible bones are no longer connected to the muscles required to run."
That motorbike should be painted Canadian red.
The flipside of this super paper-rock-scissors game is the nerfing all the best powers. The most famous recent example was Avengers, in which an old bodybuilder, a walking weapon of mass destruction, and an actual God are all evenly matched, because otherwise the story doesn't work. But the most blatant example is Professor X, the most powerful psychic in the world, versus long-range Uri Geller. We're told Magneto created a metal helmet that blocks psychic power. How long has telepathy been a s****y mobile-phone signal? And does he wear it all the time? Does it rust in the shower? Does he make all his stupid villainous mistakes because he can't get any sleep with his head inside his filthy, rusted-steel skull prison?
Sure, it's hard to write a screenplay where all the powers interact well. That's why screenwriting is a job.
A bizarre accident gives someone incredible powers far beyond mortal humans, and incredible amnesia about how that happened. According to movies, people give less thought to updating their bodies than their iPhones.
Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images
"If I gain the majestic ability to soar like an eagle, will Flappy Bird still work?"
The origin is just an excuse to give someone powers, but including it as part of the story and then ignoring it just makes the hero look stupid. Daredevil gains incredible super-senses when he's blinded by toxic sludge, then uses them to throw sticks at people. Because that's obviously what you'd do with a functional cure for blindness.
"And I'll use a combination nunchuck-skipping-rope to make sure I don't look cool for you assholes who can look at things."
That stuff probably gives you the eyes of a hawk if you don't use it as a facial scrub, and as a lawyer even his civilian identity has the power to track down the toxic chemicals that blinded a child. And if Bruce Banner hadn't gotten himself blasted by his own bomb, making him the worst military researcher ever, the first time the military used it they would have turned an entire enemy city into indestructible hulks. Making him an even worse military researcher. Including the origin and then ignoring it means you spend the entire second act with the hero not merely dropping Chekov's gun, but actively unloading it and throwing it away.
Starting super-sequences with an origin story means wasting at least a third of every movie on a random non-super a*****e, then the whole "zero to hero" arc -- one we've already seen about everything from boxing to bloody breakdancing -- and the movie finally ends at the point where it should have started: the superperson in the movie's title.
We've got movies about people who can film action scenes in our dreams and engage in slow-motion gunfights in computers, and those didn't need an entire movie of setup first. We didn't have unpowered characters expositing, "Hey, life would be cooler with an incredible technology that connects fictional ideas to reality." That's what movies are! We don't need a crappy explanation; we need a kickass story. Tell you what, you start a movie called Superman with an amazing man flying and kicking ass, and I bet we'll be able to puzzle it out. Especially when you're now rebooting stories you've already told. There are only so many times we can see a man discovering a new ability, shooting stuff across the room, then looking at his own hand and going, "Whoa!" before we realize that isn't exciting, it's masturbation.
"Maybe I shouldn't be doing this in public."
See more things movies should be doing with 5 Superheroes Who Should Have Gotten Movies Before Ant-Man and The 4 Best Moments in the Worst Movies Ever Made.
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