5 Ways The Rules Of Reality Ruin Superhero Movies
Anybody looking forward to seeing a classically lighthearted version of Marvel's first family had their dreams swiftly clobbered with the premiere of the new trailer for Fantastic Four. According to director Josh Trank, this film is going to be "hard sci-fi" (think Blade Runner, The Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror -- science fiction that explores a controversial area of science and/or technology to a grim extreme). The director even went as far as claiming this second reboot of a Silver Age comic franchise involving a rock monster and a man who can stretch his arms out really far will be "Cronenbergian" in its grittiness -- implying that Fantastic Four will explore the consequences of Jeff Goldblum dabbling with body horror science.
They'll need a much larger jar when Reed's dick falls off.
So why is the idea of trying to make the comic book equivalent of The Adventures of Pluto Nash into an intense science fiction masterpiece so bad? It actually has less to do with Fantastic Four specifically, and more to do with the fact that it is nearly impossible to ground superhero movies in any kind of "hard" science. After all, the "science" in The Amazing Spider-Man wasn't put in there to challenge our perception of genetic engineering -- they just needed a science-y reason for Peter Parker to have spider powers.
Certain Genres Simply Don't Mix With Superhero Films (Because of Death)
Superhero films are their own sub-genre, like sports, romance, or fantasy. Now, with most other films, mixing genres has become almost the norm -- we see horror comedies and sports romances and fantasy sports action comedies all the time. The problem with superhero movies is that they all adhere to a very specific set of hard and fast rules that we've all come to expect. For example:
- The hero never dies (because we want sequels).
- There has to be a villain (because we want conflict).
- There has to be over-the-top action (because everyone is superhuman).
"HULK WANT TO TRY DIPLOMATIC NON-VIOLENCE TREATY!"
It becomes really difficult to inject elements of other genres when you have to stick to that road map in order to be successful. You can't have high levels of tension or drama in a film that has already announced its next two sequels. That's why absolutely no one was fooled by Nick Fury's fake death scene in Captain America Strikes Back.
Yeah ... It's kind of hard to feel sad when you know he's contractually obligated to not be dead.
Even in scenes like the climax of The Dark Knight, in which a man with a hideous melted Halloween face is holding a child at gunpoint, the tension quickly becomes absurd because one third of the dialogue is being delivered by a man in a bat costume growling out platitudes in Scary Voice. Similarly, the ending of The Dark Knight Rises, wherein Batman finally reveals his true identity to Commissioner Gordon before blowing himself up to save millions of people, was robbed of any poignancy it might have had because we know Batman isn't going to die. He just isn't.
Some critics compared the latest Captain America movie to an "old-school spy thriller" because of its cloak-and-dagger first act, completely ignoring the fact that the film also features a robot Nazi brain, shield-throwing superhumans, and behemoth helicarriers in the sky.
Just like the one Welles uses to escape in The Third Man.
Which brings us to Josh Trank's adorable statement about his new Fantastic Four movie. Hard sci-fi films -- at least, the kind David Cronenberg makes -- usually involve the hero becoming a figurative and/or literal monster to the point of oblivion. Sure, Ben Grimm turns into a grotesque rock ogre, but we'll never see him implode painfully under his own weight or accidentally kill innocent people when he slips on a waxed floor. Johnny Storm won't scream in agony every time he lights on fire. The film has to end with these four people learning to cope with their horrible mutations and defeating Dr. Doom (who in this film is a computer hacker named Domashev, because apparently they felt a man named Dr. Doom was the thing audiences would have a hard time believing), rather than suffering any kind of surprising consequences as a result of their meddling with science. There is literally no way the message of this movie can be anything other than "superpowers are awesome."
Adding Real Science Means Straying From the Source Material
Another aspect of hard science fiction is that it explores actual science, even when it's really over-the-top. The movie Primer focused on the logistics (and ultimately the mundane details) of a hypothetical time machine. Interstellar showed how deep space travel would shave decades off your life. Blade Runner challenged us to decide whether or not hyper-realistic humanoid robots deserved basic human rights (and sagely pointed out that we would start having sex with these robots immediately). And Gattaca explored how genetic modification would allow you to be traced everywhere you go. Hard sci-fi begins with the science to draw disturbing but realistic conclusions.
Seriously, like so damn immediately.
Superhero films do the exact opposite. The science is an afterthought, cooked up at the last minute to explain why the main characters can punch through buildings. Superman's atmospheric advantage and alien ancestry wasn't thought up before his laser vision and Doublemint breath. The creators simply wanted to craft an ultimate hero, and then worked backwards from there. And that's totally fine! Superman is an alien. That's all the explanation we need. Spider-Man and The Hulk got a 1960s dose of radiation. It's fine. Or just make your hero a mythical God, or a mutant. It doesn't matter. At least, not until writers start needlessly changing the story to make it more "realistic". Suddenly the Fortress Of Solitude is a spaceship and Rhino becomes Paul Giamatti in a robotic dinosaur costume.
Superhero films have never been scientifically realistic because we've never required them to be. We know chaotic exposure to radiation doesn't do a goddamn thing but make you terminally ill, and that a spider doesn't inject you with recombinant strands of its DNA when it bites you. So when the makers of the new Fantastic Four brag about how they've gone out of their way to create realistic "containment suits" for a Class 10 fire human and his invisible sister, it's almost insultingly ridiculous.
"Just like our stupidity, you can't control it, you can just hope to contain it."
But even if they somehow nail the science (which they can't, because people accidentally gaining themed superhuman abilities is not a thing that is possible), it still doesn't account for another huge part of what defines hard science fiction ...
The Morals of Sci-Fi Films Don't Mesh With Superhero Morals
Almost every true sci-fi film ends in grotesque consequence or some kind of first-class mindfuck. The film Moon questions who "owns" the clone of another human being, A.I. wonders whether we have an obligation to return the love of a machine we specifically designed to adore us, and Minority Report explores the morality of condemning a person for actions they are predestined to make. It's often the subject of the experiment who suffers, and the morality of exploiting them in the first place remains ambiguous at best. The point is, traditional science fiction asks complex, dark questions that never have a definite answer.
Now contrast that with Fantastic Four, which is about how cosmic radiation is awesome three out of four times.
Rock Chiklis actually bumps that up to three and a half.
Not only is that hilariously unambiguous, but it's also flat out anti-science. The primary conceit of the film is that radiation is some kind of genie dust. Instead of the science being the subject of these films, it's the cool powers that the science creates. The moral is always the same: In the end, science is pretty awesome.
So a gritty Fantastic Four might start off by trying to make Ben Grimm and Reed Richards wonder what their place is in the world now that they've irreparably altered their bodies, but at the end of the day, they have to accept being heroes. No one wants to spend two hours watching a dude question what it means to be a human Stretch Armstrong; we'd much rather just see him turn himself into a slingshot. It's so far removed from reality that we can't attach any kind of personal significance to his situation, outside of basic human empathy. We see The Thing and feel bad for him because he's a regular guy that got turned into a hideous rock monster, but we're not sitting there thinking "Man, if science doesn't start taking some responsibility for its reckless radiation experiments, that could happen to any one of us."
"BEWARE OF WHAT COMES FROM YOUR CELL PHONES ... OR ELSE!"
No One Cares About the "Rules" In Superhero Films
There's a level of suspension of disbelief that comes with watching a superhero film. Captain America can rip the lids off of tanks and withstand a blow from Thor, but spends five minutes struggling to beat up human henchmen in Winter Soldier. The action in that film is so highly choreographed that the characters are apparently psychic. But it doesn't matter, because the people who made that second Captain America movie already know that Captain America fans have totally accepted the idea that Nazi Skeletor was a person, and that a human can be frozen in ice for seven decades and wake up perfectly fine.
"Kill all our soldiers named Hermann just to be safe."
Superhero films have zero consistency, and we're fine with that. Things only go wrong when a film stops all of the action to explain to us how Spider-Man made his webslinger, which only forces the audience to spend three minutes thinking about how completely insane it is that a skateboarding teenager could invent space-age, life-changing science in his fucking bedroom.
Man Of Steel is the champion of this. Writer David S. Goyer wanted to "approach Superman as if it were real," so instead of an Arctic palace, Superman stumbles upon an Arctic dig that ends up being a Kryptonian spaceship and the stand-in for the Fortress Of Solitude. It's a confounding sequence of events (leading up to an inexplicable costume origin) that came to be because Goyer decided the real plot hole was explaining to the audiences how Superman's alien father knew to send him to Earth in the first place. In the writer's own stupid words:
So to recap: The writer of Man of Steel thought the idea that Jor-El would send his son to Earth without prior knowledge of the planet was too unbelievable (even though that could be explained away by a telescope, or the last second desperation of a parent trying to save his child from an exploding world). To get around this wholly ridiculous conceit, Goyer figured the way more reasonable explanation was that Jor-El's people sent a spaceship to earth 20,000 years beforehand, and it just lay there in the ice, undisturbed and in perfect condition, until Superman randomly found it two hundred centuries later. Again, all of this was to heighten the realism of a story about a man who is allergic to green rocks and can see through walls.
Admittedly, all of that takes a back seat to the biggest issue that most Superman fans had with Man Of Steel: that by making Superman "realistic," they also made him hugely depressing. Well get used to it, because ...
Every "Realistic" Superhero Film Is FORCED To Be Depressing and "Gritty" By Default
Let's play a quick game called "make every superhero film realistic":
- Captain America and most of the Avengers have PTSD, and not the kind where it only takes the running time of Iron Man 3 to work out. Tony Stark lives on the top floor of a hotel, peeing in jars.
- Spider-Man is an emotional puddle of loss that can't be fixed in a graveyard montage, which he never would have made it to, because he would have been shot dead by the police well before then. As would Batman, who really shouldn't be able to walk by the end of The Dark Knight Rises.
"I should be limping along worse than this ending."
- Star Lord died the instant he took his helmet off in space. None of that "he's still in the upper atmosphere" nonsense -- that dude was floating in space and removed his helmet. No amount of pluck will save you from that.
- Falcon suffered multiple burns and a concussion from slam-landing on a helicarrier, after his skeleton was jellied by the various mid-air explosions he narrowly dodged.
- Magneto died of old age.
Pictured here, in his goddamned ... nineties? Hundreds?
You can't make a "realistic" superhero film that isn't also gritty and dark, because the reality of an alien deity thunder-punching another alien deity through a major population center is always going to be ultra-depressing. That's more or less exactly what Watchmen was about -- when you take any given comic book superhero and stick them in a scientifically grounded real world setting, with real world consequences, everything rapidly turns to shit. So while some people might find that idea fascinating, the majority of fans who grew up loving The Thing and Johnny Storm did so because those characters were larger than life. It's escapist fantasy. On the scale between sci-fi and fantasy, Fantastic Four is right next to Willow and the Smurfs. Nobody wants to see scientifically accurate Smurfs.
Be sure to also check out 4 Signs DC Comics Has No Clue How to Make Superhero Movies and 4 Creepy and Baffling Implications of the X-Men Films.
David is the internet's leading source of hand-drawn Smurf pornography. Hit him up on Twitter.