Recent years have seen the release of innumerable films within the superhero genre. They are perhaps a sign of our times, with the teenagers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s now old enough to flock in their droves to the movies made about the caped crusaders from their childhoods. Dare we even suggest that it is those very teenagers running the studios producing the films, directing them and manipulating the computer generated special effects? There is no denying the commercial potency – and subsequent abundance – of the genre.
But just as superheroes are not all created equal, neither are the films about them. There have been some memorably awful films (the 2004 release of Catwoman may in fact be the worst film of all time), a vast field of action-packed but ultimately unremarkable offerings that sadly appear designed to be consumed and forgotten, but only a few masterpieces worth treasuring.
Which are the best?
The few that stand out from the crowd include Batman Begins (2005), Superman Returns (2006), Ironman (2008), The Dark Knight (2008) and most recently, Watchmen (2009).
There is a key ingredient that sets these films apart. The ingredient is not necessarily the same for each, but they all share this in common: something more. We expect to go to a superhero film and see stunningly choreographed fights and gorgeous special effects. We expect our heroes to face impossible odds against devious villains. We expect storylines that entail saving the world and winning the girl. But to be great, a superhero film must offer more. Just as the best comics upon which they are based explore deeper issues, the best films are layered with subtle nuance and deeper meaning.
Superman Returns measures the distance between superhero and alter ego, the unflappable godliness of the former and flawed humanity of the latter. One poignant scene reveals with neat clarity this distance, demonstrating why no-one ever suspects Clark Kent of being Superman’s alter ego. In the offices of the Daily Planet, Lois Lane and her fiancee comment on the similar physiological characteristics of the two. They glance across at Kent, who promptly fumbles some papers. They laugh off the suggestion – this is not a question of physiology, but one of psychology. Superman, possibly more so than any other hero, never compromises, never surrenders, never fails. Where Superman is the embodiment of perfection, Clark Kent is all too human, too fallible.
Psychology features heavily in both Batman films, a hero determined to seek justice despite the personal costs he must endure. Batman Begins is a study in fear, an extreme emotion that imbues every dimension of the film. Fear is not just what Bruce Wayne must overcome to take control of his life, it is what leads him to choose the bat as his motif, to choose the night as his domain, it is the weapon his enemy unleashes on Gotham and it is what grips its people in the ultimate clash between good and evil. The Dark Knight takes a step further in this study, dissecting Batman’s identity and his motivations. Through other characters in the film, we see that Batman comprises both light and dark. He is both the light of District Attorney Harvey Dent and the dark of the Joker. Yet where both of these fail in their respective agendas, Batman, a hero far greater than the sum of his parts, triumphs.
Watchmen, based on the less widely known graphic novel of the same name, is a complex and fascinating analysis of the motivations of the hero. Dr. Manhattan aside, there are no super-powered beings in this story, just ordinary men and women who don masks and live remarkable lives. Rorschach protects the innocent through sociopathic compulsion, Nite Owl protects them through a boyish sense of adventure, Ozymandias protects them from themselves. Watchmen reveals the allure of the superhero as well as the loneliness, the self-enforced isolation the hero shoulders when facing the evils ordinary people prefer not to see.
Ironman is perhaps the least sophisticated of this company, but is also the least superhero-like, the most plausible. There are no super powers, just a powerful mind focussed on technological innovation. Its players revolve around sharply contemporary issues – the war in Afghanistan, the irresponsibility of weapons manufacturers, corporate intrigue, the fight for personal survival. Director Jon Favreau wants us to believe that given the right set of circumstances, Ironman could exist in the everyday.
What more is there?
The superhero genre sets out to entertain, and entertain it does. Extremely well. With each and every film, even those less polished, the audience is transported to fantastical worlds guided by unfathomable rules and populated by remarkable people. The superhero world is magnified in every respect and we cannot help but be dazzled.
But what makes these films so compelling is that they are in essence a magnification of our world, the normal and the everyday. In exploring what makes superheroes extraordinary, the best films reveal what makes us human. In our opinion, this is what is so appealing about the superhero – he shows us not only the abilities we would love to posses, but how we should behave. The conditions faced by the superhero may be extreme, but his motivations and fundamental character are familiar. The superhero is nothing more and and nothing less than a distillation of the best of us.