Assembly Line Heroics: The Death of Morality in the Superhero Film

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This is an incomplete essay I wrote for class. The last paragraph was written for this posting, but the rest is intact. Also before we get into the article, check out my new facebook page where I’ll be posting all my reviews, sharing related articles, and asking questions that will be incorporated into new editorials!

The iconography of the superhero is important to our culture, modern myths that exist in the back of our subconscious as relics of childhood. They’re fundamental in the creation of morals in children as well as exposing them to reading and literature. Born on the cusp of World War II, superheroes and their stories has evolved from simple parables of good and evil to complex or convoluted universes and epics tying together every theme and gimmick within science fiction and fantasy. Due to each character being handled by dozens to hundreds of creators, their mythos isn’t clear cut, but within the ambiguity can remain a core, a “gist” that each child picks up instinctively. Superman is the warm protective boy scout, Batman is the dark avenger of crime (and occasionally protector of the weak), Captain America is the stranger in a strange land, here to remind us of our past, and Spider-man is the journey to and through adulthood twisted by tragedy. To take these heroes, ultimately the sums of the decades of parts, and accurately translate them to screen is truly no easy task. Comics demand participation, forcing you to fill in not only the gaps in continuity, but gaps in action due to the format of serialized pictorial storytelling (McCloud). Cinema fills in the gaps for you and asks a lot less of you in terms of participation, but asks more of you in terms of suspending disbelief since cinema is a far more “realistic” medium than comics.

This paradox of realism and faithfulness to the source material has plagued comic book films since the beginning. In the 20th century films took a variety of approaches, from the incredibly faithful 1978 Superman, to the intentionally distant 1989 Batman. In the early 2000s starting with X-Men there was an attempt to be fairly faithful to the comics, if not in content then in tone. Starting with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and brought to the forefront with Iron Man, superhero films started feeling less like their comic counterparts. Iron Man and The Dark Knight made 2008 the turning point in superhero films. Iron Man’s gross of over $300 million would set in motion the rest of the Marvel films to come, and The Dark Knight’s box office and critical success would bring superhero films to the forefront.

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Now the fact that these two specific films mark the turning point is an important fact. The Dark Knight is perhaps the least “comic booky” comic book film ever made, passing over the melodrama for a battle of ideologies, and avoiding super-weapons for regular acts of domestic terrorism. Iron Man is far more standard in its story, but thanks partially to its star, Robert Downey Jr., and its director, Jon Favreau, Iron Man feels drastically different from its comic book counterpart. The Iron Man comics were occasionally jokey, yes, but for the most part they were standard comic book fare and took itself seriously in the process. Iron Man is a light and fun film, with its Tony Stark being a wisecracking smartass who makes the film with his charismatic performance. The setting is updated so that Stark is captured in the Middle East and his enemy is a terrorist group. He spends most of the movie developing the suit and he finds himself clashing with the military on his first outing. The film remains fairly down to earth in this way, until the final act where Obadiah Stane puts on his super-suit and dukes it out with Iron Man. Just when it seems like the film will end on a standard note, Tony Stark reveals he’s Iron Man, breaking away from the longstanding secret identity he had in the comics. None of the Avengers have secret identities in fact, which is highly unusual considering how much of a cornerstone of the genre it is. Iron Man felt different from the previous comic book films, mostly because it was severely lacking in cheesiness, and more importantly it had a distinct style and tone to it that was different to its source material, much like Nolan’s Batman films did. It did all this without pissing off the fans and appealing to the mainstream audience.

With those origins established, let’s look back at the films that helped shape the current superhero film. First up is Thor, a daring venture brought to life by Shakespeare-enthusiast Kenneth Branagh. The film by all means shouldn’t exist, after all Thor has always been a character steeped in so much high fantasy and mythology that translation to the screen seems impossible, let alone in a majorly Christian country. Branagh and the slew of writers managed to take a few core themes: family, humility, love, and make the film about that over the hierarchy of Asgard or the religious details of how Yggdrasil works. The film grossed $181 million domestically and proved that concept has little bearing on success.

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Cut to The Avengers, the culmination of Marvel’s efforts to that point and the pay-off for the “gamble” that they and Disney made. It’s highly unlikely that audiences wouldn’t have went to an Avengers movie with the four years of anticipation they had, but it was still daring nonetheless. The skillful directing and writing of Joss Whedon, whose previous work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly made him a suitable choice to handle the team dynamic, made the film above par in character writing and dialogue even if the story was a little lacking. Avengers carried the same balance of humor and action that the Iron Man series had and took the different tones of all the previous films and amalgamated them into one. After The Avengers both the look and the tone of the subsequent films would be far more similar, especially in their marketing.

The following year saw success on DC’s part with the release of Man of Steel. Successful at the box office despite its dislike from critics, Man of Steel applied the aesthetic and tonal style of Nolan’s trilogy to the mythos of Superman. The result created a massive divide between fans, but it made money nonetheless, providing DC with the foothold in the market they needed to compete with Marvel to at least some degree. The darkening of Superman, a fairly light character in his other adaptations, gave a clear indication that superheroes on the screen wouldn’t even need to follow the spirit of the original. Between Man of Steel and The Avengers, the massively destructive climax battle has now become a staple of the subgenre, but that’ll be addressed later.

As Adorno cites, all pop culture is standardized product of the cultural industry, and superhero films are now the epitome of this. With the industrial pressures and audience enthusiasm, superhero movies are are hardly art, for they now resemble commodities far more. This process of standardization has been ongoing, but in retrospect it was inevitable.

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What made these characters interesting was how unique they are, and their teaming up is supposed to be a mash-up of distinctly different superheroes working together despite their differences. In the homogenized world of the Marvel cinematic universe and the upcoming DC cinematic universe, these characters own films are barely different from each other, let alone the characters themselves.

The cinematic superhero is no longer the superhero we grew up on. The cinematic superhero no longer emphasizes morals above all else, no matter what those morals may be. The cinematic superhero is far less hero and far more super. In the turning point in the latest superhero trend, superhero films changed from being that of tight comic adaptations with the themes therein intact and more about an action film with capes and masks. The super hero became less of an individual who looks over us and more the last man standing. Reflected in Iron Man, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, not only has this representation become more popular in use, but naturally box office as well. The ideological and moral ramifications of the hero have been stripped away from them in exchange for making them rock stars for us to worship and wish we were rather than the acknowledge the struggle of being.

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The turning point in the success/popularity of superhero films was 2008’s Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. Clear separation from character starts with RD’s charming and sarcastic portrayal of Tony Stark. His one-liners never end, even as his character “grows.” At the end of the film, he is still the playboy billionaire with a drinking problem, but now he wants to help people at the same time, presumably to stroke his own ego. The relatively honest and serious origins in the cave are quickly swept aside for the sequence of Tony tinkering with the suit and finally having a blast flying around. Followed around by a soundtrack by AC/DC as well as extras doting on him at every turn, Tony Stark is a celebrity and his decision at the end of the film makes Iron Man a celebrity. As half-hearted as his secret identity was in the comics, it still provided him some degree of protection, if not from villains, then from the press. This Tony Stark forgoes this and in Iron Man 2, we see the fruits of this with bikini clad Iron-girls and auditorium of cheering fans.

In The Dark Knight, Batman wannabes walk the streets, literally fanboys of acting out their own fantasies. Bruce Wayne acts similarly to Tony Stark, parading around the upper class. In the comics we rarely see Bruce Wayne, and if we do it’s for some charity event, while in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight he enjoys certain splendours of upper class life in between his caped escapades.

In The Amazing Spider-man 2, the villain Electro’s origin is changed so that he’s a crazed fanboy of Spider-man’s. In The Avengers, the film ends on a note of people’s reactions, most positive, but they’re debated like celebrities. Captain America: The First Avenger has Cap first acting as a stage performer, the same tool of propaganda he was in real life.

A fundamental part of being a hero is surviving what’s thrown at you, but that comes secondary. This is perhaps most notably explained by looking at Man of Steel. The film’s destruction has been well-studied by scholars, particularly as a response to 9/11, however in context to the large battles in The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: The Dark World, Green Lantern, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier it becomes clear that massive amounts of destruction are par for the course, Man of Steel’s is merely the most excessive. There’s something entrancing about the last (wo)man standing and standing relatively unscathed in the crater that remains of Metropolis, Superman certainly fits that description. This glorification of perseverance in the face of ultimate destruction can be tied to 9/11 the same way the perseverance in the face of ultimate destruction that is kaiju in Japanese films can be tied to Hiroshima.

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Another component that goes hand in hand with this is the emphasis of stopping the bad guy, and the lack of emphasis on saving people. Avengers precariously walks this line, but barely pulls it off mostly due to the large cast being able to multitask and the previous experience writer/director Joss Whedon has working with hero teams. Man of Steel ignores the people, as does Iron Man 2.

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Guardians of the Galaxy may be the most recent example of all these trends appearing in one film, a sign of things to come, especially since this film was immensely popular. The team engage in mostly comical and charming banter, pompously parading around the universe. The soundtrack, which is extraordinarily utilized, iconizes them the say way the soundtrack in a Scorsese film would. In the climactic battle, thousands of Nova Corps members, essentially policemen, die, but little more than a single tear is given to them. The city is claimed to be evacuated, but shots of screaming civilians say otherwise. The heroes are too busy having a dance off to care though.

One merely needs to look at the latest chart of superhero films to see that there is no art behind this commerce. Like Madden video games, one or two will come out each year with little changes to message, theme, or even story. Even if one or two films manage to step outside the norm, it doesn’t matter. It’ll be one in a sea of many. Perhaps what has been said above is obvious, and yet each Marvel movie comes out and gets all the attention in the world. When film critics dare to argue against a superhero film, they are sent death threats. We as a culture are obsessed, and unfortunately we are obsessed with the equivalent of an ikea couch.

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4 thoughts on “Assembly Line Heroics: The Death of Morality in the Superhero Film

  1. Lack of emphasis on saving people? You obviously haven’t watched Age of Ultron yet. But even then, GotG is all about saving the people of Xandar. The Winter Soldier is all about saving the people which are targeted by project insight. Iron Man 3 has a long sky diving scene which is all about the effort to save all the people in question. And the Avengers had a lot of scenes which ended to be cut for time which were all about the heroes saving people on the street (and even in the cut version there is still enough left to clarify that this is not just about fighting but also about protecting and bringing people to safety).

    • I was about to argue, but then I saw your wordpress site (which seems really interesting btw) and realized I probably couldn’t convince you anyways. I wrote this six months ago and I haven’t seen the movies recently enough to cite examples so I’ll just say that I was merely citing a lack of emphasis on saving people or, perhaps to word it better, a greater emphasis on stopping the bad guy.

      • Don’t think that I don’t get where you are coming from, but it’s honestly a “movie to movie” issue. It is certainly one of my issues concerning Man of Steel. But one of the things I like about the MCU is that there is always an emphasis on saving people. If you watch Agent of Shield, there is one scene in which the agency is really at its low point and what are they doing? Trying to catch a bad guy because (and that’s really mentioned in the episode) “We are safe here, but the people out there, they are now without protection”. It’s a pattern in the MCU. For example in GotG…the Nova Corps is literally forming a shield and then Rocket leads the Ravengers to protect the ground and outrights says “we take care of the people down here”.
        And really, if that’s your issue, you’ll love Age of Ultron.

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