Marvel had set the stage for Captain America by dealing their crushing blow to the hero in his own film’s closing scene, with Whedon initially spending a large chunk of time showing that Steve Rogers hadn’t figured out how to deal with losing everyone he ever knew. As a man out of time, without a war to fight, Roger’s struggle to adopt a new mission after losing his last defines his character – and nearly every plot beat associated with him – throughout the film.
Not to beleaguer the point, but the same emphasis is clear in each member of the team. Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is introduced as a tortured soul who has attempted suicide, and only finds purpose when he decides to embrace the tragedy that changed him, not run from it. Black Widow goes from a physical embodiment of S.H.I.E.L.D. to a human being when Loki merely mentions a past horror in her life. The event in ‘Sao Paulo’ is never detailed, but whatever it was, her character arc soon becomes one of repenting for her past, with her closest friend noting that she’s become someone new by the film’s climax.
The list goes on and on, but just in case there were any doubt, Whedon dealt the entire team (and audience) a devastating blow by killing franchise mainstay Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). As Loki intended, the event shatters the team, leaving Stark in denial, Rogers doubting his own heroism, Banner having turned against his own allies, and Thor feeling responsible for bringing it all to Earth.
The events of the film no longer hinge on finding Loki, uncovering his plan, or amassing the forces required to stop him; they rest solely on how each member of their team of “broken souls” will respond to their individual and collective tragedies. Luckily for Earth, they respond positively: Stark appoints Rogers as their leader, Widow enters into the fight instead of remaining a spy, Banner embraces his ‘terrible privilege’ – you get the idea.
Whedon’s influence didn’t stop there, since Marvel clearly realized the writer and director was onto something. Iron Man 3‘s plot was both based on Stark’s lingering post-traumatic stress from the events of The Avengers and losing the suit that had come to define him; at the time of this writing, Thor: The Dark World is being marketed on tragedy (with even more tragedy rumored to impact Thor and Loki’s relationship), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is adapting one of the most emotional story arcs in the comic’s history.
In this respect, Marvel, DC, and every other comic book company agree on the core principle of superheroes: they are essentially stories of how people react to bad things. Spider-Man lost his parents, uncle, and friends; The Flash‘s family was destroyed by a single murder; Iron Man had a brush with death that scarred him for life; the list goes on and on. It’s how these heroes respond to something that could happen to us that we’re waiting to see – not just what costume they settle on, or how how hard they can punch.
DC MOVIES: TRAUMA PSYCHOLOGY
It’s easy to point out the superhero films which succeeded by centering their entire plots around whether or not a hero would overcome tragedy, and doing it in a way that audiences could believe. Christopher Nolan sliced up the timeline of Batman Begins to show that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) had never outgrown his childhood tragedy.
In The Dark Knight, he faced Wayne with the second great tragedy of his life, and left audiences wondering if Batman would respond to it the way The Joker (Heath Ledger) had. For The Dark Knight Rises, multiple characters faced the same decision.
Director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer followed a similar path for Man of Steel, making Superman’s struggle with the tragedies of his past the core theme – not to mention, adding a brand new tragedy that should have instilled a sense of paranoia and distrust in the titular hero. But Superman responded as admirably as ever, and reacted to horrible circumstances by making the best of them, and sacrificing things most people wouldn’t be willing to.
Yet Man of Steel had a mixed reception among critics (read our review) – a less mixed reaction with audiences – but nothing near as positive as Iron Man, The Dark Knight Trilogy, or The Avengers. Why? Well, Goyer, Snyder and Nolan all approached adapting Superman as they did with Batman; they would try to look through the wonder and whimsy of the character, and find what it was in him that people have consistently responded to.
Their solution was to go for for realism, and show what would really happen if an alien suddenly started rescuing people in tights and a cape. But to give people a way in to the story, they’d have to make Superman someone audiences could see themselves in (as Goyer put it, “humanizing the inhuman“).
In that respect, Goyer and Snyder largely succeeded where others had failed, with Henry Cavill’s performance as Superman largely accepted, and large portions of the film devoted to Clark Kent’s family life as an adult. Mixing together themes of adoption, fatherhood and paranoia, the tragedies in Kal-El’s life spoke to identity crises and prejudice that are rarely explored in superhero blockbusters.
And yet, it didn’t succeed in grabbing the investment of everyone. That’s due to several theories – some of which we’ve taken issue with – but applying the same emphasis on tragedy, some solutions become clear. For starters, the glimpses of the film that seemed to most excite and intrigue comic book fans were absolutely those tied to the question of how Kal-El would respond to the circumstances of his life.
The first teaser trailer contained little besides Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) telling his son that he would need to decide “what kind of man he wanted to be,” and one of the most talked about moments of the first full trailer was Jonathan admitting that he didn’t have the answers his son was looking for. However, the plot implied by these trailers – a story of Superman having to decide how to find his place in the world – wasn’t quite what audiences got.
The tragedies of Kal-El’s early life, centering mostly on Jonathan Kent and Jor-El (Russell Crowe), were executed well, and praised by most as some of the film’s best elements. But while young Clark Kent was preparing to decide what to do with his life, his birth father (and the arrival of an invading army), in a sense, showed up to determine it for him.
Goyer and Snyder did what they could in making the motivations of both Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon) clear, and at least indirectly tied to the tragedy that had affected them both; Kal-El lost his home, and had chosen to defend his new one, while Zod had also lost Krypton, and was honoring his duty by trying to replace it. They were both understandable, but their responses made one a villain, and the other a hero.
But ultimately, the film’s plot had less to do with Kal-El’s response to personal tragedy then it did pushing him into action (seriously, if Superman didn’t try to save Earth, he’d be evil). In other words, there was enough believable turmoil in Man of Steel to please devoted comic book fans, but since the story’s action had little to do with it, the connective tissue just wasn’t present for many.
We would mention Green Lantern here (though we’d rather not) as suffering from the same issue. Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is introduced as a grown man scarred by his father’s death, but that tragedy is merely pointed to as a justification for why he has intimacy issues, and is quickly cast aside. The film spawns from his struggle to understand the ring he’s given, and nothing else – which is why its impact (and ability to sell a fantastical sci-fi story) is nearly as felt as the modern Batman and (to lesser extent) Superman films.