All that being said, shaping a superhero around their positive response to a personal tragedy doesn’t just make for a solid movie, but helps establish a common measure between differently-powered characters from completely different spheres of fiction.
Superman managed to put the loss of his world behind him and use his powers for good; Batman lost his parents in a random crime, and devoted his life to keeping it from happening to anyone else. Forget costumes, powers, vehicles or villains; these heroes only came into being when a tragedy gave them every reason in the world to give up; only they refused. It’s that kind of strength and heroism that makes the Justice League or Avengers work, not their combat skills.
Both Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne responded heroically to tragedies that would have given them an excuse to go into hiding. As a result, Batman can stand beside Superman in the face of a crisis, and audiences accept that they’ve both overcome more than a normal person could. It’s their responses to a similar tragedy that make them equals, not ‘who needs a ride to the scene of the crime.’
To be honest, that’s why we’re somewhat optimistic about Batman appearing in the Man of Steel sequel. First off, Batman doesn’t need to be introduced for audiences to get where he’s coming from. At this point, everyone likely to see the movie knows what tragedy made Bruce Wayne who he is, and why the way he responded to it is both admirable and deeply unhealthy.
Given his origin, we’re far more likely to believe that Batman can force Superman to deal with the events that led him to his current status – even the ones he may have overlooked. And Goyer and Snyder can do a lot more with an antagonist who audiences already understand through and through than they can with a villain audiences simply interpret as downright evil.
We’d be happy to see a Lex Luthor that is actually depicted as relatable, not simply corrupt and greedy – we even have a few actors in mind – but with two of Marvel’s next films turning to friendly faces for at least some of their conflict, and Goyer and Snyder doing the same, the trend of villain selection seems to be changing. For the better, we hope.
After all, tragedy gave every superhero their mission, but there was an equal chance they could have gone the other direction – leading us to every superhero’s worst nightmare: a supervillain. Although evil bad guys bent on world domination used to suffice, modern audiences demand something more: they’ll only accept a villain who has reasons for what they’re doing.
They don’t have to be good reasons (we’re looking squarely at you, ‘revenge’), but if a writer or director can make a villain’s actions the result of something horrible happening to them, audiences are more likely to suspend disbelief than roll their eyes. Sure, villains do things that we never would, but the best baddies – the ones that keep us up at night – are those who ended up the way they were by succumbing to pressures that we’re not sure we could resist.
While it’s true that tragedy and overcoming conflict is as important to superhero stories as any story focused on a ‘hero’s journey,’ Hollywood has shown a habit of misunderstanding what it is about superheroes that audiences love (“it’s the costumes, right? The car? The gadgets? The quips? The fights right?”). And trying to tell a superhero story without remembering that tragedy is the whole point is as sure a formula for failure as any.
We’d invite you to sound off on our case in the comments, and whether studios have realized that superhero movies need more than good special effects to win over audiences.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.