Why Superhero Movies Need Tragedy

Published 1 year ago by

Why Superhero Movies Need Tragedy Why Superhero Movies Need Tragedy

It’s no wonder why film adaptations of comic book superheroes have dominated the box office – they have everything a blockbuster needs: a strong lead, equally strong villain, and plenty of special effects spectacle. That might imply that a big, bombastic superhero movie is bound to succeed with both fans and critics; but when you strip away the superpowers and the costumes, superheroes are really about one thing – something even the average person can relate to – how people respond to tragedy.

By now it should be clear that every superhero origin story begins badly. Some might look at that fact and claim that Hollywood needs to change up a stale formula, or stop being so ‘dark’ or ‘dour,’ and start portraying superheroes as larger than life, instead of being forced to endure it as much as a normal person. But superhero stories – the good ones, anyway – don’t have tragedy added to make them fit a modern message: They were there from the very beginning. It goes without saying, but – MAJOR SPOILERS LIE AHEAD. 

The best superhero movie adaptations to date all seem to have realized this important fact, but there are as many – if not more – duds that seemed to miss the point entirely. As the superhero movie genre continues to build momentum, it’s more important now than ever before that writers, directors and actors start paying attention to tragedy; as a few recent failures have shown the danger of ignoring it.

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IGNORING TRAGEDY: DANGER IN DENIAL

Iron Man Series Tragedy Why Superhero Movies Need Tragedy

To demonstrate our point, it makes sense to start at the beginning, with the first movie that signaled the arrival of superhero blockbusters and critical successes: Iron Man. Arguably Marvel’s best movie to date, the film built its plot around how the eccentric, fast-talking, spoiled and brilliant weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) would be affected by having to face the consequences of his company’s actions, and losing one of his only real friends as a result.

Stark reacted to his brush with death and subsequent imprisonment in a way that made sense, but he took things farther by accepting a mission to right his wrongs around the world. Stark went from a self-involved playboy to a genuinely caring person, realizing the value of the friends who had stood by his side when he didn’t deserve them: Rhodey (Terrence Howard) and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow).

But following the success of Iron Man, Marvel – and Favreau – seemed to lose sight of the reasons that superhero fans had embraced the film; people watched a character respond to tragedy in a believable way, becoming a superhero by using that tragedy to take on responsibilities and powers that the average person usually wouldn’t. Robert Downey, Jr.’s personality and charm were a hit with fans, so Iron Man 2 saw the return of the cocky, quip-happy playboy who ignored the concerns of those closest to him.

Iron Man 2 Stark and Widow Why Superhero Movies Need Tragedy

If the previous film had changed Stark through tragic events, it was no longer easy to see. As Stark fawned over Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), his ‘enemies’ – a genius driven by blind vengeance and a millionaire looking to embarrass the ‘Iron Man’ – cooked up an action set piece for the film’s final act, and a means to get Tony back to where he was at the previous film’s end.

Since release, Iron Man 2‘s issues have mostly been credited to its use as a set-up for The Avengers more than a movie devoted entirely to Tony’s character. It’s no secret that fans were vocally upset by director Jon Favreau’s decision not to adapt the “Demon in a Bottle” comic arc, chronicling Tony’s battle with alcoholism, fall from glory, and eventual redemption.

The filmmakers did add tragedy in the sense that Tony was slowly being poisoned to death by his own arc reactor, but while his response to it may have been believable (turning to alcohol and pretending he had nothing to lose) the ensuing fight with his best friend was played for laughs, and his sickness was cured the next morning. Tragedy became a plot device, and Tony’s response to it was brushed aside in the name of the film’s final showdown.

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MARVEL’S PHASE ONE TRAGEDY SPECTRUM

Captain America 2 Political Thriller Why Superhero Movies Need Tragedy

Keeping with Marvel, it’s not hard to see how including tragedy in every one of the studio’s Phase One films was met with varying degrees of success. Captain America: The First Avenger introduced one of the few heroes whose origin story is essentially a case of wish fulfillment, through and through. The undersized Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) joins the Army to fight in World War II, becomes the world’s first super soldier – and the last, when the doctor responsible is assassinated by a Nazi spy.

The treatment Rogers received as a sideshow oddity, not a strong-willed crusader for justice, was definitely a rough patch for the hero-in-the-making, but wasn’t quite on the level of Stark’s tragedy. Still, Rogers persevered – showing his level of dedication and willingness to sacrifice – and was rewarded with… more tragedy. The loss of his best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) was the real tragedy of the film, challenging Cap to finish the fight they’d both signed up for.

Still, Cap’s struggle to come to grips with his powers and loss of friendship was only ever equally as important as stopping Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his ‘mystical cube of limitless danger.’ There was enough tragedy fueling Cap’s character, if not the plot, to deliver a solid superhero adventure, but with the biggest tragedy of Cap’s entire mythology resigned to the film’s closing moments – and a further set-up of The Avengers – few would claim it reached the dramatic heights of Iron Man.

chris hemsworth thor 2 loki Why Superhero Movies Need Tragedy

The case was much the same with Thor, with the first real tragic event setting the film in motion being the titular god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) losing his godlike powers – something we’d wager isn’t very relatable for most human beings. As such, Thor occupies a much lighter place in Marvel’s slate of Phase One films, with far more romance and comedy in its genes.

As evidence of just how hungry superhero fans are for tragedy and its aftermath, the character who turned out to be the most impressive in the film wasn’t Thor, but his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thor may have been cast out by his family (the emotional trauma of which is put on the back-burner), but it was the tragedy which Loki faced – discovering that he was stolen from his true parents and lied to by his adopted family – which put the film’s events into motion.

Thank Kenneth Branagh’s direction or Tom Hiddleston’s performance, but Loki’s justified descent into anger and resentment puts Thor’s lesson in ‘not being a complete jerk’ to shame. Loki’s response to personal tragedy was so well-executed, not only was it decided early on that he would be the antagonist in Avengers, but his ongoing reaction to the tragedy’s he’s faced continues to be the most exciting aspect of Thor: The Dark World.

Thor The Dark World Tom Hiddleston as Loki Why Superhero Movies Need Tragedy

If the varied audience enthusiasm and excitement over Marvel’s Phase One hasn’t made our point evident, the path chosen by Joss Whedon. The writer/director (famous for killing off beloved characters) has gone on the record stating his opinion that “you go to the movies to see people you love suffer,” so there’s no question he’s in our camp.

But when handed the reins of the Marvel universe, and charged with writing a story that would make audiences care for every single one of the assembled Avengers, Whedon turned to the one theme he knew wouldn’t fail: he’d put each character through something terrible, letting the entire story hinge on how they’d react.

With Loki, Whedon had a villain whose motives would be justified (there’s an entire scene in The Avengers devoted to Loki claiming he felt he’d been cast aside at the end of Thor, further justifying his anger and seeing himself as a lost cause). But that was just the beginning.

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NEXT PAGE: Avengers Takes it back to tragedy…

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  1. I’m a movie fan, a fan of BOTH DC and Marvel equally. But I have to say as of now, Marvel is winning the cinematic battle. With (this doesn’t count Sony or Fox) over 5 billion dollars to show for in the past 5 years, and over 70% AUDIENCE reaction on all of their films (1 over 80 and 2 over 90). DC’s only got around 3.1 billion over the past 9 years. It can thank The Dark Knight trilogy for over 80% AUDIENCE reaction (2 that are 90%). While Man of Steel did fall short to a 76% AUDIENCE reaction and Green Lantern… well… nevermind that.

    • Warner Brothers (DC) and Marvel have different goals. Most don’t realize this.

  2. Dude I hate to bust you out on this one but I have to, Spider-Man was the first REAL massive blockbuster superhero franchise. Iron Man was great and all I love it to death, but comic book movies didn’t start being massive hits in 2008. Need I go through the box office numbers the Spidey films posted up, which we’re more than all the IM films except IM3. Not trying to start nothing up, but if you’re going to say what the first truly massive CBM was, report it right Andrew.

    • I think Spiderman set a benchmark for doing things right.

      • Yup.

    • True that.

  3. You know what I find really funny about this?

    Waaaaaaaaaay back when I was a lad, when it came to comics I always thought Marvel was more gritty and realistic and as a result the more relate-able of the two properties.

    Fast forward to today in the movie-verse, and it’s like Marvel and DC swapped roles.

    • This is true. Stan lee even talks about how he wanted to give all of his characters real problems and relatable things to overcome. DC has always taken the “larger than life” approach to their characters, pulling heavily from Greek and Roman mythology, and thus being less relatable. Marvel has more comic arcs that deal with social commentary. Demon in a Bottle was all about alcoholism. The X-MEN are a direct analogy for the civil rights movement and human rights movements as well. The Punisher was what every Vietnam vet could have been if they had been pushed. Last but not least there’s Marvel Civil War that redefined the comic universe while commenting on the political atmosphere of the world, how we deal with danger (read: terror) and the role of government in our lives. DC has properties that also attempt to address real issues but because their characters are so high above us there tends to be a disconnect. I love both. Batman is my favorite character of all time and I love many of the Marvel stories, but I agree that there was a shift when these characters hit the big screen.

    • Spot on. Though Marvel still do have their heroes deal with personal issues it is DC who come across as more grounded and less comic book.

  4. This article, I like it! ANOTHA!

    • +1 :D

    • lol

  5. THISISAGOODARTICLERAWLARAWLARAWLAnotwearinghockeeyypaaaaadddsss……..

  6. I always thought DC’s heroes are more god-like in the comics aswell in live-action films, animation,etc. While Marvel’s heroes are more grounded in reality in comics, live-action films, and animation because of stories, situations alot of the characters can be relatable in today’s society for years.