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.
IGNORING TRAGEDY: DANGER IN DENIAL
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.
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.
MARVEL’S PHASE ONE TRAGEDY SPECTRUM
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.
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.
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.
AVENGERS TAKES IT BACK TO TRAGEDY
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.
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.