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.
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