Since the dawn of the blockbuster superhero film, they’ve become so ubiquitous that they are essentially inescapable. Like any genre, the superhero movie has certain conventions that most of its films follow. Some things are just part of the package. Lately, though, it seems like that package is getting awfully repetitive. We see the same things in almost every superhero film, and the experience is starting to rely pretty heavily on clichés.
It’s true, of course, that part of the fun of a superhero film comes from the use of these conventions. Even so, it may be time to retire some of the genre’s oldest tropes, or at the very least reinvent them in a way that makes them feel new again. There’s no need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents shot again. We get it. We really really do. Here are the 15 Worst Clichés Superhero Movies Won’t Stop Using.
15. The Love Interest is Held Hostage
This may be slightly less true today than it was in the earliest incarnations of superhero films, but it’s still present enough to earn a spot on this list. Everyone from Rachel Dawes to Mary Jane (especially Mary Jane) has fallen victim to this trope, which often forces the hero to choose between saving his loved one or someone/something else. In the case of The Dark Knight, Batman saves Harvey over Rachel, and in Spider-Man, Spider-Man manages to save both Mary Jane and a trolley full of people.
This trend is troubling for a number of reasons, but the chief one is that these kind of hostage situations rob the female characters of any agency that they might have had at the start of the film. When they’re taken hostage, their fate becomes completely centered on the fight between the villain and the hero. They no longer matter as people – only as a goal to be attained by the central character.
14. A Geeky Ally
Geeky allies are by no means specific to the superhero genre, but there are a fair few heroes who have pretty nerdy sidekicks. Ironically, one of the more recent examples of this archetype comes from T.J. Miller’s role as Weasel in meta superhero flick Deadpool. While it’s true that Weasel doesn’t have an expertise in gadgetry, he certainly functions as a second fiddle to Ryan Reynolds, and becomes one of several characters in the film designed to crack jokes.
Although Morgan Freeman can make any character cool, Lucius Fox of The Dark Knight trilogy also fits this bill, and has the added bonus of providing Batman with some pretty useful gear. Bruce Banner probably qualifies as well, although he’s been given more screen time than most of the other characters in this mold. Geeky allies can be useful, of course, but the humor they provide can often rub audiences, many of whom are likely proud geeks themselves, the wrong way.
13. Training Montages
Oftentimes, superhero films depict the hero discovering or gaining some power that he or she didn’t previously have. In reality, it would require months of effort after the initial acquisition for the newly superhuman person to gain full control over their powers, and begin to fight crime efficiently. Usually, superhero films decide that training is boring, and so they cram all of the learning that a hero would have to do into a brief montage.
While the training montage is a convention that extends beyond superhero films, the superhero training montage often shortchanges some of the more interesting parts of a superhero’s story. It’s here that the superhero learns what his powers can do, and discovers the ways his powers can help him fight crime. These training montages often provide a kind of slapstick comedy, but they fail to consider the way a superhero’s discovery of their powers mirrors the kind of adolescent change that many superhero stories are written to address.
12. Meddling with Scientific Forces
If there’s one thing superhero films teach us, it’s that the forces of the natural world should not be tampered with. When they are, the results are typically less than ideal. This is particularly common in Spider-Man’s adversaries. From Doctor Octopus to the Green Goblin, many of the web-slinger’s foes tampered with scientific forces and ended up paying the price.
While these villains mostly worked, the trope is beginning to become tiresome, and the message is repetitive to say the least. At this point, we understand that meddling with scientific forces beyond our control is dangerous. Superhero films should find a new theme worth peddling to the masses– hopefully one that feels a little more relevant to our current world. Technological advancement is scary, sure, but there are plenty of other things to be paranoid about today that also deserve to be the subject of our blockbuster entertainment. Science has hogged all the screen time for far too long.
11. Villains With an Intimate Connection to the Hero’s Past
Superhero films often look for a shock, something to jolt audiences and remind them of what happened early on in the film. This isn’t an inherently dumb idea, but it’s one that is definitely overused these days. Often, we don’t discover that the villain has a connection to the hero’s past until late in the film. That’s true in 1989’s Batman, where Bruce Wayne discovers that The Joker killed his parents, and it’s also true in many Spider-Man stories that feature a character who goes on to kill Uncle Ben after being allowed to escape from a robbery by Peter Parker.
The most recent example of this trend comes from Captain America: Civil War, where we discover that Bucky had a role in the murder of Tony Stark’s parents. While reveals like this can heighten the tension and dramatic heft of a scene, they also feel too coincidental for their own good. When everyone seems to be connected to everyone else, the world of the film starts to feel a whole lot smaller.
10. Traumatic Childhoods
According to your typical superhero film, childhood trauma is key to becoming a superhero. It’s these traumas that provide heroes with their central thesis statement. The best example of this likely comes with Spider-Man, whose Uncle Ben has been repeatedly murdered onscreen, and gives Spider-Man his central idea about power and responsibility.
These traumas are often useful, and in the early days of superhero films, they were probably necessary to define the hero and explain their decision to don a mask. Now, though, these traumatic childhoods feel unnecessary, in part because general audiences are now much more familiar with superhero archetypes than they were a decade ago. Films like Doctor Strange seem to understand that origin stories don’t have to begin with a childhood incident. Sometimes our heroes aren’t interested in fighting crime until way later. Sometimes they just need to get into horrific car accidents, or get kidnapped by warlords.
9. Large Beams Pointed at Earth
Part of the problem with modern superhero films is with stakes. How often can the world really be at stake before audiences just start tuning out? The repeated appearance of large space beams pointed at Earth is suggestive of these kind of world-leveling stakes, and they’re also what many people regularly hate about superhero franchises.
These beams were used most powerfully in Man of Steel and The Avengers, a pair of films that promise the world will be annihilated by giant beams if our heroes can’t manage to stop them. Of course, they do, and everyone winds up okay. The problem with these beams is that, on top of being incredibly repetitive, they’re also fairly basic. It feels like a giant beam is probably the easiest way to destroy a planet, and it turns out that the writers of these films agree. It might feel more original if the Death Star hadn’t done it 40 years ago.
8. Older Characters Who Offer Advice
To be fair to superhero movies, this is a trope that is in no way confined to the superhero genre. The sage who offers advice is featured in everything from Star Wars to The Karate Kid, but it’s invaded superhero films as well. Michael Douglas’s role in Ant-Man is essentially a variation on that idea, as is Nick Fury’s presence in the Marvel cinematic universe.
Of course, the most notable example of this comes from Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s consummate adviser and confidant, and for good reason. While the wise advice given by these characters is often needed and prudent, the problem comes with the cliché itself, which has simply run its course. Maybe the next wave of superhero films can forego the sage advice-givers, and instead spend time developing a core group of younger characters who are forced to fight evil without any real guidance. That would be something well worth watching.
7. Doppelganger Villains
While it may seem like it’d be unlikely that a superhero and supervillain emerge at the same time with similar powers, it happens more than you might think in the world of superhero movies. Having a villain that mirrors the hero’s powers is nice on paper, in part because it makes the final battle more climactic, and forces the hero to use something other than their powers to defeat their enemy.
Ant-Man, for example, features a villain who finds himself in a suit that’s remarkably similar to Ant-Man’s. There’s also Venom, one of Spider-Man’s frequent adversary’s, and the Iron Man knock-off that Tony Stark sees in the first Iron Man. While these fights are often cool, in part because they provide the hero with a villain who is well-matched against them, they’re also by far the easiest route for a villain. It’s time for our supervillains to get a bit more creative, and start finding ways to destroy their opponents without becoming them.
6. Mindless Henchmen
Superhero movies are almost always action movies, which means that there’s a fair bit of fighting in most of them. While it’s sometimes true that the main hero faces off against and fights a single villain, there are plenty of films where the superhero must first make his way through a barrage of mindless henchmen whose only function is to be fodder for the hero to systematically destroy.
Deadpool has a great time playing with this idea and dispatching with the henchmen in a variety of entertaining ways. Batman has certainly beat up on his fair share of mindless henchman, as have the Avengers in both of their films. The problem with these henchman is that they render the battle almost completely pointless. Of course the heroes can handle these minor bad guys. They are the central characters after all. Making them fight robots or henchmen that barely matter is not only uninteresting, it also robs superhero films of the stakes that they are so insistent about establishing.
5. Heroes Interact With Their Love Interests in Costume
Secret identities are kind of a given in the superhero genre. They’re often a necessary evil, designed to protect those the hero holds dearest from harm. Among those the hero typically wants to protect is usually the hero’s love interest, which is where things start to get ironic. In spite of donning a mask to protect loved ones, it’s become rather common for heroes to interact with their love interests while in costume, and put them in danger as a result.
The iconic Spider-Man kiss is probably the most readily available reference to this kind of scene, but it’s far from an isolated instance. Batman and Rachel Dawes have tons of interactions in the first two films of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and in most Superman movies, Lois Lane is always running into Superman, and failing to notice that he looks almost identical to Clark Kent. It grows a little tiresome after a while.
4. The Destruction of a Major Metropolitan Area
The destruction of cities was so common in superhero films that 2016 actually featured a wave of films that worked to respond to the reckless damage that had occurred in previous installments. Batman V Superman worked to correct the massive damage that Superman piled up in Man of Steel, and Captain America: Civil War was a reflection on the toll superheroes have taken on the world that they work protect.
Even so, the recent slate of movies that reflect on the massive damage being done to cities in superhero films doesn’t erase the damage itself. These films have destroyed cities, only occasionally worrying about the consequences of that destruction to the people of those cities. On top of all of that, watching cities get blown to bits isn’t exactly captivating anymore. That imagery is exceedingly familiar these days, and unless someone comes along and makes it new, superhero films should just leave it alone.
3. Origin Stories
Every superhero has an origin story. Of course, that’s also true of most fictional characters. These stories are meant to give our hero depth, and explain his motivations for the actions he’s currently taking. The problem with superhero movies isn’t that they acknowledge these origin stories, it’s with the fact that they feel the need to depict them ad nauseam.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this comes in the form of the Batman origin story, which has likely been retold more than any other. At this point, everyone knows what happened to Thomas and Martha Wayne. Seeing it again doesn’t feel traumatic anymore, it just feels repetitive. Of course, Batman is only one example of a much larger trend that forces movies to explain exactly how characters became the superpowered beings they now are. These days, most viewers don’t need all of that information. Thankfully, the latest incarnation of Spider-Man seems to understand that.
MacGuffins can be great or terrible. There’s no set rule about them one way or the other, and their existence in film predates the superhero genre by a wide margin. Even so, the superhero genre has used MacGuffins frequently, and the results have been somewhat mixed. These MacGuffins drive the plot. They’re objects that both the heroes and villains are after, either because of their incredible power or their importance.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this type of MacGuffin comes from the Marvel cinematic universe in the form of the various infinity stones. These stones are ultimately building to Thanos, the big bad to end all big bads, but their presence in earlier installments always serves to drive the plot, and little else. It’s probably time to retire these random glowing, powerful objects. Superhero movies will just have to find some other way to drive the plot forward, perhaps by motivating their characters more fully.
1. Fake Deaths
Although real deaths are often used to traumatize superheroes, fake deaths have also become something of a staple for superhero films. Fake deaths are particularly egregious because they rob the film of the stakes it so desperately seeks to create over the course of its runtime. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Nick Fury’s death very briefly seems like a wake-up call for our heroes, and signifies the seriousness of the situation that the Captain finds himself in.
When Fury returns later on in the film, all of this gravity is undercut. As viewers, we come to understand that the movie wants to create stakes, but also doesn’t want to fundamentally screw up the formula future installments will rely on. Nothing truly impactful can happen, because our heroes have to live to fight another day. When characters really do die, as Rachel does in The Dark Knight, that moment is given a real sense of heft, something all these fake deaths lack completely.
Which superhero movie clichés are you most tired of seeing? Let us know in the comments!
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