Geeks of the Round Table

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1/15/14

Superhero movies: Effects vs. Story

I won't say there's no end in sight for the superhero movie trend. Now that the Batman trilogy is over and done with, DC has got to be banking on the success of Batman vs. Superman to even stay in the game. Marvel is still going strong, with Thor: The Dark World receiving decent praise at the box office, as well as by critics, but the somewhat lackluster third installment of the Iron Man trilogy made me wonder if they may finally be running out of steam.

That all said, however, we can still look back at the early 2000's and marvel at just how far the superhero movie has come since the days of the first X-Men movie. Sure, technology has improved, and film rights to certain characters have been hashed out, but I think there is an additional factor we can consider: finding the balance between special effects and a good story. The first X-Men movie, for example, seemed to be more of an exercise in seeing what cool powers could be brought to life, with considerably less emphasis on having a story, or character development, or avoiding terrible dialogue.

What happens when a toad gets hit by lightning? Terrible writing, that's what.
As a kid, I was super (haha, puns) impressed by the special effects. As I got older, however, I came to realize that they did not make a movie good, just sparkly, like an arts and crafts project made of a cloud of glitter with no paper to be glued down to. X-Men 2 and 3 were, admittedly, better about it, exploring the homophobia allegory that's always been a staple of the comic, but they never really “wowed” me.

Then came “X-Men: First Class”. Unlike its bad to just unimpressive predecessors, I think First Class is a great movie, easily one of the best in its genre. The characters are no longer just walking special effects, they're people. Mystique is interesting, Beast is interesting, Magneto is incredibly deep for a comic book character, and although you know he's technically the “villain”, you can see that he as a very valid point. Sure, ultimately they're foiling the plan of a super villain, and Emma Frost reaches Kristen Stewart levels of bland, but there are other stories and character developments happening at the same time. The powers are what they should be: elements of the story, rather than the primary focus.

“But Mike,” some of you are saying, “aren't the superpowers the reason we come to superhero movies in the first place?” That's a valid point. After all, you didn't pay $10 to see “Captain Explosion 2: Return of the Mega-Pecs” to see all quiet, talky scenes with a lot of character development.

For a moment though, let's consider “That 70's Show”.

...explain?
Bear with me. What did people like about “That 70's Show”? Easy, Kelso was the loveable idiot, Fez was awkward an na├»ve, Jackie and Red were hilarious (though vastly different) jerks, and Eric and Donna were, more often than not, the straight foils to the antics of the others. Know what's missing from that list, though? The fact that the show was in the 70's. At the end of the day, the premise and even title of the show had nothing to do with why we liked the final product. We usually like stories because we like the characters. They're the ones we're supposed to want to see win, who we feel bad to see fail. When a character is just walking laser vision, like Cyclops in the first two X-Men movies, then we really can't care about what happens to him.

However, I wouldn't go so far as to say remove the powers entirely. After all, the biggest complaint about the Iron Man movies is that there was very little actual Iron Man, especially in the third flick. Character building and getting us invested are important, to be sure, but if if the amount of payoff is disproportionate to how long we've waited, then we feel like we've had our time wasted. The Avengers did this as close to perfectly as I think any movie has. You knew every quiet talky scene was building up to another explosive fight scene, and it always delivered. Avengers are being gathered? Let's have them fight Loki. Now there's a lot of talking and arguing? Uh-oh, Banner's Hulked out. Post-shock depressing scenes after the battle on the Helicarrier? Well, that's okay. We know the climactic final fight is on the way.

While I think the superhero movie as a trend will go away, I seriously doubt the genre will ever really die out. Let's face it, if the Phantom, Tank Girl and Steel didn't kill it back in the 90's I doubt there's much that will. Plus, I think we'll come out of this fad with a better understanding of how superhero movies can continue to get better for the future, even if they aren't as frequent.

Of course, Xavier went from being “the guy with mind powers” to “the guy who the 70's vomited on”, but we'll see where that goes.