Why superhero filmmakers need to stop trying to convince us 'superhero' is a bad word

I'm grumpy today, Dear Reader, grumpy about supeheroes on the Internet, and while that doesn't make me original at all, my Editor saw fit to give me a virtual soapbox on which to rant, and so I will indulge in being grumpy publicly. 

To understand why I'm grumpy, we need to go back a few weeks, back to this year's San Diego Comic-Con and the release of the second trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. I have some well-documented problems with Zack Snyder's Man of Steel (though that first flying sequence still gives me goosebumps), and the "Do you bleed?" moment in Dawn of Justice's first teaser made me roll my eyes, but by the time the second trailer ended, I was, dare I say it, excited about Batman v Superman.


It features Superman being heroic in ways that he never was in Man of Steel, one of its very first shots is of Bruce Wayne running toward danger, and it feels like it has a scope that will dwarf the previous movie. These are all things I like, and they're all things I'm excited about.

I'm not a Marvel Studios partisan. Batman is my favorite superhero, and when I look at the grand scope of comic-book history I'm pretty sure I like more DC books than Marvel ones. I don't buy into the "Marvel Studios vs. Warner Bros." battle for supremacy, and I dream of an age when the Justice League and the Avengers can both be awesome on the big screen. I mention all of that because I'm about to be publicly grumpy about Zack Snyder, and I want you to know where I stand.

So, given all of my Dawn of Justice excitement, I was rather disheartened when I read this quote from Snyder in an interview with The Daily Beast.

"I feel like Batman and Superman are transcendent of superhero movies in a way, because they’re Batman and Superman. They’re not just, like, the flavor of the week Ant-Man—not to be mean, but whatever it is. What is the next Blank-Man?”

I'm going to do my best to just ignore the ridiculous claim that Ant-Man is some kind of passing fad (other writers have already taken on that subject) and instead focus on what I found most troubling: The "transcendent" portion of the quote. Sure, Snyder's just trying to talk up his movie, and there's no doubt at all that Superman and Batman have a claim to superhero importance that many other characters just can't live up to (in the grand scheme of what we consider "superhero comics" now, they're Number 1 and Number 2), but there's something more troubling in this idea, and Snyder's not the only one to articulate it. 

For example, here's Batman v Superman co-star Jesse Eisenberg, talking about the movie on The Today Show.

"So this movie is, you know, it's not like a kind of cartoonish superhero movie. It's this very serious, well acted, well written, well directed movie. It's really phenomenal"

And here's Fantastic Four director Josh Trank, talking to Empire (Via JoBlo), about his movie:

“The original two films to me are very similar to a lot of recent movies that have come out, in terms of that kind of cartoonish. It’s just not something that me and Simon are interested in as storytellers. There’s the opportunity to make something that is challenging and tragic and dramatic. The opportunity is right there in the material. We’d rather steer it in that direction as opposed to just embracing a tone that comes right off the page.”

There are a lot of familiar buzzwords in those quotes. "Transcendent" is kind of a new one, but "serious" is not, and you could throw in "gritty" and "grounded" to round everything out. Then, of course, there's the word "cartoonish" to describe the movies they don't want to emulate (as if cartoons are somehow evil and not home to some incredible art). 

Now, I'm perfectly willing to admit there are a few caveats to what I'm about to say. For some of these filmmakers, they're approaching superhero stories for the first time, and their perception of the genre is based on things like the Batman TV show or Superman strips from the '40s. They've lived most of their lives thinking that superheroes are universally silly, and are only now experiencing a serious treatment of them. Then there's the marketing angle. Of course you want to try to find a way to distinguish yourself from all the other superhero movies coming out. You want your film to be a hit. You want it be a hit even with people who don't normally like these kinds of films, so you drum up ways to draw that particular crowd in. Then there's pure ego. You're not just making a superhero movie. You're making something bigger. You're transcending!

Which brings me to my point of peak grumpiness: When we're talking about superhero movies, I'd like the people making them to acually want to make superhero movies.

Sure, I'll admit that it's possible I'm reading too much into these quotes, but I really don't want to take that chance. I want my superhero movies to be superhero movies. I'm tired of hearing about how comic-book heroes are "cartoonish" and silly and too full of jokes. I'm tired of hearing about how Marvel is making the silly movies and WB is making the "serious" ones, as if Kevin Feige and his crew are reading their scripts and chuckling while saying things like "Ant-Man is just so stupid! I can't believe people will see this garbage!", with the added implication that Marvel and other superhero producers somehow don't care if their movies are "well written" or "well directed."

I'm tired of this illusion that you have to be "gritty" and "grounded" and "serious" to make a good superhero movie, as if you're the first person who ever thought to root these characters in some kind of reality. The concept of superheroes tackling real-world issues is at least as old as Fantastic Four #1, if not older, and what's more, the idea that you can actually make these characters truly "realistic" is ludicrous. Batman is not realistic. He's a billionaire who also happens to be an expert detective and a brilliant martial artist and a businessman and a crime scene expert and so on and so on.

But mostly, I'm tired of the implication that these filmmakers are better than "superhero movies," that they need to fix something that's never been broken. Superman is a flying alien wearing blue tights. Batman is a ninja-billionaire-detective. Reed Richards is a stretchy supergenius who built a flying car. If you think that's not good enough for you, I'm not sure you should be allowed near these characters.

What do you think about Zack Snyder's comments? Do you feel superheroes deserve more cinematic respect? Let us know in the comments!

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