If Marvel really goes ahead with its plan to put out four movies per year, and other studios follow, we could see a million cookie-cutter superhero origin stories. Make it stop! Or better yet, copy these eight mold-breaking superhero films.
One reason why some people may dread the coming flood of capes-and-fights movies is the fact that so many of them are the same. Almost every superhero movie follows a drab formula, walking us through the good guy's origin story and introducing his (usually his) entire universe. Clueless loser. Gets superpowers. Shirks his destiny. Faces his destiny. Meets super-baddy. Loses. Faces his darkest hour. Fights super-baddy again. Wins. The end. Yay! Or else they're sequels, in which there's less "journey of discovery," and multiple bad guys.
But for superhero films to be a worthy genre, and not just the same movie over and over again with minor variations, they have to start breaking out of the rut. Audiences are familiar enough with superhero lore that they can enjoy a movie that departs from the usual pattern. (And yes, it's all been done in the comics, several times in most cases.) Here are a few great superhero movies (and a couple clunkers) that point the way forward:
Why it broke the mold: Because it honors Alan Moore's cliché-busting graphic novel, Watchmen honors few of the standard superhero tropes. There's no heroic origin story, and the heroes don't get superpowers through some accident. Like Batman, their powers mostly come from the exercise of pure will. Even Dr. Manhattan seems to be held together by willpower. And instead of showing us how a hero comes into his power, Watchmen shows us how Nite Owl regains his power after a long period of impotence (literal and figurative) and Rorschach survives being stripped of his totemic mask and put in prison, and Dr. Manhattan gets through a crisis of confidence. And then all three heroes confront a supervillain who's – if anything – too great a departure from the usual villainous tropes, and they totally fail to overcome him. (Sadly, Silk Spectre's arc is a lot less compelling in the film.) The main way Watchmen is different from Brand X superhero tales, though, is in its moral ambiguity and the way it forces us to admire the Comedian, a psychopathic rapist with almost no lovable qualities. (Except, in the movie, he loves Nat "King" Cole. That's something, I guess.)
Why other films should pay attention: Watchmen didn't detonate the box office, but it could still be influential for decades to come. Five years from now, there'll probably be another movie that borrows Watchmen's savage moral ambiguity and pop-culture profligacy, and it'll score big, and everyone will marvel that such a new spin on the superhero genre could have come out of nowhere.
Why it broke the mold: The Incredibles dispenses with all the secret-origin stuff right away, and then springboards into a story about a superpowered family that is trying to live a normal life. I'm not the first person to point out the similarities between the Incredibles and Watchmen: they both take place in a world that has made superheroism illegal, and they both feature an aging, sagging former superhero trying to get his game back. But deeper still, they both explore the relationship between superheroes and society – Mr. Incredible has an unwanted would-be sidekick, who has the powers but doesn't have anything else, and that question – of what else, besides superpowers, you need to be a superhero – winds up being a crucial issue in the movie. Plus, the costume-maker woman, Edna Mode, is one of the greatest characters in animated movie history, and deals, once and for all, with the question of how heroes get such cool outfits.
Why other films should pay attention: The Incredibles has real, breathing characters who love each other and mess up and keep going. The character development in the movie feels real, instead of the color-by-numbers "Pass Go, collect $200" personal growth of most superhero flicks.
Why they broke the mold: I have to admit it, I always blend these two movies from 1999 and 2000 in my mind. They're both about misfit, third-string superheroes who can't, or don't, have the fancy corporate sponsorship that the bigger, more powerful heroes have. The main difference is that Mystery Men features our heroes finally saving the day, whereas The Specials shows them becoming reconciled to being nobodies who still have to rescue people from nightmares.
Why other films should pay attention: Like Hancock (see below), these films show that superheroes have a ton of potential for comedy, but also that you can show superheroes who aren't actually super-competent or the greatest ever. These two films also show that the public is familiar enough with superhero stuff now, that you don't have to have your hero (or heroes) be the only superhero(es) in the world. Unlike virtually every big mainstream superhero film, these take place in a world where there are lots of superheroes around, and the public is used to seeing them. Given that in real life, we're all used to seeing tons of superheroes, that seems like a good step.
Why it broke the mold: Thanks to everyone who suggested this film, from back when M. Night Shyamalan was still unstoppable. I'm one of the few people who didn't love this Bruce Willis-Samuel L. Jackson joint, but I have to admit it does bust out of all superhero norms. For one thing, it's very self-aware about superhero conventions, having Jackson's character comment on them constantly. And it takes the usual "hero creates his own arch-nemesis" trope and turns it on its head, having the villain create the hero instead. And the dynamic between Jackson's messed-up psycho and Bruce Willis' reluctant hero is pretty fascinating.
Why other films should pay attention: Given how much of the superhero story is a cliche nowadays, it's worthwhile to show characters who are aware of that, and even play into it consciously. And since The Dark Knight made $100 squillion dollars, there will be a push towards "dark" movies that play with the codependent relationships between heroes and their arch-villains in a thoughtful way — Unbreakable is a pretty good source for that idea.
Why it broke the mold: It's technically not a sequel, but it's also not an origin story. The Hulk himself is a very mold-breaking superhero, who's more like a classic monster in many ways except that he fights bad guys and has a kind of "secret identity." Most of all, Edward Norton's Hulk movie comes at the idea of a "hero discovering his powers" in an unusual way — it shows Bruce Banner struggling to avoid embracing his green, powerhouse alter ego, until he finally realizes that the Hulk can do some good in the world.
Why other films should pay attention: If we're going to get lots of movies about good-looking people who keep denying their own power and rejecting their abilities, this film shows us a more interesting way to do it. Little innovations like Bruce Banner learning martial arts so he can defend himself without Hulking out, or using a heart-rate monitor to stay un-Hulky keep the conceit fresh and interesting, and keep him from being just a passive cliche.
Why it broke the mold: You think The Dark Knight was dark and twisted? How about a superhero movie where Harvey Dent is the main hero? Peyton Westlake's skin gets destroyed, but an experimental treatment gives him increased strength and resistance to pain. And then he discovers a method of using artificial skin to disguise himself as other people, and uses it to destroy the people who hurt him — and fight crime! Sam Raimi's first superhero movie still holds up amazingly well today.
Why other films should pay attention: Somebody, eventually, is going to get the rights to do a movie of The Shadow, and they're going to need another role model for the dark, tormented creature of the night. And the idea of melding the angsty superhero with the Phantom Of The Opera shows that you can take two very different archetypes and mash them up, with tremendous success.
Why it broke the mold: I would never hold up this Ivan Reitman comedy as a good movie — far from it — but it does feature a different spin on the usual superhero themes. Uma Thurman's character, Jenny aka G-Girl, is a superheroine who's neurotic and insecure and uses her powers to get back at Luke Wilson's Matt after he breaks up with her. Eventually it turns out that G-Girl and her nemesis, Professor Bedlam, are really in love with each other. Superheroic struggles are subjugated to a set of romantic-comedy themes, such as the jealous "wrong" girlfriend, and the couple who secretly dig each other but express it through hatred.
Why other films should pay attention: You could take the ideas of My Super Ex-Girlfriend — including the way Wilson's character gets drawn into helping Professor Bedlam steal away G-Girl's powers, and the idea of a superhero who uses her powers for petty personal revenge — in a terrific movie, if you only had better writing, directing, and everything else.
Why it broke the mold: Hancock was not exactly my favorite movie of 2008, but I still hope it spawns a legion of imitators. (Free advice to Marvel: please make a Hancock-esque movie about Wonder Man, the L.A. stuntman and third-string hero.) As meh as Hancock was, it could spawn a whole new flotilla of non-traditional super-films. Where do we begin? The fact that Hancock's not an origin story is just the tip of the iceberg. There's also the basic fact that he's not a white guy, or young for that matter. And then you have the fact that he's an alcoholic fuck-up, who causes more problems than he solves and inspires more loathing than admiration from the citizenry. Oh, and his main weakness? Is his kinda-sorta girlfriend. (The movie's main problems come from the repetitive jokes that aren't that funny the first time, the lack of a credible antagonist, and the nose-dive it takes in the second half.)
Why other films should pay attention: Hancock proves superheroes can be more than straight arrows, or even typical anti-heroes. They can be barely likable fuck-ups. They can be losers. They can be dipshits. (As long as they're played by a marquee actor.)
During the course of working on this post, we got into a giant debate about which movies even count as superhero movies. Does Tank Girl? Does the original Buffy movie? How much can you break the superhero mold before you're no longer a superhero? To me, what makes something a superhero movie – as opposed to a movie about someone with superpowers – is including some of the hallmarks of superheroism, like the costume or the secret identity, for sure. But more than that – the superhero is someone who has powers that he or she could use to get rich or rule the world. Or in the case of heroes like Batman or most of Watchmen's characters, the superhero simply possesses amazing skills and superhuman willpower. The superhero identity is about domesticating that power, just like any uniform, and turning this potentially scary person into a safe, understandable protector. Just like we trust a cop to carry a gun, baton and handcuffs, becuase the uniform says the cop will play by a set of rules.
So in a sense, any superhero movie that goes beyond the usual tropes is taking the promise of the costumes and superhero identities — that this person will be a "good guy" — to its limit, without leaving the tropes behind completely. If you leave behind the tropes completely, then it's not a superhero movie, just a film about people with paranormal abilities. In any case, here's hoping we get some more superhero flicks that stretch the boundaries of the genre in the way comics writers have been doing for years.
What superhero movies do you think broke the mold, or at least dented it?