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How to Not Screw Up a Superhero Movie

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 19, 2013

I saw Man of Steel the other night. I was really looking forward to it, but the final product was… well, it wasn’t bad. We’ve all seen plenty of bad. This was good, but could have been great.

I wouldn’t call myself a huge comic-book fan when I was growing up. For a while I followed Spider-Man and some Chris Claremont-penned titles, but there was simply way too many series for me to keep tabs on. I’d read a few others from friends, but I couldn’t afford to keep up the wide world of superheroes. But I played a lot of the dice-and-paper RPG Champions, never really quit reading comics, and I love superhero movies.

Any of you who have read this blog for a while or played my games can recognize that I’m not a world-class writer.  I’m okay with that. It’s not my forte, but I like doing it, and I like to think I can hold my own and that I’m getting better at it. I’m really not a brilliant literary critic, either, but it’s easier for me to spot flaws in other people’s writing than my own. I think that accurately describes most writers. It seems some of these movie makers can really use some more people doing a little bit of this kind of critique. I’m not particularly harping on Man of Steel (and I’m purely dealing with generalities, here, so no spoilers!), as there are some other, far bigger offenders here that I’m imagining as I write this. In fact, I think Man of Steel gets a lot of these right, or at least attempts to.

Telling a really good superhero story isn’t easy. But there are certainly some things that can be done that hard just to avoid screwing up the story. And it’s not just movie-makers… there are some comic book writers who sometimes don’t “get it” either.  And game writers. This is a blog dealing primarily with video games, and caters to players and developers, I’d suggest much of this advice applies extremely well to game stories as well. They tend to draw from the same well as superhero stories. Here are some rudimentary concepts to follow to avoid screwing up a superhero movie, or any kind of epic fantasy story:

if-i-am-weakUnderstand the Metaphors

Most writers get that the basic metaphors of the superhero genre that appeal to younger readers. Like many video games, the stories appeal to adolescent power fantasies. The origin stories are often tied to puberty – the acquisition of their power often coincides with the onset of puberty, or the character suffers some life-changing tragedy that marks the end of their childhood.

But the successful comic books (and now, movies) took things a lot further to continue their appeal for older audiences. The stories were metaphors for all kinds of real-life themes, the most common being personal growth, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, dealing with change (and, often, personal loss – the more modern superheroes were constantly going through various stages of grief), and personal sacrifice. Good themes, writ large in modern-era fantasy.

Writing to these metaphors make the fantastic and impossible elements resonate with truth. I should add, this is pretty important to fantasy writing as well (role-playing game developers, take note!).

It’s also probably important to note here that not every issue (or every movie) can possibly deal with all these themes and metaphors at once. I see this way too often in movies – because the filmmakers (or, more often, the guys controlling the purse strings who all want to put their mark on what might be a major franchise) don’t understand the metaphors, don’t know how to focus, and instead just spray the plot with a grab-bag of classic elements they believe shouldn’t be left out.  Once again, game developers, take note!

emma_vs_xavierMake Superheroes and Supervillains Believable, Human Characters

The classic golden / silver age comics, which really only appealed to young readers, focused on the powers and battles of the superheroes almost exclusively. The characters were pretty one-dimensional. Then around the 1970’s (I give credit to Spider-Man, though I’m sure comic book scholars could cite earlier examples), many titles began focusing on the actual people behind the masks. In many cases, the “secret identity” had a far more interesting story than the person in tights. But aside from  being EXACTLY a four-color soap opera, it gave the magical events and legendary battles a context and a reason. Children may not care – you can simply identify a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” and they are fully invested in the drama. Older audiences need more.

Superheroes (and yes, the supervillains too!) need to be human. Even if they are completely alien (with some allowable exceptions for certain antagonists). The heroes need to have mundane weaknesses and personal demons to compliment their fantastic ones. They should have a little bit of darkness (though the anti-heroes of modern graphic novels took it to what I felt was an unpleasant extreme). They need to fail sometimes – both in their big adventures, and in their personal lives.  The villains need to have understandable (if not sympathetic) goals, redeeming qualities, and an admirable trait or two.

NM24_MagnetoAnd motivation should be clear. Why does the hero take great personal risk and sacrifice to do what’s right… especially when the alternatives should be so very tempting (in a well-written story)? Not just the “join me and we shall rule the galaxy together” kinds of alternatives, the clear “good vs. evil” choices, but also the “why should I risk my neck when someone else can handle it?” kind of choices. Or the, “can I just live a normal life?” options. (Again, there’s a metaphor here… who really has a normal life?)

A good villain, likewise, should have more depth than simply wishing to amass power and fortune, or simply be “insane.” If nothing else, they should be consistent and represent some recognizable human aspects. In The Dark Knight, the brilliantly written and acted Joker was inscrutable, yet internally consistent… he was a fallible human incarnation of a force of nature, a human embodiment of chaos. So even as alien as he appeared on-screen, he was nevertheless recognizable as perhaps an idealized version of some basic human fears.

phasedExplore Relationships Between the Characters

Equally as important as well-defined characters is the relationships between them. In many ways, this is storytelling 101, yet it’s handled so poorly many times (not just in superhero movies) that it feels like it’s a lost art. In some ways, a character is really defined by his relationships with others around them. How they treat strangers. How they treat the other members of their team. How they treat their enemies. How they treat their mother.

Of course, you’ve got to soap opera loves and hates. And why. This is basic human experience stuff, which is why it resonates with audiences. It’s also amusing to think of these people with really strange lives and really strange powers getting together. There’s a voyeuristic element, I suppose, to imagining how these relationships are supposed to work. But we all get that weird people need love, too.

And we’re all weird.

But there’s more to it than than. Relationships get complicated in real life, and sometimes political, and once again the fantastic elements of the comics throw these things into epic scale. But while these things are extreme in the melodrama of the superhero world, they are nevertheless grounded in real-world relationships – and struggles – we all face. And relationships may often be with principles and ideas, sometimes personified. How do characters deal with authority? With power? With failure or rejection?

And then there are relationships that may only be based loosely on real-world foundations, but extrapolated to fit the comic book universe. Once again, this serves to ground the fantastic into reality, where we recognize that certain things “make sense” or would reasonably follow in the bizarre world these characters inhabit.


The most important relationship of all might be between the hero and the villain. This is where so many movie franchises go wrong – they think if a single villain is good, than a half-dozen is better. This is incorrect on so many levels. Ideally, the hero and the villain should be set on a collision course. While there should be twists and bends, and the relationship between the two may not be black and white, this collision should be inevitable and fairly obvious. When the waters get too muddy because too many other villains are getting involved, the story decays.

Contrast With the Mundane

Some of the funniest bits in Shakespeare’s plays appeared not in his comedies, but in his tragedies. The reason was simple – he knew audiences needed “comic relief.” The moments of silliness and mundanity help re-calibrate the emotions. The harder we laugh, the more we’ll cry later, or something like that. And vice versa. Good emotional drama depends upon the valleys to help us really feel and respect the peaks.

Good superhero stories need to be anchored in the mundane. Note the Spider-Man page above (written by Babylon 5 creator, J. Michael Straczynski) – Peter reveals a dark and terrible secret while hanging a picture with his wife. The point is to recognize that these guys, even when they are going through the simplest, most normal aspects of their daily lives, are forced to contemplate the most terrible of things – including how to murder friends and allies. Yikes!

NM23_DaniSamBut it’s more than that. Again, these characters need to be human. We need to be able to identify with them. We need to see them in “normal” life – at least as normal as it gets. We need to see these demigods struggling with the same things we everyday mortals struggle with. We see the kids grow up (if slowly). We want to see the all-powerful struggle with bad hair days, with embarrassment, with striking out on a first date, with common mistakes. That’s how we identify with them. It reinforces their humanity.

We cannot identify with Superman. He’s a god. But Clark Kent – he’s the real deal. We can see ourselves as Clark.

And we see how their extraordinary intrudes upon the ordinary.  The mundane gives us grounding so the fantastic seems all the more fantastic.

cyclops_vs_xavierGive the Heroes Tough Ethical Decisions – Sometimes With No Right Answer

Comic books are often morality plays. While many times it comes down to good ol’-fashioned beat-em-up between the black hats and the white hats, modern comics have characters facing tough ethical decisions as much as nearly invincible bad guys. They don’t always make the right choice. Sometimes they let people die. Sometimes the “greater good” is questionable (or, as in the deconstructionist series amd movie The Watchmen, downright despicable – a modified Trolley Problem).

This doesn’t mean that superheroes need to be constantly hounded by the awful side-effects of their decisions (but there’s often plenty of angst thrown around). It’s generally fairly un-messy and palatable. But choices should have real consequences, and the heroes should have to bear the burden of their decisions. And sometimes not only are their decisions questionable (or wrong), but they don’t succeed.

Death-of-Gwen-StacyAgain, poor stories don’t deal with such decisions. The hero unquestioningly does The Right Thing because he’s the good guy, and it’s a pretty simple, unambiguous choice. And the consequences of his or her decision are hand-waved enough to be nice and positive with a cool wrap-up at the end. They may get beat up a lot, you may wonder how they go from being flat on the floor to pulling off a win, but the end is never really in question, and it’s all gonna work out in the end.

Two bad examples in otherwise good movies would be the 1979 Superman and the 2002 Spider-Man. In both movies, the hero is given a tough choice – to save many people, or to save the person he loves. In both movies, they wimp out and allow the hero to do both. In Superman, it’s a total Deus Ex Machina moment with no repercussions, making us wonder why he doesn’t just go back in time constantly to make sure things have a pat ending. At least he does agonize over having made the “right” decision for a few minutes before pulling off a magic solution. In Spider-Man, he tries to accomplish both, and succeeds, with a tiny bit of help from bystanders. (In the latter case, the story from the comics that this was based on differed considerably, and… had a vastly different ending.)

Remember that Superhero Stories Are Still Basic Stories

While there are some characteristics that make the superhero story stand out, the laws of drama and good writing are not repealed just because the main character can defy the laws of physics.

In particular, the biggest failing a superhero movie usually has is simply being too busy, too frantic, too complicated and too overwhelmingly “epic” that the audiences simply loses their grounding and the plot thread. Oftentimes simple is best. Comics have a very long history, and the most popular characters are well past retirement age now. Movie-makers adopting their stories would do well to remember that they can’t cram all of that into 120 minutes.

And what’s the best superhero movie of all time? For me, it’s a tough call, but I think  The Incredibles might win by a nose.


Filed Under: Design, Movies - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Picador said,

    Great essay, but your last line: The Incredibles? You mean the movie whose theme was “some people are born better than others and are rightfully more powerful than the masses, and if you try to share power with everyone democratically it will result in catastrophe, because most people are too stupid to handle power”? Yikes.

    That’s not just subtext in the movie, by the way — the prologue is explicit propaganda for “tort reform” (i.e. the conservative movement in the US aimed at making powerful institutions less accountable to the people they harm). And the rest of the film explicitly adopts the aristocratic mantra “If everyone is special, no one is”, which is exactly the attitude that Enlightenment thinkers have been fighting and dying to combat for the last 400 years.

  • Xenovore said,

    @Picador: Not sure what your beef is; if you hated the movie then just say so. =)

    Contrary to what some (socialists) would like to think, it’s a fact of life that some people are more gifted than others. Some are smarter than others. Some are stronger than others. Some are wiser than others. Some are harder workers than others. Some are just flat-out luckier than others. You might attempt to turn a blind eye to that and rail against it, but that doesn’t change anything (aside from making you unhappy).

    And really, it’s human nature to want somebody special to look up to, or we wouldn’t have the plethora of hero stories going back 1000s of years.

  • Silemess said,

    That really was a wonderful read! I just saw the new superman last night, and so it really synced up with what I’ve been thinking about. Like you said, he’s basically a god, which has always removed his ability to generate drama outside of his alter-ego as Clark Kent.

    Incredibles is a good pick for a high note. I was jumping automatically to Watchmen (I prefer what I read to what I watched, but I enjoyed the movie as well). The idea of “what do these people do when they’re out as a hero but instead living their lives.” Normal or otherwise.

    It could be as silly as does the Flash get annoyed about how long it takes the microwave to cook his food. Or something more compelling like the basic question of “Do they spend time to prepare their own meals, or always order out?” Or do they rely on their significant other to always be the domestic for them? Is that fair at all? “I’ve saved the world, you can do the dishes.”

    Anyways, thanks for the read and the great image choices to go with it!

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    @xenovore – it’s complicated. it’s stupid to try and make people who are good at stuff bury their talents in order to fit in, it’s also stupid to let one set of talents trump everything else and think that some people are less valuable because they’re not good at a particular thing.

    Everyone is special. Everyone is not Superman. It is not necessary for the rest of society to be worthless in order for Superman to be awesome.

    Really, hiding the things about yourself that are awesome is the exact opposite of everyone being special. 🙂

    That said, a line being spoken in a movie is not a total picture of the belief structure of everyone working on it!

  • Felix said,

    All the problems you mention are common to all storytelling. In all stories, the protagonists end up being exceptional, at least by deed if nothing else, and your critique applies. Those are not the issues that bother me about superhero stories nowadays.

    I wrote more about it a year ago, but the essence is that the older I grow the harder it is for me to swallow the intrinsic lack of realism in superhero stories. It’s not the fantastic; it’s the utter lack of consistency and grounding. Things work differently from one issue to the next, and nothing seems to exist for a reason. Stuff just gets thrown into the story because it’s cool, and nothing ever follows even the semblance of rules.

    I’ve only ever written one superhero story, and even though it was hardly a masterpiece, I like to think I did better than that. Even though back then I was still very much a delayed teenager.

    Oh wait, that’s pretty much a prerequisite for writing superhero stories. Grow up too much, and you can’t do it at all anymore. No wonder it’s so hard to hit the sweet spot.

  • Xenovore said,

    @WhineAboutGames: I don’t know that it’s that complicated. I agree that people should not hide their talents to “fit in” but I don’t agree that everyone has equal value. E.g. what value does the person have that lives off welfare and does nothing but eat and sleep all day? Zero.

    And no, not everyone is special, by the very definition of the word (emphasis added):

    1: distinguished by some unusual quality; especially : being in some way superior “our special blend”
    2: held in particular esteem “a special friend”
    3a: readily distinguishable from others of the same category : unique “they set it apart as a special day of thanksgiving”
    3b: of, relating to, or constituting a species : specific
    4: being other than the usual : additional, extra
    5: designed for a particular purpose or occasion

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    @Xenovore – Can we say that many people in the world VERY STRONGLY disagree with you, and would consider the idea that any human being is of “zero value” to be ASTOUNDINGLY offensive?

    I don’t want to be insulting or risk a flamewar on someone else’s blog here, so I don’t want to fight over why, but you might want to acknowledge that those are words that could cause deep shit. 🙂

  • Maklak said,

    Well, I could agree with what you said at first, but I played Dwarf Fortress long enough to understand that some of the population invariably ends up being dead weight (and usually either become military, a part of a Gray mass of haulers, or just have an unfortunate accident to make room for someone more useful).

    Heck, I played a mod with post-apocalyptic pastel ponies as the main race, where they all had some special talents (mostly a very significant boost to some skill learning rates) and if anything, it made the situation worse. I would always end up missing some important profession, like a blacksmith, but get like 20 redundant farmers and social skills ponies. They would usually end up as cannon fodder, if I had the equipment to spare. Sometimes not even then. So there you have it: a society where everypony is talented and special… and most of them still end up doing whatever jobs are available and only a minority get to truly shine. Sort of like the “Cyprus Experiment” from “Brave New World”.

    Dwarf Fortress is just a simulation, I know, but from amateur-sociologist standpoint it makes me see some very controversial policies as less evil.
    On the other hand affirmative action and “no child gets left behind” are damaging to those who have a potential to be the best and brightest of us.

  • Xenovore said,

    @WhineAboutGames: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to help the “zeroes” “those of reduced specialness” become better, responsible, functional people that are willing to contribute to society. But the fact remains that there will always be those that are completely unwilling to do anything, just expecting everything to be handed to them and providing nothing in return. Straight up, there are people that are just parasites. So, are parasites valuable?

    As for the ones that might strongly disagree with me or be offended; yeah, those are more than likely the ones that just want to be lazy and live off the efforts of others. If I offend them, then gee, gosh darn, I’m really sad. =P

    Look, if someone can find a way to become special, then more power to them! I applaud that; we should all be striving to develop our talents and better ourselves. But the fact remains that many, many people don’t really want to be special — it’s too much work. But that’s just fine; it gives the rest of us a crowd to stand out from. =)

  • Cuthalion said,

    Wow. Who knew your offhand reference to The Incredibles would start a discussion on the uniqueness and value of individual human lives?

    As for the ones that might strongly disagree with me or be offended; yeah, those are more than likely the ones that just want to be lazy and live off the efforts of others.
    Bulverism much? I like to think that I am not a lazy freeloader, still find the idea offensive (and, more importantly, incorrect), and that my being and thinking such is not less than likely.

    Really though, I think we’re measuring value and specialness differently. If you want to talk about economic value, sure. Some people have more than others, at least as best as we could reasonably deduce. But that’s not what many of us are thinking of when we say “valuable”. Similarly, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that everyone is unique. And if that’s what one means by “special”, then everyone is certainly special. But if “special” is intended to mean “better than most others” or even “exceptional, not just in a few things, but in general”, then yes, saying everyone is special is just another way of saying no one is.

  • Olly said,

    I am most certainly not one of “the ones that just want to be lazy and live off the efforts of others” and I must say that I disagree with the assertion that some people have an implicit and quantifiable absolute lower value than others. I prefer to believe that each person has a potential to exceed (both themselves, and their situation). They may not be immediately willing but this does not mean that they should be written off with no attempt made by any party to stimulate growth.

    Dragging this back on topic a bit, this is why I’ve always liked the Superman/Lex-Luthor rivalry. Superman is born a god with numerous gifts and fantastic abilities whilst Lex Luthor is often portrayed as perhaps the pinnacle of humanity and a man that has worked hard every single day of his life in order to be as great as he can be (often just to rival a single god-like being). Lex shows us that with enough effort, even a single person is able to challenge the exceptional.