*Warning: Spoilers for The Dark Knight, Captain America 2, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3 ahead*
At this point, the crowd-pleasing element will always pervade superhero movies. The Dark Knight was a true rarity, but that was because the project was helmed by a filmmaker with a creative vision—an uncompromising vision that had no hints of typical corporate influence. It seems as if after Batman Begins’ success, Christopher Nolan was given full creative control over the next Batman film because nowadays, a studio would never allow for such a dark, dreary superhero movie. “No! The casual audiences with their large popcorn and drinks must be pleased! They, along with their 8-year-old kids, must scream “yay!” in unison as everyone is saved and the baddie is stopped.” That is the corporate mindset in cotemporary times: they must produce the ultimate crowd-pleaser and ensure that all the adolescents and their grandparents are satisfied. I guess I’ll just have to get over the fact that never will a major character in a superhero movie die again.
Let’s talk about the masterpiece that was The Dark Knight for a moment. When it came, it broke grounds and wholly innovated the superhero genre—gained some respect from those that weren’t nostalgically biased toward their favorite childhood superheroes or beloved comic books. No, the villain of this film was incredibly menacing and actually convinced us that we should be intimidated by his maniacal presence. And yes, along the way, major characters did die (Rachel Dawes) and major characters did fall (Harvey Dent—metaphorically and literally, in fact; wow, did I miss out on the symbolism of that scene?!). Moreover, the film didn’t end on a giddy high note where the citizens of Gotham cheered on their hero and those characters, earlier mentioned, miraculously came back from the dead (according to some silly reason). Absolutely not—it ended quite bleakly as Batman became the hunted, not the revered. Can you imagine if a superhero movie pulled a twist like that nowadays: ended on a hopeless note? The corporate suits that run the successful studios would never allow for it.
Now, I understand some superhero narratives are lighthearted and vividly colorful? They’re not my type, but there definitely aren’t any flaws in their case. However, when a film deliberately establishes a gritty tone for itself—havoc wreaks upon the cities and primary characters (seemingly) die in the process—and then all of a sudden the mountainous damage inflicted on the city and its characters is magically remedied by the end, that is where my disappoint stems from. Marvel movies have repeatedly made this mistake. You can very well bet that a significant character will be killed off only to somehow return from the dead and help the protagonist—the (unbelievably frustrating) fake-out as they call it. You got that with Nick Fury in Captain America 2; you got that with Loki and Jane in the Thor films; you got that with Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3; and, of course, even a previously minor character like Agent Coulson is revived in a later installment—the list goes on and on.
The fact of the matter is that if no damage is dealt and a character close to the main character doesn’t die or, at least, isn’t faced with injury, the peril of the (often exaggerated) crisis is never felt, never cared for, and never believable. For Christ’s sake, intense sequences of destruction in these films often even show everything being destroyed and not one individual in the midst of the devastation being harmed. Aside from the colossal destruction of buildings and concrete, did we ever see one citizen of Metropolis harmed in Man of Steel? Did we see one innocent bystander being harmed in the face of total mayhem in the recent Days of Future Past? “Oh look, how evil this villain was! It took until the end of the film for the city to be restored to its prior grandeur? How much money did it take to rebuild all those skyscrapers? Oooh, what a terrifying force that man was!”
Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne’s love from his youth, and Harvey Dent, a respected friend and Gotham’s promised savior, are brutally sacrificed along the Joker’s path to utter chaos and insanity, solidifying his status as the most legendary and memorable villain in a superhero picture. Anyway, by this point, I hope my statement is very loud and clear: with the prevalence of money-hungry, riskless studios in modern times, the superhero will save the day, the pathetically harmless villain will be detained in one way or another, and no real authentic value will be drawn amongst the corny themes and shiny sky.
Many of you are satisfied with Marvel’s work, though, and that’s exactly the point: they’re crowd-pleasers at the end of the day. You have all the usual Hollywood mandates (forced humor, forced romantic interests, no character deaths, the predictable hopeful/happy ending, etc.), which are apparently appreciated and expected by the casual moviegoers. “You want a deep meaning about the state of society or a display of the protagonist’s troubled complexity? Psh.” Yeah, I do. Why not? The Dark Knight managed to be both phenomenally entertaining throughout, as well as loaded with substance and psychological depth. At the end of the day, superhero films like The Dark Knight and Watchmen will remain in the past while superhero movies like Captain America, The Avengers, and The Amazing Spider-Man will continue to over-saturate the market. Cheers!