What follows is a long thought piece, a sort of meditative essay, regarding appreciation of the superhero film genre as content that must be at once old and familiar but that also requires constant refreshing and reinvention. Sorry if it gets a little wonkish at the end. The main point: there is a sweet spot for how much artistic freedom the filmmaker should use versus how faithful to remain to comic book source material. If you find the article tl;dr, by all means skim or skip. But you still might want to rate yourself on the scale at the end! I'm curious to see how the community defines itself on this scale. I would expect that people may define the percentiles differently from the little blurb that I attached to each one. So don't feel bound by those descriptions.
Superheroes Are American Mythology
Superheroes have become an established feature not only of pop culture but also of American culture's mythological landscape. They seem to reflect an impulse of the human mind to dream of gods, demigods, and epic human heroes. Today we understand such figures symbolically and psychologically rather than literally. But one can easily imagine in ancient Greece and Rome debates about whose favorite deity was more powerful or helpful, just as people today discuss sports teams and individual athletes, and comic book/superhero nerds compare and contrast our favorite heroes and villains as well.
It seems that there is something about all this that tends to make us think in absolute terms. Perhaps the reason is that that symbols themselves simplify things that are ultimately complex and sometimes self-contradictory into a neat form that's easier to deal with.
One of the things I've noticed about this wonderful fascination of superhero films that we fans show a tendency toward a kind of "binary" thinking about core elements of characters. By binary I mean black-and-white, all-or-nothing. Either ___ can only be a 0 or its a 1. There is no middle ground.
This involves defining key components of "what makes the character who he or she is." Such definitions include
- How closely should the character should be based upon comic books canon? (Note: the canon includes multiple versions as characters evolve over time--so we're also asking: which version?)
- What should the character's appearance, personality, and personal history within the fictional world be like?
- Which actors are best suited to play various characters?
- How do well does the film's and actor's performance capture the essence of the character?
As mentioned, the canon source for characters has typically evolved over time through various retellings. Thus individual taste among the fan base is naturally going to vary about which version of the character we would each most like to see depicted in the films.
As we know, these subjects stir up some powerful sentiments! A big part of the fun of engaging in this pastime is our exchange of strong personal beliefs, convictions, perceptions, and philosophies pertaining to how best to tell superhero stories. And thank goodness for all of our individual differences in our perceptions and tastes! This would be a pretty boring pastime if we all uniformly agreed, even though we are at times aggravated by differences of opinion. There are certain fundamental ideas we probably all do mostly agree upon. But there are probably many that we're all over the place on.
So I just wanted to make a few observations about this:
Film Appreciation Is About What Makes Us Who We Are (Whether We Choose to Admit It to Ourselves or Not)
I go into the following in some detail in this article, but I'll restate here that I feel what ultimately satisfies us the most in appreciating these films is based in personal experience. Film appreciation is highly idiosyncratic and subjective. There are many reasons why I might enjoy even just a particular scene in a movie more than another, much less one film more than another. But those reasons ultimately reduce to my personality, history, and personal tastes. At the end of the day, the deepest reasons for why I find a film satisfying boils down to personal experience.
For example, naturally I get the most enjoyment from superhero films that are clearly well made according to all the basic critical standards (here is my ranking of personal favorites for the genre, FYI). However I can still enjoy some films a lot despite their flaws--and they are films that most other fans recoil from. Some examples include 2003's Daredevil (Director's Cut) (see my review here), Fantastic Four (2015) (my review), and I, Frankenstein (review). I like these films for a number of various reasons of my own. But the main reason is that those films all surprised me in good ways and far surpassed the exceedingly low expectations I had going in. Also, I tend by nature to root for the underdog. So it's always a pleasure for me to discover a film that is maligned but yet I see much to commend it, despite its flaws. My personality tends to have me look for the best in something.
I think of films similar to the way I regard people and their personalities. Just because a person has flaws, shortcomings, or does things that occasionally bug me doesn't mean I think the person is "bad." Nor do I necessarily feel I must then haven nothing to do with the person. Anyway, all analogies break down at some point, but that is the basic attitude I choose to adopt--at least towards films that are a mix of success and failure.
This is not to say that there aren't objective things about these films that aren't poorly executed craft-wise, and deserve negative criticism. There definitely are. Even the haters and I can probably often arrive at much agreement about them. But the appreciation of those elements of a film... i.e., whether we find an element of a film satisfying or not, and the reasons why... is still ultimately personal and idiosyncratic.
Superhero Films Are by Definition *Adaptations* of Comic Book Source Material
What I just posited above applies in spades to this: comic books and films are distinct mediums and therefore (usually) require different methods and means of storytelling. A comic book is, for the most part, unbound by everyday realism. It is the playground of the imagination, where the most utterly fantastic things can happen with respect to human abilities. I see it as a kind of shared lucid dream from the collective unconscious for the culture. Arranged in panels, everything is exaggerated (like dreams), with the greatest dramatic impact possible packed into each image. And the human themes explore in comics tend to be strongly melodramatic.
Honestly, a lot of the comic book source material is absolutely terrible material for film. At least if the picture wants to tell a relatively sophisticated story that feels somewhat as though it could actually exist in the real world.
Superhero films can certainly be made in a way that tries to follow the source material as much as possible. For example, Zack Snyder's tour de force 300 cinematically recreates Frank Miller's and Lynn Varley's comic series almost panel for panel, capturing the graphic novel's visual style brilliantly.
But very often what we look to in film is a bridge between the human imagination and the real world that we all share. Perhaps because cinema is a photographic representation of the world it is therefore inherently more 'real' feeling?
Anyway, it seems to me that, for whatever reason, films tend to be the most satisfying for most viewers when they depict a world that feels like it really could exist objectively (with our 'willing suspension of disbelief') and connects us with issues that are humanly relatable and accessible. And with comic books not nearly as much so, comparatively at any rate.
The main point that I'm making here is that we really should never expect a superhero film to purely represent the comic book source. That would probably not provide the most satisfying storytelling experience to the majority of viewers.
And from a practical business perspective, comic book fans are but a tiny sliver of the total consumer demographic for a superhero blockbuster film. A film that is looking to do the best business possible will try to connect with the most people possible. It will not cater to a select few with impossibly discriminating and divergent tastes. Even comic book fans typically do not agree on how to portray a superhero! (Anything but, actually.)
Some fans want for superhero films to as closely as possible resemble the character from the comics (and often this means a fan's favorite particular version from the comics). Some folks are more flexible about it, wishing to keep core elements intact from comic book canon but allowing for more creative expression in peripheral aspects of the character. And some really are just looking for a great story overall however it might be told; so if the film character is a huge departure from the canon source, that's fine--just as long as the story is deeply engaging.
The flexibility for appreciation of the film adaptation boils down to personal subjective experience and taste.
Myths and Archetypes Reflect Diversity
I'll start with the summary point:
Because we tell the same basic stories over and over, we need a variety of forms to do that. We need change, diversity, reinvention, refreshment, renewal.
That's why we get so reboot-happy in this genre.
The comic book superhero is a form of the "heroic myth" that uses archetypes. Myths are stories that connect us with what it means to be human, or the human experience. Myth pertain to our enduring questions about what are the things that universally make us who we are as a species, particularly in terms of how we experience, understand, and define ourselves? Heroic myths are typically tales that, through fantastic symbolism, tell how people can exhibit exceptional traits and abilities to rise to the occasion in order to meet extraordinary challenges. Such things may be understood from a literary perspective and as they are experienced psychologically.
Carl Jung observed that the same sorts of mythic themes appear again and again, from culture to culture, across history through different stories (myths, legends, folktales, etc.). The cultures vary, and the stories are obviously not identical; but the core themes shared by these myths are the same precisely because they are about what fundamentally makes us human. Jungian archetypes are distinct forms that bundle various mythic themes together and organize them into a whole, usually in the form of a particular iconic type of fictional figure, such as the Knight, Wizard, Trickster, Explorer, Healer, Rebel, and so on.
What is evident in this design (evidently by Nature) is the value of diversity. Just as there are virtually infinite expressions of "what it means to be human" in the form of individual people, there are many, many forms of expression for mythic themes and the archetypes associated with them. (And if you want to get "cosmic" about this, the literally infinite creation of stars and planets reflects the same basic thing.)
So it is the nature of core mythic themes to be retold, again and again, over and over, but with variation in form. It is, in this sense, "natural" for new forms of individual expression to emerge. There may even be a kind of evolutionary set of drives behind this. But in any event, regarding film adaptations of comic book superheroes... for the basic impulses that organize myth should we somehow expect this type of storytelling to be an exception to the rule?
Film Genres Express Human Conflicts That Never Get Resolved
I'm probably not going to do justice to this here, but I think it bears mentioning and it's fun to consider: In his excellent book Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System, Thomas Schatz posits that the reason we tell the same stories over and over again in the form of film genres is because the human and social issues that they express will actually never be resolved. There will always be the disparities of wealth and poverty, altruism and greed, might and right, the powerful and the weak, good and evil, the need for both individualism and collectivism, etc., and there is a ceaseless tug-of-war between these fundamental opposing forces.
However by the same token, genres also evolve over time. They all have, which you can see if you look at the body of films in any genre.
This is just as true for the superhero film as any other genre. Superhero films have been around for a while, but the recent explosion of them suggests that audiences crave a continual stream of ever more sophisticated retellings of the same basic story elements and characters. (We're seeing it also for other fantasy franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars.)
The conventions of a genre start out as transparent and innocent but become increasingly opaque and self-conscious over time. Typically the genre eventually reaches a self-reflective stage and starts to comment on itself, often using self-parody. But what we're seeing with superhero films is actually a movement toward more refined storytelling sophistication rather than a pure reliance on escapist elements. That is, it seems that superhero film audiences want not just to get lost in a fantastic adventure, but also get human stories that feel relatable and truly compelling (and in this sense 'realistic').
Anyway, this just provides a deeper context for why we're always looking to tell the same stories again and again, yet to somehow keep them fresh.
Flexibility for Appreciating the Time Period in Which a Film is Made
I recently realized that, on the one hand, in appreciating contemporary or relatively recent superhero films I'm very flexible towards writers and directors taking liberties either from comic book canon and/or from prior films to make superheroes fresh and relevant for the real world that we currently share. However, on the other hand, for older films (let's say prior to 1998's Blade) I struggle to muster 'willing suspension of disbelief' when the films (ditto for TV shows) are dated in terms of the cultural zeitgeist and the filmmaking technology. So my flexibility doesn't work in both directions. It contracts when appreciating films from the past.
A good friend of mine who is a fellow fan falls at exactly the other end of the spectrum for both measures. He loves the older versions and the newer ones leave him cold because they deviate from the original versions that he has such great fondness for.
To illustrate the point, two good examples are:
1) the two Richard Donner Superman films, i.e., Superman: the Movie and Superman II (although Richard Lester directed about 75% of it) in contrast with Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and
2) the Star Trek original TV series and feature films (TOS) and versus J. J. Abrams' two reboot films Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness.
While I have the utmost affection for the originals in both cases, unfortunately they just appear kind of cheesy and corny to me now. Sadly, I'm unable to go back in a time machine in my own head, if you will, in order to enjoy them as I did at the time when the were current. (For me, "You can't go home again," as the old saying goes.)
In fact I recently re-watched Superman II (the Richard Donner Cut, which still fails to salvage Lester's debacle), and I was actually shocked at just how poorly made the film is, in virtually every respect. I mean, it is truly atrocious from a craft perspective--even as endearing as Reeve, Kidder, and Hackman are in both films. (Note that the inferior theater release got an inexplicable 89% on Rotten Tomatoes critics' tomatometer. And Man of Steel is at 56%. Really?). Compare Superman II with some well made films made from 1968 to 1981... to name some of the best in fantastic adventure during that period, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Collosus: The Forbin Project, The Andromeda Strain, Star Wars, Superman: The Movie, The Exorcist, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner... and please, you tell me how it stacks up in terms of its filmmaking craftsmanship. I would say it is even just plain bad filmmaking according to the standards of its own day.
Superman: The Movie is far better craft-wise. But even that film teeters on the verge of failing to hold up in the special effects department by today's standards.
What my friend and I do agree upon is that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are both wonderful in their respective roles, and as a couple are pure magic together. Both of them are charming as all-get-out. Gene Hackman is winning as well; although, myself, I dislike the comedic portrayal of the Lex Luthor character per se. I'll add that between the Donner and Snyder depictions of Jor-El and Krypton, I actually can't stand Donner's now. Whereas Synder's vision of Jor-El, Lara-El, and Krypton has grown on me to the point that I'm very eager to (hopefully!) see Jor-El return in future films, and the mythos of Krypton further developed in the DCEU.
And I have written about my reasons for liking the Star Trek reboot better than TOS now in this article, despite the tremendous affection and nostalgia that I still have for the TV series. So I won't rehash it here.
Anyway, I just make these comparisons to try to illustrate that appreciation within the context of the era that a film was created, is another important dimension of flexibility versus rigidity as a viewer.
Parallels With Games
I think there is a similarity between our experience of "rebooting" our beloved characters and stories and playing games. A game is organized around the same basic principle. For example, there are five types of chess pieces, and the rules of the game don't change. But (for all practical purposes) no two games are identical.
Similarly, a film takes us on an imaginative journey and puts us in the shoes of the characters. As mentioned those stories get retold again and again (it seems we can never enough of the basic ingredients). And we certainly see that abundantly with reboots of superhero characters. Through the reboot we get to experience the stories and their mythic themes in a fresh way, from a somewhat different perspective with respect to characters, and through different sorts of plot elements.
Not to make a perfect 1:1 comparison, and at risk of making an overreaching analogy: but I liken this somewhat to playing a fantasy video or computer game. In such a gaming experience the same basic story is experienced over and over, but with different types of characters. That is one enjoys the same story again and again but using a protagonist (and often companions) of different gender, race, character "alignment," and class (type of character and skillsets). The same basic tendency to seek variety within the same structure is found our retelling of heroic myths in film, although clearly with less variability for the most enduring superheroes.
Now, for a superhero feature film that an entire fan base collectively shares an experience of, it's surely not going to sit well with most to make Superman an evil killing machine. But in fact, in the comics storylines have been written in which Superman substantially deviates from being a paragon of moral virtue. Anyway, the point is that I think is fair to assume that most fans we would get bored if new interesting facets of the character, i.e., what makes him or her tick, aren't routinely explored.
Okay, so be honest in rating your flexibility for what you can tolerate by way of a departure from the comic cook source of superhero films... With 100 being totally flexible and tolerant of whatever vision the director and writers might have (as long as the story is well told), and 0 being no deviation at all from your favorite version of the source material, where do you think you fall?