EDITORIAL: The Seven Essential Deadly Sins and Virtues of CBMs
Like everyone here, I consider myself something of an expert in comic book movies. Now I realize I may be preaching to the choir with this editorial here, but I thought I would be so bold as to compile a list important to the genre we love so much.
These are the aspects that can either make or break our beloved adaptations, and I felt it necessary to review them for studying purposes.
1. Love Interests
This is a broad spectrum to be sure, but it happens in EVERY single CBM - except I think, War Zone. For a lot of characters, having a love interest is important - it keeps them motivated, gives them something to aspire to... but some are so forced, you would think the writers just had to fulfill a certain quota. Lois Lane is the love of Superman's life - she is a necessity, and she can even be a really fun character. A character such as Roxanne Simpson, however, is there to just to look stunning. The above emotional spectrum of "love interests" are the ones that are actually among my favorite, well, most of them.
The worst culprit, however, stems from Fantastic Four - both movies in fact. The on-screen chemistry is all wrong to the point of being almost incestuous, and if you actually think about it, the whole thing is just a great big love hexagon. Reed and Sue are, of course, the primary couple, but the movie started off with the not-so-subtle love triangle between Sue, Victor, and Reed. When Ben gets dumped by his fiancé, he ends up in a bar with the blind sculptor: Alicia Masters. The two quickly hit it off, and their relationship carries over and into the sequel. In the sequel, Johnny enjoys making fun of himself and everyone else, but a very very slight nod to the comics is made when Alicia accuses him of being jealous. Because Fantastic Four features 4 superheroes, I guess the writers and director felt it necessary to multiply their love lives, or lack there-of.
The BEST example of a love interest who BENEFITS the movie, would probably end up going towards Betty Ross in Ang Lee's Hulk. Jennifer Connelly gives the best portrayal so far as a beautiful, ex-girlfriend who is constantly frustrated with Bruce's inability to make a deep, emotional connection. Bruce and Betty are lab partners, who are actually very comfortable with each other, but the big obstacle in their way, in everyone's way, is the monster inside of Bruce. She ties the story together to the point where she is a co-star, and may even have more screen time than Eric Bana. As their relationship is already established, the direction benefits from her independence, rather than cast her as some kind of attainable or unattainable goal. As a co-researcher on the nano-med project, Betty is brought down to Earth as another geek and not someone supposedly "out of his league". She is also extremely active throughout the film, making the hard decisions (turning Bruce in to her father), patiently supporting Bruce as he tries to recover his repressed memories, and even manages to track down Bruce's father.
2. Shared Origins
This is more often a crutch than a strong point, but once in a while, it makes the most sense in the world. For superheroes and their arch enemies, the question of who came first is often answered before it is even asked. It is common for superheroes to take their own initiative as a response to an escalating threat that they believe only they can stop. Perhaps they even feel as though they are responsible for their creation, but here's the problem: when said supervillain is dealt with, what is to stop said superhero from hanging up the tights and deciding their work is done?
It actually has a huge impact on the story to the point of setting the entire tone, theme, and character designs for future movies in respective series. Take Spider-man with the Green Goblin for example, or Batman with Ra's al Ghul. Note how in both trilogies, the conclusion has a way of coming full circle to tie everything together. Sandman accidentally shot Peter's Uncle Ben - and that loss made him become Spider-man. Spider-man was involved with the death of the Green Goblin, his best friend Harry's father - causing Harry to swear vengeance against Spider-man, becoming Peter's half-baked anti-thesis. Ra's al Ghul's plan to destroy Gotham returns in the Dark Knight Rises - forcing Batman to confront all of his demons one last time.
THEN there is the flipside, where having a shared origin story actually pays off in spades. It's hard to pick the best one, and I'm sure there will be some disagreement, but for me, it comes down to Magneto. He is BORN a mutant and a Jew - his parents are killed in a concentration camp, and he is forever tattooed with a prisoner identification number on his inner forearm. He sees humanity as a separate race, prone to blind prejudice and genocide, and uses World War II as a warning and justification. He is the embodiment of the theory of Tabula Rasa - believing he was shaped by his experience and the unique vantage point bestowed upon him by his upbringing. He is a villain, but he sees himself as a savior. In X-Men First Class, Erik comes to the verbal realization that Sebastian Shaw was a precursor to himself, that regardless of his goals, everything he did to him made him stronger and opened his eyes to the world around him. He then kills Shaw.
3. Who Am I?
If there is one thing that takes away from a character as much as it can develop... more than anything else, it is the clear-cut, in your face journey of self-discovery. Just about every superhero ever to grace the silver screen is an adult - someone who has to make it out in the world without their mom and dad holding their hands. More than likely, they will have a job that they will have second thoughts about, aspirations that are a bit beyond what is in their reach... but they still make ends meet. To be miserable so suddenly because you don't know what you want... that may seem normal for teenagers going through those important years, but it is extremely unhealthy as an adult to be dwelling and obsessing over such matters when you have already become committed to them. Granted, it is important to be self-aware, but with that awareness should come confidence - heroes should not be torn apart by a few words spoken by a stranger, nor should they throw their hands up in the air and exclaim "I give up!" because things aren't going their way... even if temporarily.
The one that seems to regress the most is probably (and I know the mess this is going to cause) Batman from the Christopher Nolan trilogy. Rather than declare my viewpoint on the series, however, the issue at hand is how Bruce's continuous reluctance to BE Batman contradicts the idea to keep Batman a SYMBOL. In the absence of his parents, Bruce is driven to vengeance, but when he is robbed of his chance, he directs his anger towards "the criminal fraternity". It is through his progress, or lack there-of, that he draws the attention of a terrorist organization led by Ra's al Ghul, who offers him a path and the means to basically BE Batman. It is a perfectly fresh composition of Batman's origin stories, but even so, it is incomplete. He becomes everything Ra's al Ghul trained him to be, and he applies his teachings to crime-fighting. He himself has doubts about Batman's capabilities, goals, and necessity throughout the entire trilogy, reasonably, because Batman was more or less created by a terrorist. The fatal flaw in the masterpiece that was his origin story is that he didn't follow through with his education, nor did he continue searching for a greater means to fight injustice. Because of that, he is just a conflicted man in a cape, and that is why he couldn't fight injustice or stop the train.
This is not to say that discernment is always a deterrent, nor is it even a problem really, IF it is applied properly. Take Superman, for example. From the look of the teaser trailer (and the images taken from the Comic-Con footage), Clark is going to be going on a journey of self-discovery - a pilgrimage. But we'll stick to the original for posterity's sake. Clark grows up knowing he is different - his powers don't just manifest at puberty, but as his exposure to our yellow sun is lengthened. Yet at 18, he comes across a special green crystal that was stowed in the ship he arrived in as a baby - and uses it to create the Fortress of Solitude, a structure of Kryptonian architecture. From the Fortress, he learns that he is in fact, not from Earth, but is also the last of his kind. He has no one to guide him but interactive virtual constructs of his real mother and father, and he'll soon learn that no power on Earth (or from Earth, rather) can stop him. He is free to do anything he desires, and that he swiftly chooses to protect his adoptive race from themselves is a firm indication that Clark was raised with a strong moral compass. That he continues to do so, despite whatever personal conflict arises, proves that he is determined - he is a true superhero who lives up to his superego.
4. Evil Must Die
Here lies a two-pronged concept; on the one side there is mortality, on the other rests the immortal soul. Taken from Nietzsche: "He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
This began with Tim Burton's Batman - the first superhero movie that didn't involve aliens, and instead incorporated a gothic setting with a sinister hero and villain. It is my opinion that Warner Bros wasn't fully invested in Batman as a hopeful movie series, and so it was made into a standalone feature - which killed off its villain. This is also due to a combination of two production elements - Jack Nicholson demanding an exorbitant salary, and Tim Burton's style of film-making.
Back to business - this concept is quite dangerous, and often does more harm than good. The hero, who is not usually or not at all prone to lethal force, will sometimes resort to it with no regret, hesitation, or even so much as an afterthought. Because of this righteous application of the death penalty, the hero is at risk (and by that extension, the entire genre) of becoming a merciless killer.
The worst example of this is unintentionally highlighted with awesome digital effects and accentuated in the greatest 3D film technology - building up with increased momentum all through the Transformers trilogy, by Optimus Prime. The first time our heroic Autobot leader engages a Decepticon on screen, he chops its head off. This bit is intended to be forgivable not because Bonecrusher is just a grunt, but because the audience was waiting for Optimus to do SOMETHING the entire movie. When Megatron is presumably killed by the Allspark, Optimus woefully declares that he left him no choice, even though he actually wasn't the one who "killed" the Decepticon leader, and was even willing to sacrifice himself to prevent Megatron from having that fate. For all intents and purposes, Optimus is very much true to his cartoon and comic book nature... here. In the second film, Optimus has no problem killing Decepticons in cold blood, even going so far as to lead a taskforce in charge of hunting the Cons down wherever they may hide. In the third film, Optimus gets ANGRY, and when he sees a Decepticon-occupied Chicago, he declares that he will kill them all. He literally says: "you die!" to Shockwave as he's killing him, and immediately after a hobbling Megatron SAVES Prime, he is rewarded with an extremely brutal death. If that's not enough, Optimus executes Sentinel with not one, but two shots to the head - ironically insisting that Sentinel betrayed himself.
The silver lining, however, comes when the hero shows his or her resolve - and acknowledges this action as the ends justifying the means. A perfect example can be seen in Watchmen, where murder and mass slaughter is used exacted in the name of peace. Rorschach acknowledges that what was left of Walter Kovacs died along with Blaire Roche. He is so overcome by the hopelessness of the situation when he finds her remains chewed by German Shepards, her panties hidden in a pot-bellied stove... that he breaks down. After arguing with the Comedian that their initiative, however disorganized, is meaningful - Rorschach finds that despite his efforts, it simply isn't and never will be good enough. In the movie, a line is added: "MEN get arrested. Dogs get put down." And at the end, for Rorschach, he is put down like a rabid dog because he will not compromise, will not hide the truth behind Veidt's promised utopia. He dies true to himself.
5. What Was That Middle Part?
Exposition is another example of a make-it-or-break-it element in all forms of comic book media. Clearly, exposition is always needed to develop a story, the characters within, as well as the setting. Not to be condescending towards anyone, but I just want to make sure we're all on the same page. The exposition I am referring to does not define minor characters as "pointless" or in any case unnecessary, but include them often as a way to reinforce a major character's motives, capabilities, and personality. The way a major character reacts to these minor characters in this expository setting informs the audience of what they should expect in a future familiar scenario. Another important function exposition serves is to supply the parameters of an event in a believable manner in order to gain the audience's support, rather than repel them with nonsensical surprises that may not seem important individually. It is here that exposition runs the risk of piling up - of snowballing, and if there is too much required exposition to deliver the story's machinations, then the audience will likely lose interest in the film.
The most disruptive example I can fathom is Zack Snyder's Watchmen. If the movie were to progress without a single flashback, 34 minutes would be lost. That may not sound too bad considering the theatrical cut runs at 2 hours and 42 minutes, and the director's cut runs at 3 hours and 6 minutes, while the "ultimate cut" clocks out at 3 hours and 35 minutes... however, it is the way those flashback scenes are inserted. The crux is that the story progresses almost synchronically with the graphic novel, making Watchmen (apart from Sin City) the most accurate and faithful adaptation to date. What is heartbreaking is that Zack Snyder demanded the most minimal changes, and had expressed in an interview at Comic-Con in 2008 that he hoped one day Alan Moore would even out of boredom, watch his movie on DVD... and Alan Moore's response was to (very rudely) crush that hope, foreswearing the film simply because of its Hollywood ties. While I myself am not deterred by the overflowing exposition in Watchmen, many fans have been put off and remark that its brave and (almost) uncompromising depiction of the story's alternate timeline is what leads to its downfall.
Different strokes for different folks - for many people, less is more. It should be no surprise that I would find that the Avengers perfectly balances the journey through its exposition. My feelings toward the film aside, the pace is not interrupted by the re-introduction of our title characters. Through the intertwining connections, Agent Coulson shows Stark footage of the Hulk tearing through the military - establishing what the Tesseract's gamma radiation emissions aren't to be taken lightly; then Rogers is approached in an old gym by Fury to explain that the world still needs him; while Natasha contacts the elusive Dr Banner to recruit him for his expertise in gamma. On paper, this would sound somewhat boring, but the editing and speed with which these ideas are presented, dealt with, and expanded upon is incredible. Each character, even someone like Erik Selvig, is given a proper role that is not lost to the audience - an audience who could enjoy it all without having read a single comic book.
6. Grounded In Reality
A common complaint found with Superman, or any larger than life character for that matter, is that they are in fact - larger than life. How can you relate to someone who doesn't obey the laws of Hollywood physics? What happens when they defy the natural order of things, to the point where they dodge bullets, take bullets, die, come back to life, and then pull powers out of nowhere? Well, you have the Matrix, where all of the aforementioned elements of fiction assist in suspending our disbelief and even encourage us to embrace such diversions. Then you have the Spirit, which begins with nonsense and doesn't improve any, considering all of the elements failed the film, making it unwatchable garbage. One can argue that a movie that deviously works its way into our brain and presents concepts that would never, ever work in the real world... does NOT mean it is grounding the concepts into reality, but I disagree. Even when watching documentaries, we sit down to be informed. Through the use of real-life human beings who breathe, sleep, and eat just as we do, just as we are doing right then and there, we are meant to understand that what they say is the truth. How do we know they are staying honest, however? We assume, in documentaries, that the accumulation of interviews, of found and recorded footage, of expert opinions and gathered statistics... will be truthful, and we usually take their words for it. It is no different in fiction, with the only stipulation being, we require a bit more subtle manipulation.
But what happens when this manipulation takes over the movie, rather than the audience? The movie believes itself to be practical - that anyone can jump in the role, and given the right application of knowledge and willpower - the hero loses his or her identity, and becomes only a tool for the story to use as it sees fit.
One such movie mastered this element, but in some ways, many ways - it was its undoing. I point you to what is commonly referred to as the best CBM of all time - The Dark Knight. It is a different kind of monster, and as a sequel it is important to note that with the exception of a few verbal references, the movie stands completely on its own. "The Batman" is a vigilante who just so happens to dress a lot like the costumed hero of the comic books. Straight to the point: with a few slight changes, you could easily substitute the Gothamites with a completely different cast of characters, and so long as they don't have superpowers, the movie would remain the same. Because the Batman is a found object, anyone can be him. With training, Gotham's White Knight Harvey Dent could take over... and as we see towards the beginning, there is no shortage of Gothamites willing to take up crime-fighting, albeit, outside legal channels. The Batman has already made himself obsolete.
On the other hand, one key reason The Dark Knight has garnered so much critical acclaim is because of how grounded this film is in the "reality" that many prime time television shows can only aspire to. It casts a wider net across audiences all around the globe - those who are not necessarily into superhero movies and science fiction, and those that are. The characters are so approachable to the non-fans that their motives might even make more sense to them as opposed to the die-hard Batman zealots.
7. Motivation Beyond Sentiment
I'm going to spell this one out a bit - simply because it can be easily mixed with all of the above elements/tropes. You might define motivation to heroes as "wanting to keep their loved ones safe" or "searching for some greater meaning to life", perhaps something as altruistic as "it is the right thing to do"... but beneath those caramelized exteriors, one has to prevail more than any other. Why? Because if the heroes' greatest fears come true - if their friends, their wives, husbands, parents, or siblings are taken away - they will be vulnerable. They will either throw everything they have at their enemy in rage and revenge and be defeated, or they will simply shut down, and defeat is simply the end. Or is it? During their journey, heroes more often than not, are shown that the world is actually a pretty big place, and there are actually people perhaps not as capable as they are, but still invested in their friends and family. When encountering their heroic blue screen of death, it may in fact help them to remember that even though Rachel Dawes was blown to bits, or Bobby was caught kissing Kitty - there is more to life than their tragedies, and they are needed by other people who have a lot at stake.
Clearly some heroes have an extremely difficult time overcoming their own personal doubts, but the one who is just hopelessly consumed by them to the greatest of faults would have to be Rogue of the X-Men movies. From start to finish, Anna Marie D'ancanto is one of the most troubled mutants ever to enter Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters. Her mutant ability is her curse - absorbing powers as well as traits, memories, and personalities isn't something to be desired when she nearly kills the people she comes in contact with. She came to the mansion as a runaway, and just when the school started to welcome her among them - an accident sent her running again. Her relationship with Bobby Drake is somewhat frigid (pun intended), as physical intimacy is completely forbidden whether they want to explore that aspect or not. When the mutant "cure" is introduced, Rogue jumps at the opportunity, and is pushed even further when she catches her boyfriend flirting with another student. Rogue aborted her powers before she could become an X-Man - because she didn't have the guidance to manage her powers effectively, and was wrapped up in the notion that she was a freak.
There are actually a lot of great examples where heroes are able to pull through loss and doubt, some are even at their strongest at that point - they work best under pressure. I'm going to point to a character who actually hasn't made a movie appearance (although that was in the works at one point) - Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect trilogy. Some may scoff at this example, considering Shepard is an original character that the player designs, as well as controls in an extremely detailed capacity. Regardless of that fact, Shepard is always driven, whether you want him or her to be the ultimate hero or a sadistic monster. Commander Shepard is the best humanity has to offer, proof to offer all the alien races in the galaxy of what humans can do. At one point in the series, Shepard exclaims that s/he cannot even count how many lives are riding on him/her, in the Commander's mission to stop the Reapers. When you trace the Commander's roots back and discover how Shepard got this overwhelming burden and responsibility, you will find the faithful Captain David Anderson who pushed this Alliance soldier, giving him/her the resources and opportunities to realize his/her potential. But after that push, it is the enemy that threatens everything in the galaxy - the Reapers who force Shepard to commit in full, to be a leader through the hardest of circumstances, and inspire others to do the same. There is a reason the ship Shepard commands is called the "Normandy".
What can we take from this? Perhaps just another viewpoint. If anything, I would encourage you to comment on what you feel is important to the story, as well as what movies you feel performed for better or for worse.
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