Holding out for a (flawed) hero

Christian Bale in The Dark Knight. The best superhero movies concern themselves with issues of ident

Christian Bale in The Dark Knight. The best superhero movies concern themselves with issues of identity and responsibility. - Credit: supplied

You can tell that summer is just around the corner because there’s the crackle of superhero-sized testosterone filling the air when you venture into your local multiplex.

Jay Chou (left) and Seth Rogen star in The Green Hornet. Too many modern superhero films concentrate

Jay Chou (left) and Seth Rogen star in The Green Hornet. Too many modern superhero films concentrate on spectacle rather than storytelling. - Credit: Archant

Despite the Cannes Film Festival taking place in May, it seems that from Whitsun (that dates me) to the end of August, most cinemas seem to be asking most filmgoers to send their brains off for an extended vacation.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a good superhero movie but the current crop seem to favour spectacle over substance. It wasn’t always the case.

Also whereas before you may only get one per summer now we are drowning in them. You may be forgiven for thinking that the entire summer blockbuster season is populated with people with an abiding affection for lycra and masks.

The superhero movie has taken over from the action film. It gets rid of the need for the fallible hero. There is no longer any sense of danger as the hero is usually indestructible. If, by some origin-story quirk he has an Achilles heel, then fear not because you are safe in the knowledge that before this film was released the hero signed a three picture deal so you know that he will come to no harm.

It’s all this superhero fandom, summer blockbuster hype and this tiresome need for CGI spectacle that has killed the superhero film for me.

When there was just one a year then it made an interesting diversion from the tedious exploits of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Back in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s superhero movies were treated like parables. They really weren’t about people with special powers they were stories through which we could see failings in ourselves.

The best films were about things other than beating up the bad guys or seeing just how big we can make that explosion.

The best superhero films had flawed heroes. To my mind Batman and Spiderman were far more interesting than Superman – who I always found to be incredibly wishy-washy despite his superhuman strength.

His morally upright, all-American persona and his ridiculous invulnerability made him rather bland. I much prefer the tortured Bruce Wayne/Batman character and the eternal debate whether Batman, mentally scarred from witnessing the murder of his parents, was as damaged as the people he was fighting.

Schizophrenia and mental illness is a reoccurring theme in many superhero stories – especially with the villains. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman is particularly traumatised in Tim Burton’s excellent Batman Returns and Kyle’s relationship with Wayne serves to illustrate just how alike they are under their respective masks.

In Sam Raimi’s take on Spiderman the subject of schizophrenia is tackled head-on thanks to Willem Dafoe’s no-holds-barred performance as The Green Goblin. The sequence where Norman Osborn is talking to himself in the mirror is genuinely disturbing.

Superhero movies can also be about issues and again they work best when the subjects are tackled in a non-preachy way. Bryan Singer’s excellent first two X-Men movies were about segregation, prejudice and intolerance in its myriad forms – whether it be homophobia, racism, sexism or discrimination of any kind.

Its strength lay in the fact that it tackled the resentment that festered inside those on the receiving end of this prejudice. These were powerful individuals who became increasingly angry at the discrimination they faced and were prepared to do something about it, if calmer voices didn’t prevail.

An intelligent script by Singer and stand-out performances by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen made these films so much more than a superhero spectacle.

The theme of living up to responsibility was the subject of Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman films with Tobey Maguire and Christopher Nolan’s Batman ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy. What happens when those in positions of trust turn away from their duty? Innocent people die. In both Spiderman and the Dark Knight movies the victims are those close to the hero.

These stories do make gripping viewing because they are about emotional truths. They are the essence of drama rather than being an excuse for a fist fight or a flashy exchange of laser beams.

My problem with Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Iron Man, The Green Lantern or any number of the recent costumed clowns who have strode onto our screens is that the stories aren’t about anything. They are no longer parables. They no longer reflect life. They are just an excuse to string an endless series of stunts and action sequences together and that’s just dull.

The story has to have an emotional heart. There have to be consequences for the actions being taken on screen.

Let’s hope they can breathe new life into the flawed hero.