How great was “Avengers: Endgame?” It was everything you could have asked for in a superhero movie: funny, sad, dramatic and action-packed. It will be nearly impossible to forget that iconic moment in which every Marvel superhero that had been featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe appeared together onscreen to fight Thanos and his army. The culmination of 10+ years of movies represented in one single shot. Absolutely breathtaking.
But look closer at all those heroes. While they have their differences, they pretty much all fit the classic superhero model. Someone who is strong, powerful and/or rich, putting their life on the line to do good. Their storylines are pretty similar as well. Some dude gets superpowers or a super suit then goes and fights bad guys. Just take a look at the plot synopses for “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk”:
Tony Stark builds a super suit and becomes Iron Man. Bad guy steals the technology and creates evil, bigger Iron Man. Iron Man fights bigger Iron Man.
Bruce Banner gets superpowers and becomes the Hulk. Bad guy steals the technology and creates evil, bigger Hulk. Hulk fights bigger Hulk.
While this overall formula has worked for 22 Marvel movies, plus DC, “X-Men” and the countless “Batman” and “Spider-Man” reboots, it is starting to get a little old and a lot repetitive. It is time for a new wave of superheroes to shake up the genre.
Marvel Comics’ success as a comic book powerhouse in the 1960s was built around characters with complex and relatable personalities. DC comics had superheroes like Superman and Batman with relatively generic personalities and outstanding commitment to their morals. Marvel, on the other hand, made their living off the likes of Spider-Man, an angsty, selfish teen who is dealing with the challenges of high school and the tragic death of his uncle. The Fantastic Four was a group who didn’t want their superpowers and often struggled with balancing their newfound responsibility to do good and their desire to rid themselves of superpowers and go back to normal life.
To keep superhero movies relevant and interesting, there needs to be movies with superheroes that have more interesting and complex personalities like in Marvel’s early days. Doing so creates different problems and storylines the movie could explore instead of just good guy versus bad guy. It can also have characters deal with real-life problems, making them more relatable to the people who are watching. A superhero that is a perfect, powerful being who always comes out on top is boring, predictable and, frankly, unrealistic.
Making a hero seem more human than superhuman can create a stronger connection with the audience. At the end of the day, that’s what these superheroes really are: human. Peter Parker was a teenager in high school before he got bit by a radioactive spider. Bruce Banner was a successful scientist before being exposed to gamma radiation. Tony Stark was a billionaire with a drinking problem before donning a suit of armor.
Marvel movies have tried to do this to a certain extent in their movies. Their characters have different personalities and have had their struggles: Tony Stark is arrogant and selfish, Loki is always flipping between good and evil, Thor fell into a pit of despair and gained a ton of weight in “Endgame” and Captain America fought against the government of the country he loved in “Captain America: Civil War.”
But despite these supposed flaws, Tony Stark is a genius billionaire who always manages to build something when he is in trouble. Loki is a god. Captain America has the purest morals in the world. And Thor is played by Chris Hemsworth, who has a perfectly sculpted body that rivals the Statue of David. It is time to really push the envelope.
Create superheroes with real depression, anxiety or some other mental health problem that the movie can really explore in an interesting way. Have one that is downright villainous at times, making poor choices or committing crimes. Sure, Deadpool is an antihero and the Guardians of the Galaxy were criminals before they got together, but they still do what’s right. There isn’t a moral struggle in rooting for them.
Having a hero that does some really bad stuff, like murder or robbery, but always comes in to save the day can provide a much more interesting character arc and create conflict within the viewer over rooting for the protagonist or not.
Say there’s someone who only uses their powers selfishly when it proves beneficial to them, without regard for doing what is right. Or maybe a character who hates that they have powers and grapples with this forced responsibility to do good for society and the desire to find a way out of the pressure they now find themselves under. Maybe they refuse to use their powers and allow innocent civilians to get hurt.
Even creating heroes that simply don’t look super. Have an overweight or elderly person be a superhero. Maybe a weak and scrawny one. Make the hero gay or lesbian. Make them different nationalities and explore other cultures, like in “Black Panther.” Really question what it means to be a superhero, other than looking like a strong white guy.
Recent films like “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Brightburn” are great examples of this subverting of the traditional model of a hero. In the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Luke Skywalker is a hero, conquering evil by putting an end to the Galactic Empire and restoring balance to the universe.
In “The Last Jedi,” however, Luke is scared and haunted by his failure to prevent his nephew from turning to the dark side. He goes into hiding for years, embarrassed by his defeat. When found by Rey, the hero of the new trilogy, he resists her help and refuses to come back to help the newly formed Resistance.
Sure, Luke could have been kept as a perfect hero, immediately jumping into action to save the day, but that’s just too easy, too unrealistic. Having Luke portrayed as a lonely, aggravated hermit in “The Last Jedi” creates a more well-rounded and significantly more relatable character. Even the legend and hero that is Luke Skywalker can fail, get scared and run from his problems. This choice also sets up a more interesting redemption arc as he comes back and sacrifices himself for the Resistance.
The movie “Brightburn” is the story of a boy from space who crash-landed on Earth in the middle of the night. The boy is raised by a couple who finds him in the woods. As he grows up, he discovers he has superpowers. Sounds a lot like Superman, right?
While Superman uses his powers to defend the earth from evil, the boy in “Brightburn” uses his powers to haunt and hurt people. It is a new take on a cliché origin story, opening up the film to explore the concept of how far a mother’s love for her child will go and what she would do to find the good in an otherwise evil person.
This is what Superhero movies should try and do going forward. Whether old superheroes are brought to the big screen or new ones are created, they need to have more complex personalities and conflicted morals, leading to new and more intriguing storylines. They need to break from the mold and try something new.
Superheroes have been the same for too long and it’s starting to get boring. It’s time for a new wave of superheroes that aren’t so straightforwardly heroic.