Although Superheros have been walking around the big screen with their capes and masks for a long time, it was not until Jon Favreau’s ‘Iron Man’ laid the foundation stone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008 that this type of production reached its peak of popularity – surprisingly, still growing -, coming to be labeled under its own genre.
This has translated over the last decade into multimillion dollar box office who are carrying the weight of an industry that is not going through its best moment, in vehement attacks by prestigious filmmakers and in fervent spectators, eager for get hold of the nth copy of a copy of a copy linked through a post-credits scene.
However, all these are evils – if they come to be – minor compared to the great damage born of the superhero boom: public leniency. A kind of condescension or extremely permissive look towards the genre that seems having dynamited what remained of the critical spirit in these polarizing times and that encourages the big studios to keep their wheel of iteration and formulas spinning.
What to expect when you’re expecting
On many occasions, every time a negative review or opinion is published about a pajama adaptation —whether from Marvel or DC—, it doesn’t take long for comments to appear that, in a way, justify or take away iron from the criticized aspects. Among them are classics like “This is not The Godfather” either “You haven’t been to see a Godard movie”; being my favorite the question of yore: “It’s a superhero movie: what did you expect”?
From a superhero film I expect —and I want to believe that everyone should expect— the same as what I can ask of a work of any other genre; first, make it a good movie —whatever that means— and, secondly, and not least, that excites me and make me leave the cinema in a different state than when I sat in the seat.
The keys to achieving these apparently recondite objectives lie in a specific element, and that is a polished narrative that begins with the care and work of the script. This, although it may seem so, does not focus on complex and convoluted dramatic structures, but on the essence that elevates any feature film above the average and makes it sink deep into the respectable: characters.
Without complex protagonists with whom it is easy to connect, with whom we identify, and who make us suffer every time they face an obstacle to achieve their goal, all efforts to deliver a quality show will be in vain; and it is that, contrary to what might be thought, the treatment of characters also drastically influences the entertainment factor.
Yes, these types of blockbusters are conceived as shows to give us a couple of hours of escapism between set pieces spectacular and impossible VFX displays; but no matter how impressive the technical and logistical deployment of the action scenes is; without emotional involvement, large-scale battles are reduced to inert showmanship. I can recognize the titanic efforts at the production level, but everything that happens on screen simply doesn’t matter to me.
Without the thrill factor, the only thing that passes before my eyes are interchangeable faces—if not concealed by a disguise—exchanging blows while my brain remains in a torpid state. But how things change when a character and his drama are well constructed. Remember when we sat on the edge of the seat every time John McClane got into a gun battle with some terrorist at Nakatomi Plaza? It’s not magic in the middle of the action: it’s plain and simple a first class narrative.
Let’s do a simple exercise. Let’s think of a comment that can be read “It’s a crime thriller, what did you expect?”, “It’s a romantic drama, what did you expect?”, “It’s a western, what did you expect?”… absurd, right? The quality in the cinema does not understand genresand obviously ‘The Bridges of Madison’ are not the same as ‘Swept Away’, ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘Texas Rangers’ or ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and ‘Morbius’.
Regardless of its genre, we will always find proposals that are more or less brilliant and more or less forgettable, but not lose our critical spirit, punish nothing at the box office and spare us fanaticism camouflaged as paternalism or conformist indulgences, it is possible that the balance tends to tilt towards the light side of the big studio film production. Although, in the era of algorithms and precooked recipes, it is a battle that we can start giving up.