Is there a line between smart, referential humor and simply pandering to the fans? Yes , there is, and some superhero movies come really close to crossing it.
Admittedly, I'm not the biggest fan of superhero comics. They didn't resonate with me the same way Sandman or Love and Rockets did. Still, I genuinely like the genre and have read, and enjoyed, a lot of superhero comics, or, at least, enough to catch in-jokes and other assorted fan references.
Sometimes, the best and worst thing about a superhero movie is the meta humor. Take The Avengers as an example. Tony Stark in a Black Sabbath shirt is pretty sweet. Hell, the bulk of what comes out of Tony Stark's mouth is gold. As far as heroes go, I have an affinity for Iron Man, at least when the role is in the hands of Robert Downey, Jr. He brings a hyper self-awareness to the character and somehow manages to be both smug and charming. But, let's get back to the point. Sometimes, you can get too much of a good thing.
Referential jokes can be great. They can help suck the audience into a world that doesn't look or feel like our own. They can also cover up holes in the story, distract the crowd from the character who is just standing in a corner with a bow and arrow and nothing to do. If you're making a superhero movie, you don't need to prove you're hip with the geeks. However, people do that over and over again. They become the teacher who goes out of the way to relate to the kids, but forgets to actually teach the class.
5. They Are All About the Spoilers.
Opening weekend of the latest superhero smash hit, you head to Twitter and count the raves written in bloated, yet non-descriptive language. You know that about 99.9% of the people you follow say that this thing is "awesome" or some other synonym for the word, but you don't know why. Nobody wants to come close to mentioning what happens because spoilers lose friends, or something like that.
There was actually a study from the University of California San Diego arguing that spoilers don't hurt the story. With superhero flicks, though, spoilers are what matter. In these movies, the big reveals are the draw. You watch the trailers and you know that something dramatic is going to happen. You go to the theater because you want to find out what that something is.
There's more to movies than plot twists. One of the biggest movie bombshells came in Empire Strikes Back. It doesn't simply change the direction of the movie. Rather, it changes the entire franchise. We're no longer watching a good guy/bad guy battle. We're watching the clash between father and son. That brings up a whole load of other questions. How did Vader end up on the dark side? Will Luke Skywalker follow his father or defeat him? If the answer is the latter, will he feel guilt if he wins? Decades later, the identity of Luke Skywalker's father is no secret. You can know the spoiler before you see the movie and it won't ruin the experience. The spoiler is only part of a much bigger story.
The same could hold true for Game of Thrones. If you read the Song of Ice and Fire books, you know who dies up to a certain point. Those are pretty big spoilers. Every major death sets off a new chain of events that further alters the story. However, it doesn't necessarily change the experience of watching the show. George R.R. Martin created a massive, intricate world and there's a lot to absorb, whether or not you know who dies in the next few seasons.
Comic books are similar. There are decades of characters whose fictional lives have been profoundly changed by the number of writers who have become involved with them. There's such a wealth of material, that it's sad to see setup, battle, reveal, repeat. Sorry, did that need a spoiler alert?
You're probably not going to see nudity in superhero movies. You won't hear much profanity either. The violence, however, can be gratuitous. That's normal for the genre. Nude scenes and f-bombs simply aren't as common as Kapow! moments in superhero comics. But there's a difference in the treatment of violence in superhero movies and in superhero comics.
In superhero movies, the explosions might roll one after the other. The gunfire might be loud enough to startle even an attentive member of the audience. In the aftermath, there are wrecked cars and leveled buildings and maybe even armies of people on the ground. You might even seen a few of the stars with cuts and scrapes on their faces. Maybe there's an injury, possibly a serious one, but there's still a safe distance between the consequences of violence and the audience. In other words, you probably won't cringe during the movies.
Violence can be artful. It can be used to make a strong point. This violence, though, is so sanitized, that the impact is lost. It's filler meant to appease a society that prefers guns to boobs.
That's not always the case in comics. Even in "The Winter Soldier" arc of Captain America, the battlefield flashback art is brutal. There are gruesome details inside those panels and clear messages about the cost of war, not just in lives lost, but in memories that haunt the survivors. In comics, violence does come with consequence. People who matter to the story do die. Those who survive may do so with an injury that lasts until the franchise gets a reboot. In comics, violence is more than a means to an end. In comic book movies, fights and explosions are just another way to get the crowd rooting for the hero.
Really smutty Loki fan fiction is more entertaining than this.
7. When There's a Political Theme, They Will Hit You Over the Head With It.
Superheroes can certainly tackle the socio-political messages of the day. We've seen that consistently over decades with most of the characters who have become household names. Certainly, this is part of the cultural stickiness of the genre. These bold characters can morph over time to reflect changes in society.
When I read the trade hardback of Captain American: The Winter Soldier, the things that stuck out were the comments on war. It's not pro or anti anything. The message isn't that explicit, but it's in the art and in the story, that war has consequences on individuals that last long after the fighting stops. This is incorporated in the movie as well.
In the movie, though, there's this perceived message about freedom and fear that's been seen as a strong point in plenty of reviews. Steve Rogers says, "This isn't freedom. This is fear." People act like it's the most poignant phrase uttered on screen since since "the Jungian thing" in Full Metal Jacket. Freedom and fear aren't themes. They are words that characters say at critical moments of the movie with all of the seriousness of cable news talking heads vying for your attention, because, you know, relevance.
Previously by Liz Ohanesian