It’s no secret that comic book movies are in the middle of a vast and satisfying renaissance – after decades of being mishandled, misunderstood and downright abused by movie studios, comic book adaptations are, for the most part, finally being done right. There’s a lot to love, and most every new adaptation is treated with A-list respect and anticipation by both the fans and the media.
But Hollywood just can’t help itself, and even though a lot of these films are damn near perfect, there are still a few endemic flaws that are tough to ignore. So even while we’re in the middle of these superhero salad days, with each new summer movie season a celebration of comic book awesomeness, they really need to give up a few bad habits.
5) “I got to get me one of those!”
You’ve seen it a billion times; at some point, usually late in the film, the superhero will bust out whatever the movie’s main gadget is. Maybe it’s a car, or a boat, or a suit, or whatever – regardless, there’ll be a supporting cast member there who’ll get a closeup and say “Whoa!” or “Cool” or “Ddddaaayyyummmm!”
Now, this happens in a LOT of other movies – The Fast and the Furious franchise, for example, is essentially four films composed entirely of different variations on this scene. But aside from getting a cheap laugh from the audience, they’re predictable and annoying, and in a superhero movie that’s otherwise excellent it takes you out of it for a moment, like a reminder that “hey, see, this movie could’ve been really shitty! Here’s a reminder of just how shitty and badly-written it could’ve been!” Not only that, but it suggests that we need someone in the film to be impressed with the superhero’s amazing technology/vehicle/penis girth in order to know that we too should be impressed. Kinda like in any given comedy where the pretty girl walks in, and she’s really pretty, and so we get a 4-minute slow-motion shot of her entering the room, complete with bizarrely extended closeup shots of every nerd inside her blast radius looking as utterly shocked and amazed as possible. We fuckin’ get it, she’s pretty.
4) Stan Lee Cameos
Ever since superhero movies started taking off – most people consider this little comic book cinema renaissance to have started with the first X-Men movie back in 2000 – veteran Marvel superstar Stan Lee has had some kind of wink-nudge cameo in basically every single Marvel Comics-related movie. It was a little funny and cool when he popped up as a hot dog vendor in X-Men, and then kinda neat when he popped up to save that little girl in Spider-man, and then it started getting old in the Ang Lee Hulk misfire, and now it’s just fucking annoying and tiresome, and that might be because he’s in every single goddamn movie now and it’s not funny or cute anymore. Okay, he’s Stan Lee, he had a hand in creating these properties, and oh, here he is in the movie version! Oh how deliciously clever and meta!
It’s only getting worse, especially since now they’re giving him oh-so-adorable lines in otherwise decent movies (admittedly, Spider-man 3 was already horrible by the time he showed up and delivered this shining gem: “Gee, I guess one person can make a difference! ‘Nuff said!”) and expanding his cameo appearances. At this point, is there anyone left who still reacts to a Stan Lee cameo with “how delightful and unexpected!” rather than rolling their eyes and sighing?
3) Cramming in Villains
This trend started way back in the ’90s, when it was announced that – gasp, shock – Batman Returns would have not one but two famous villains in it, Catwoman and The Penguin. That proved to be pretty popular, so they kept at it, regardless of whether or not it really worked out or made sense or wasn’t retarded story-wise, and the practice has bled into most other superhero franchises. Thing is, once they switch to having two baddies in every installment, they never seem to go back – meaning we can expect this to happen in all future Spider-man flicks, and it looks like Iron Man is going down the same road.
Now, having two villains isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided the writing is good, but frankly, more than a few of these movies seem to have more than one bad guy just for the hell of it, and there’s usually a B- or C-list villain in there somewhere, which is kinda like announcing at the varsity basketball team that they’re going to blend junior varsity players into the team for this one game. Meaning that while you’re really there to see the A-list guys, you’re also stuck watching the JV kids bumble around and fuck up.
So while everyone shows up to watch Spider-man take on Venom, they know eventually they’re going to have to sit through a bunch of shit involving Sandman, who nobody cares about and really has no reason to be in the film in the first place. Hell, even though it did ultimately work out pretty well, Two-Face really didn’t need to be in The Dark Knight at all – and now he’ll likely never show up in another Batman movie until decades from now when the franchise gets another reboot, since Chris Nolan killed him off after a totally second-banana role.
There’s nothing wrong with having only one villain in your superhero movie. Just the Joker would’ve been fine in The Dark Knight, and before that movie came out, everyone pointed to Spider-man 2 as probably the best recent example of a comic book movie done right, and that one focused completely on Doc Ock. It can be done, audiences aren’t demanding an entire rogue’s gallery of famous villains populating every movie ever.
2) Wasting Awesome Side Characters
Okay, so maybe it isn’t realistic to expect that every great supporting cast member in every comic book gets their due in the movie adaptation – after all, franchises like X-Men have overstuffed casts full of characters one fan or another considers their favorite even if they barely qualify as a “supporting cast member.”
But there are still plenty of characters that for one reason or another wind up getting stuffed into the margins of a big comic book adaptation and ultimately wind up being totally wasted, and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. The X-Men franchise is by far the worst when it comes to this sort of thing – advertising appearances by great characters with huge fanbases like Emma Frost or Gambit as an incentive for fans to come check out the Wolverine movie, and then either reducing them to a few minutes of screentime each or making their presence in the film a waste of time. It’s happened in every X-Men movie (especially Brett Ratner’s odious entry The Last Stand, which packed in a ton of beloved characters, most of which had at most a fleeting visual cameo and no lines).
The worst part about this practice is that while there might be a fleeting moment of coolness to be gained by dropping Jubilee into the background of some scene somewhere (generating about one second of “I know who that is!” nerd fulfillment and little else), it basically guarantees that they’ll never have much of
a role in any upcoming movie. So while they might be able to do cool things by giving someone like Psylocke an expanded role in an upcoming film, the odds are against that if they’ve already thrown the fans a bone by having her stand around for a few seconds while Wolverine rips his shirt off for the 200th time.
It’s simple, really; if you know a certain character has a ton of fans and a rich enough character history and personality to support a meatier role, and you know everyone would just love it if you gave that character more than a few minutes of screen time, don’t just wedge them in to some crowd scene, wait until you can actually use the character. Hell, you’re going to do a dozen sequels anyway; there’s room for everyone, right?
1) Knock Off the Feature-Length Origin Stories
If there’s one thing that remains a constant about superhero movies, it’s that origin stories are, in general, only necessary in brief. Basically everyone who goes to a Batman movie knows how Batman became Batman. Same goes for Spider-man, and Superman, and pretty much every major comic book character from the last 50 years. These stories are etched into the public consciousness – you don’t have to be a super diehard nerdbag to know that Peter Parker became Spider-man after being bit by a radioactive spider. Everyone knows that. Your grandmother knows that.
So the insistence on launching every major franchise with a feature-length origin story is a little baffling – is there anyone who walks into a Batman movie just dying to spend an hour and a half watching some dude become Batman rather than already being Batman? Marvel’s Incredible Hulk reboot last summer had it right – cut to the chase, summarize the Hulk’s origin in the first few minutes and get to the good part everyone is there to see. And although Iron Man‘s origin story worked out pretty well – mostly carried by the charismatic Robert Downey Jr. playing lovable bastard Tony Stark (wisely sparing us boring extended scenes of Stark in his youth tinkering with alarm clocks in the garage), it’s hard to get excited about Marvel’s plans for the Avengers franchise. We’re going to have to sit through not one, not two, but THREE origin movies before they get to the one everyone is really waiting to see, The Avengers. Do us a favor, Marvel; cut to the chase. Do a straight-to-DVD animated feature that explains the origin stories of Captain America, Nick Fury and Thor, and get right to the sweet Avengers action we’re all waiting for rather than dumping out a bunch of origin movies and making us wait until the next Presidential election to get to the fun stuff.
The worst part is, 30 years from now when all these franchises are being resurrected and rebooted and re-imagined again, inevitably the studios will once again forget that our collective cultural memories are long enough to remember simple origin stories and we’ll have to watch Peter Parker get accustomed to his strange new powers for 90 minutes all over again. Sigh.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.