Whether it’s superhero fatigue or something else, there’s no denying that the MCU and the DC Universe are falling on hard times. Secret Invasion set record lows for Marvel, as did the reviews for Ant-Man the Wasp: Quantumania, and The Flash stumbled to become the lowest money maker in Warner Bros. history.
But let’s get a little perspective, shall we? These movies aren’t great, but superhero movies are, on the whole, better than what came before the MCU launched in 2008. Throughout the 80s and 90s, superhero movies were almost embarrassed to be about superheroes, forcing Batman into a lame revenge plot for the 1989 film and refusing to let Frank Castle wear his death’s head logo in the Cannon Films direct-to-video release. With the embrace of the genre has come better effects, brighter costumes, and outrageous plots that better reflect the high stakes the genre demands.
However, this increase in quality has come from embracing formulas, which sometimes misses the beautiful mistakes one finds in a messier film. As the modern-day superhero formula breaks down, it’s time to look back at the sloppier superhero movies and the lessons they can teach.
To be clear, I’m not saying that these movies are better than most Marvel or DC movies — only the truly abysmal Suicide Squad or Morbius can rival these choices in quality. But there are still some diamond ideas in these roughest of films, something that James Gunn and Kevin Feige should take note of.
It’s Okay to Be Sexy (Barb Wire, 1996)
It’s easy to see why a little-known Dark Horse Comics character would get adapted by a major studio, despite having appeared in barely more than a dozen comics. A buxom bounty hunter in black leather, Barb Wire proved to be the perfect choice for Universal’s newest star, Pamela Anderson. Director David Hogan plops Anderson in a script that writers Chuck Pfarrer and Ilene Chaiken based on Casablanca and surrounds her with great character actors like Temuera Morrison and Udo Kier.
None of this is enough to make Barb Wire a good movie, but it does serve its purpose. Anderson does look attractive, as does Morrison. Modern superhero movies have no shortage of good-looking people, but they do lack any sense of sexuality or heat. Sure, Hayley Atwell had a lustful look in her eye when Peggy Carter rests her hand on Steve Rogers’s newly developed pec, but Marvel usually isn’t sexy, even when it’s dealing with sex (see: Eternals). Marvel and DC don’t suddenly need to start turning their films into the next Herogasm, but a little more sexual chemistry would help ground these stories about fantastic — and fantastically attractive — people.
Visuals Matter (The Spirit, 2008)
As a writer and an artist, Frank Miller revolutionized comics by mixing hardboiled storytelling with expressive, Kirby-esque art and a keen sense of composition. The hardboiled sensibility stayed with Miller when he brought Will Eisner’s masked man the Spirit to the screen, but his skill as a visual storyteller seems to be lost. Using the same digital photography that Robert Rodriguez employed while adapting his Sin City, Miller attempts to make a moody and dreamlike world in which the Spirit (Gabriel Macht) battles criminal mastermind the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) while romancing a gaggle of beautiful women, including Scarlett Johansson and Eva Mendes. Although Miller occasionally achieves a shot as memorable as his comic book work, most of The Spirit falls apart, trying too hard to be interesting looking instead of legible.
For all of its many shortcomings, The Spirit does at least take seriously the visual aspect of superhero movies, something forgotten in most entries by Marvel and DC. Despite adapting one visual medium to another, films such as Spider-Man: No Way Home or Black Adam seem to simply slap their heroes on the screen, with no attention to color, blocking, or composition. Sure, some exceptions exist — for all of his other shortcomings, there’s no denying that Zack Snyder knows how to make superheroes look awesome — but we’ve simply come to accept ugliness in superhero movies, even those made by some of the richest companies in the world.
Have Fun, But Don’t Be Condescending (Steel, 1997)
Introduced as one of the replacements for the Man of Steel during the Death of Superman event in the mid-90s, John Henry Irons aka Steel flew quickly to the big screen thanks to legendary producer Quincy Jones. Jones saw in Steel the Black superhero he long wanted to give kids, and thought basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, already a role model, would be the perfect star. While the giant O’Neal fits the look, he lacked the screen charisma needed to carry the movie. Fortunately, director Kenneth Johnson filled out the cast with charming and likable actors, including Richard Roundtree as inventor Uncle Joe, Judd Nelson as the villainous Burke, and Irma P. Hall as matriarch Grandma Odessa.
DC and especially Marvel desperately want to make fun movies, but they usually do it with snarky quips. Thor: Love & Thunder, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, and others want to be liked so badly that they invite the audience to mock the very idea of superheroes. Steel is devoted to having fun with the audience, welcoming the viewer in with Roundtree’s million-dollar smile and Nelson’s over-the-top baddy. But it never points out the obvious ridiculousness of Shaq’s performance. Superhero movies should be fun — after all, they are about people in bright costumes punching each other. But they should embrace the fun of the concept, not make fun of it.
Don’t Be Slaves to the Source Material (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 2003)
Directed by Stephen Norrington, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was so bad that it did what The Avengers (1998) and Highlander II could not. It forced Sean Connery to give up movies (save for a vocal performance in the even worse animated film Sir Billi). An adaptation of the Victorian superteam assembled by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen substituted the subversive glee of the original with bombast and CG glop. But Norrington did wisely avoid the stolid interstitials, presented in Moore’s bland prose, understanding that he was making a blockbuster movie, not a documentary.
We comic book fans can sometimes get too excited about seeing our hobbies validated by the larger culture, breathing a sigh of relief when Hugh Jackman finally wears maize and blue. But we also have to remember that comics are a completely different medium, with their own restrictions and strengths. Some of Marvel’s greatest successes have come from deviations from the comics, such as aging up Bucky Barnes and streamlining Carol Danvers‘ backstory. But even when they change things up, they feel constrained by ideas from the original work, as currently demonstrated by the need to bring in all of Kang’s variants, despite dropping the time-travel bit.
Scare Them Kids (Superman III, 1983)
Superman III came about when producers heard comedian Richard Pryor praising the previous film on television. Always looking for big names to lend credibility to their comic book adaptations, producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind gave Pryor a major part in the film. Pryor’s involvement gave director Richard Lester permission to ramp up the goofiness of Superman III, even more than he did when taking over Superman II. And yet, despite its silly tone, Superman III has its heavier moments, including Superman battling his evil self and a woman being transformed into a robot by a supercomputer. The latter remains a constant on lists of frightening scenes from kid’s movies.
Although most superhero movies shoot for a PG-13 rating, they are almost always kid friendly. the few recent exceptions to that rule, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, show just how upset parents can get when their junior moviegoers watch a film explicitly labeled “Parents Strongly Cautioned.” But adventure stories require a certain amount of fear, something to show the audience why someone of incredible power should get involved. Scary moments raise the stakes of a superhero story, making the catharsis of the hero’s arrival all the sweeter and more powerful.
Get Stars From Around the World (Bulletproof Monk, 2003)
The worst thing to be said about Bulletproof Monk, an adaptation of an Image Comics release by Brett Lewis and Michael Avon Oeming, is that Seann William Scott is the best part. This isn’t a knock against Scott, who is generally enjoyable on film, but it is a terrible thing to say about a martial arts action movie starring Chow Yun-fat. Chow seems bored and bewildered by the movie that he’s in, constantly ceding the screen to his earnest and eager co-star.
Despite Chow’s disinterest, director Paul Hunter had the right idea by casting the Hong Kong legend. Not only did Chow add legitimacy to the movie, but he brought a different acting style to the proceedings, potentially adding richness to the film. Marvel and DC have sometimes brought in stars from outside of Hollywood, and the results have been great, such as Tony Leung (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), Damián Alcázar (Blue Beetle), and Fawad Khan (Ms. Marvel). By continuing this trend, superhero movies can become truly global, taking advantage of different perspectives and breaking the formula they too often follow.
Lean Into Your Mythology (Spawn, 1997)
At the most basic level, Spawn is a man who rebels against the demons who gave him powers to serve Hell and instead becomes a hero. But outside of that simple origin, Spawn has a vast and self-serving mythology, one that involves demon ranks, ancient knights, and the ruler of Hell. The 1997 big-screen Spawn movie did its best to embrace all of that lore, not worried about the limitations of its budget or cast. The result is a mess of a movie, one that climaxes with a laughable display of late-90s CGI.
The climax of Spawn highlights the real problem with the film. It’s not that the movie tried to dig into its mythology, but rather that it failed in its depiction of that lore. As part of ongoing stories that stretch back nearly a century, Marvel and DC superheroes have some of the richest, and strangest, lore of all time. While filmmakers certainly don’t want to overwhelm or bore the audience with backstory (a mistake made by 2011’s Green Lantern), they shouldn’t be afraid of the weirder parts of their world either.
Already, James Gunn is showing how much fun it is to live in a universe with a giant mind-controlling starfish, and the Netflix Daredevil series did acknowledge a clan of immortal ninjas. The two major universes are willing to get weird with multiverses, but there’s still plenty of wonderful oddness they’re leaving on the table, stuff about Spider-Man’s werewolf mafia enemies the Lobo Brothers or the entire future-teen crimefighters the Legion of Super-Heroes. These things have thrilled readers and they’re sure to thrill viewers as well.
Let Directors Be Directors (Catwoman, 2004)
Catwoman is arguably the ugliest movie of all time; an unwatchable torrent of unmotivated camera moves and excessive cuts. The internet regularly makes fun of the scene in which Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) and Detective Lone (Benjamin Bratt) play one-on-one basketball, but only those who have seen the entire film know that the whole movie is shot that way, active to the point of inducing nausea. But the terrible visuals point to the main problem with Catwoman — not the decision to give the director so much power, but rather the decision to choose French visual effects artist Pitof as the director.
When looking at Catwoman, it’s easy to see why Feige exerts such a strong hand over Marvel movies. None of the MCU films sink to Catwoman’s depths, precisely because he would never allow any director that much control over their movies. But even if his approach keeps the movies from flopping that badly, they also don’t generate long-term excitement. For evidence, look no further than Zack Snyder, a filmmaker whose idiosyncratic style inspires devotion, despite his limitations. If Marvel and DC want to survive past their rapidly-fading heyday, they need to let filmmakers bring their voices to the work, even if they end up hiring another Pitof.