Since Iron Man was released in 2008, it seems that there has been a formula set, which is to be either followed or deviated from when it comes to making superhero movies. Whether it’s DC or Marvel, Image or Dark Horse; there are a plethora of movies that we will continue see being drawn from these universes. But with the release of M. Night Shyamalon’s Glass earlier this year, and James Gunn’s Brightburn coming out this Friday, it might be that original superhero movies (not adapted from any previous material) are ripe for the making.
There have been a few original superhero films in the past, and they always seem to fade into obscurity. There are, however, a lot of great ideas and concepts that are contained within these stories that, if refined, could yield amazing results for the superhero movie industry. Original superhero movies are a compelling way to tell stories because they do not have to conform to the expectations of the audience, they have a chance to deconstruct and parody the genre, and it allows the writers more ingenuity through film-making to tell a good story.
With characters like Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and Captain America, you watch one of their movies, you kind of know what to expect. There will be big action, some heart, some humor, and a little bit of irony brushed over the top to make it palatable. Now that’s not always the case, the MCU has been branching out in terms of tone and concept, but largely an MCU movie feels like an MCU movie. Film goers eat this type of stuff up, and it seems Hollywood has been stuck in this formula. It is as Joss Whedon once said: ““Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” There is nothing wrong with this, but it is fatiguing after nearly a decade of “superhero” blockbusters being told like this or failing to be jokey/serious. But, when one writes an original superhero story, though audience knows it will be about a person who gains superpowers, the don’t know what else to expect. It does not have to be earth-shattering in scope. The hero does not have to have wisecracks (though nobody said any of the Marvel or DC characters had to). It can end however the writers want it to, and they can kill a character without worrying about bringing them back or not.
In the year 2000, M. Night Shyamalan released the movie Unbreakable (the first in the Glass trilogy). This was his first really successful movie and it was about a man named David Dunn who discovered he had super strength among other powers. However, his powers aren’t necessarily the focal point of the movie. It’s his relationship with his son and his struggling marriage with his wife that are the most compelling part of the movie. It’s told in a real world setting, and you get the feeling that this would happen to a man if he had superpowers, and this is how real people would react. There’s no amazing fight sequence, nobody is flying in the sky, and there’s no epic confrontation with the villain (who is basically an incredibly smart man trying to out David Dunn as a real life superhero). It’s more realistic. The sequels Split and Glass would push the limits of a real world superhero saga and give us a further look at what this type of world would be like. Though Unbreakable and it’s subsequent films don’t conform to the typical tropes of a superhero genre, they deconstruct it and allow the audience to view superheroes from a new perspective unfettered by preconceived notions and expectations.
To deconstruct a genre is when a genre is “boiled down to a set of tropes, conventions and a typical premise. All of these features are then played straight; without shying away from any unpleasant consequences and/or causes of these features.” The comic Watchmen by Alan Moore is a good example of a deconstruction of it’s comic book counterparts. Every character represents a superhero archetype, but the consequences of their actions play out in stark contrast to how comic books normally go. Original superhero films can do this as well. Deconstructing and parody of a genre is a great way to poke fun and get the audience thinking about the genre in and of itself. Sometimes, like The Incredibles or Megamind, it can be to pay an homage to superheros as well as take the known plot devices and provide some introspection with a comedic twist. Other times it can be to provoke deeper thinking about the genre and inspire action to be taken for future stories. Two great live-action examples of parody and satiracle superhero tropes can be found in 2005’s Sky High and 2010’s Super (also directed by James Gunn).
Sky High is about Will Stronghold, son of two superhero parents in a world where superpowered individuals are classified by how powerful you are. He attends Sky High, a school meant to teach adolescents how to use their powers in their best capacity as either a sidekick or a superhero. Though it is an irreverent, comedic take on superheroes, and it’s primary audience was that of a younger teen demographic, Sky High is still a pretty compelling story that makes you think about the role that sidekicks and superheroes play, even though they aren’t all that different at times.
James Gunn’s Super is about a delusional man named Frank Darbo whose wife leaves him for a drug dealer. Frank decides to become a costumed hero despite having no powers, and calls himself The Crimson Bolt. Though this movie exists as a dark-comedy to parody the whole “Masked vigilante” trope, it leads the audience to think about how ridiculous that it is for grown men to dress up and beat people to death. Original superhero movies subvert the expectations and make you think harder about what the genre is really about and fuels greater in-depth thinking for superhero movies down the line.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of original superhero movies is that it give the writer free reign in crafting an excellent story. It gives the director of the film the ability to give it a distinct visual style, and use film technique to the best of their abilities. If you are given a Superman script to direct, you wouldn’t want to direct a Batman movie even though that is the visual style that works best for you (well, Man Of Steel might beg to differ). However, for new characters that audiences have never seen before, the director and writer get to craft the overall tone and feel that that character will give off and how the audience should feel when leaving the movie. It cuts out fanboy apologists and biased critics. One of the most creative original superhero movies is Josh Trank’s 2012 found footage film Chronicle.
Chronicle follows three teens that come in contact with a meteor from space that gives them telepathic and telekinetic powers; they then spend the rest of the movie using their powers as three teenage boys would: pranking people, ultimately realized that great powers demands great responsibility, and the toll that their powers will have on their lives. The catch is that it’s a found footage superhero film, meaning all the footage you see is being filmed within the context of the movie. Andrew, the main character, has a camera with him always and it’s very fun to see the creative ways that the camera movement is justified within the movie whether it’s cell phone footage, security camera footage, or Andrew using his telepathy to film their super-powered actions with a little more cinematography than usual. Not only that but it’s a pretty real take on teenagers having powers, especially Andrew who lives in a troubled home and only has his new friends to relate to. It’s such an interesting story, and the fact that it is a found footage film makes it so much more fun to watch and keeps the viewer engaged the entire time. We need more superhero stories with the ingenuity and originality of Chronicle.
Now, standard adaptations of superhero comics should never go away. Frankly they draw audiences more, and we will always enjoy more MCU films and hopefully some good DC movies along with the myriad of other properties to be adapted. But what an opportunity film makers have to make original dark-comedy films like Super, grounded real-world stories like the Glass trilogy, coming of age stories like Kick-Ass, horror/thriller superhero films like Brightburn, and creative found footage flicks like Chronicle. Eventually audiences will get burnt out with the same movies being produced, and the way to remedy this is to create films that genuinely surprise the viewer, intellectually provocative films that beget further creativity, and movies that give truly clever takes on classic tropes that we all know and love.