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True Confession: Why I’m (Mostly) Done with Superheroes

By Rob Payne | Think Pieces | October 1, 2013 | Comments ()


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The modern mythologies of Marvel and DC began flying and web-slinging around in my brain during a time of great personal strife in my adolescence. My father’s addiction to prescription drugs didn’t feel like an origin story when it manifested, and wouldn’t until the side-effects became routine horrors in our suburban existence. More often than not the story felt like a Lifetime Original Movie from my mother’s perspective, but it was easy to fantasize about discovering mutant powers and running away to study my abilities at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, to fight the obvious bad guys as a member of the X-Men. I’ve been thinking and writing about comic book heroes since the fourth grade, even though I’ve stopped obsessively reading them several different times in my life. So, isn’t really surprising that my first ever Pajiba post was a trade news write-up about Russell Crowe’s casting as Superman’s Kryptonian father in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.

It’s only appropriate, then, that my final Pajiba post is essentially a response to the questionable future of this newly rebooted Superman franchise. That isn’t to say there aren’t any problems with Snyder’s take on space alien Jesus — putting himself above (not literally) others, willingness to kill to achieve his goals, and wanton destruction of human life and civilization — that can’t be ironed out and examined in a direct sequel that could restore the appropriate moral character to Clark Kent. As obvious a marketing executive’s idea as putting Batman in the Superman sequel is, the crossover could actually be an ideal way to examine those aforementioned characterization problems.

Even if Christian Bale isn’t under the mask, audiences were so recently exposed to a superhero who felt duty bound to help others at great cost to himself, an unwillingness to take even the most criminal of lives, and who went out of his way not to destroy any human infrastructure he didn’t need to destroy. (And, to be fair, Lt. Gordon was the one who actually blew up Gotham’s train in Batman Begins.) Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is reportedly one that has been Batmanning it up for a while, which leaves open the possibility that his narrative path was similar to his predecessor’s. This is an ideal character to challenge and mentor an up-and-coming new Superman without resorting to the daddy issues that usually plague Kal-El. Batman tempering the darkness inside Superman would definitely be a reversal of the characters’ traditional dynamic.

So, there is, at least, limited potential in DC’s filmic future, just as there might be something interesting going on in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. The sheer novelty of shared movie universes over three, four, who knows how many possible franchises is enough to draw the attention of film students (or students of film) as much as it is the average comic book guy. And, yet, there is a reason I frequently stop following Batman, Iron Man, the X-Men, and the Justice League in their graphic art form, and it is almost never due to the quality in most of those stories — from either a picture or words aspect. It’s the same reason I grow weary of their live-action, CGI-enhanced big screen counterparts — the sheer quantity of books, or movies, needed to understand what the hell is going on and why we should care. It’s the sacrifice of character development over wow factor, where the surprises tend to be negated by the end of the storyline or by the time the credits roll. It’s the oncoming sitcomization of cinema.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy will probably wind up being the last superhero series from the Big Two comic progenitors where the director has more control than the studios in the final product. One’s subjective opinion on Nolan’s series is moot, because the translation of his vision can’t be denied. We won’t see another moment like Rachel Dawes’ twist ending in The Dark Knight, just look at Iron Man 3’s multiple teases with Pepper Potts before ultimately restoring her to pre-movie status. We won’t see another vague fate like Bruce Wayne’s at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, just look at the coy nods to Agent Coulson’s “death” in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s not an ending but a forthcoming plot point. It has to be when there are more Avengers and Justice League and title-character sequels to make. In short, from here on out, no hero’s or heroine’s stories will ever end. And if they do, well, they’ll just get reborqueled before too long, especially in the case of any characters’ rights that are owned by Fox or Sony.

Superheroes are too big to fail now, which means no more risks in front of the camera, and saving face by hiring “riskier” talent behind the scenes. It’s the same basic plan the comic companies have been executing for decades, hiring A-List writers or artists (and sometimes even both on a single book) to produce tightly controlled, board approved cyclical narratives that have to top each other year after year and can be retconned in perpetuity. Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Gail Simone, Matt Fraction, Mark Waid, Mike Allred, J.H. Williams III, Frank Quitely, and Jim Lee are the comic book equivalent of auteurs-for-hire like Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, Edgar Wright, and James Gunn. Fun and interesting stories can still happen in this corporate rubric, but there’s no denying that the reason they exist is to make money, which is understandable but frequently uninspiring.

There was a time when an auteur was hired to make a superhero film because their unique voice could speak for such absurd characters. Now, an auteur is used to capitalize on their style while hopefully saying just enough not to jeopardize producers’ overarching agenda. This doesn’t mean superhero stories inevitably suck, it just means they matter less and less with each new reset. It means that I’m much more interested in Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier because I want to see if TV vets Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) and the Russo Brothers (Community), respectively, can distinguish themselves from Marvel Studios’ house style.

People keep asking if Warner Bros./DC can “pull a Marvel” with Batman vs. Superman, but nobody seems to be asking if that’s a good thing. Which is too bad, because this isn’t only the problem of superhero cinema. Star Trek Into Darkness, which essentially turns Spock and Kirk and Khan into Batman and Robin and the Joker, also suffered from this lack of tension, resulting in lower stakes. This probably helps explain why Damon Lindelof felt the movie needed a starship to crash into San Francisco in the movie’s finale, despite logic or science, because explosions theoretically raise the stakes like nothing else. This is probably why Pacific Rim actually did manage to build tension, at least in regards to character survival rates. Guillermo Del Toro’s monster mash was most heavily influenced by Anime, which is the Japanese animation genre known for having high body counts amidst insanely unpredictable outcomes.Outside of Dragonball Z or Inu Yasha, it’s a whole method of storytelling predicated on the fulfillment that planning against the sequel can bring.

I’ve probably written more than my fair share on the topic of superheroes in my time here at Pajiba, and most of it came from a sincere place. Even when I get annoyed by the moves of the parent companies, or the worst segment of fandom, and most especially when my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek, the genre is simply my wheelhouse. Hell, the comic I write that I’ve been not-so-subtly plugging in my signature line for two years is totally inspired by love of the comics I read when I was a kid. Sometimes I envy those who can still find the that much time to stay that passionate about a set of adventures and characters that never, ever end and don’t allow for breaks, and refuse to challenge themselves too much for fear of losing whatever audiences they’ve gained. But then I’m reminded, thanks to series finales like Sunday night’s Breaking Bad, just how important closure is. Moving on to new adventures and new characters is what provides meaning and context for every adventure and character.

No genre is ever truly exhausted. There are still great superhero stories to tell out there, and I hope to tell one or two of them myself, if I’m lucky. But the shared universes, the crossovers, the financial bottom line? Those are the kind of limitations with quickly diminishing returns. Movies may or may not be able to withstand the forced continuity better than comics, simply because they’re harder and take longer to make. But the more money they make, they more “comic book movies” will be made, until even the technically non-superhero movies are doing exactly the same thing. 2013 is only the beginning. Soon, going to a movie theater will feel to aging cinephiles what going to the comic shop can feel to aging comic fans. Do you need to see Avengers 4: West Coast Avengers before season 6 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Does Wonder Woman come before or after Batfleck 3? How does Justice League tie into Guardians of the Galaxy, again?

Thank Godtopus there are more comic publishers than Marvel and DC, and more creative people making movies without franchise potential, too.


Rob Payne also writes the web comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, will be tumblring a lot more now, and his wares can be purchased here. He would like to thank Dustin for giving him his first break here, to the other writers for always bringing it and making him always step up his game, and to the commenters who mostly made good points, even with they vehemently disagreed, without being real dicks about it.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Uda

    I haven't been as active in the comments section the past couple years, but I've always enjoyed reading your perspective on things, even back when you were just another commenter. Good luck in the future!

  • bastich

    Good luck, Rob. Thank you for your fine work on this site.

  • sm

    You'll be missed! Good luck to you.

  • Bennetttt

    Going watch Watchmen again. Such a lovely movie. Wraps it up in one shot because it said all it had to say.

  • GDI

    Honestly, I was hoping that Watchmen would have at least put a dent in the sequel/franchise comic book movie machine, let alone kill it outright.

    It did not.

  • Bennetttt

    True. I know certain people didn't like which is typical of anything, but regardless most of us admit there's something special about it knowing that's the whole story. As a standalone it has gained respect. Knowing it was the first and last time makes it momentous.

  • Part of that problem is that Watchmen the movie came before the Golden Age of superhero cinema we seem to currently be in. It was a comment on superheroes that people hadn't even seen yet on the big screen -- Comedian = Captain America, Silk Spectre = Black Widow, etc. -- and superhero movies that hadn't even been made yet. If it came after all this Marvel Cinematic Universe bullsh, it might be considered genius.

  • Bennetttt

    I still rather Watchmen over most all of the Marvel movies combined.
    It had other story-lines still politically relevant. People fearing Dr. Manhattan, and coming together similar to our recent past with people fearing terrorists to keep the peace.
    While of course the most relevant people getting their freedom, then fighting each other as enemy of themselves.

  • Spent the last 12 years of my life spending $60 - $100 on books from the big two every week. There was a point, where just like the films, mavericks, and auteurs where running around, fucking things up, shaking foundations, and making seriously bold moves, and phenomenal statements about life, politics, and existing.

    Now it's just corporate mandates, events, and callbacks. Suddenly my interest started teetering out... I haven't bought an issue in months.

  • Em

    I am delurking to say that I hate to see you go. I have always enjoyed your articles. Thanks for all your work and good luck!

  • Majicou

    Superheroes are too big to fail now? Did you forget about a movie that happened just two years ago?

  • If you mean Green Lantern, remember that even after it bombed in the U.S. it did well enough internationally that WB/DC were considering a sequel. Hell, if Batman/Superman does enough box office, I wouldn't be surprised if RyRey got reinstated as Green Lantern for a JLA movie just to save time and/or money. True, that movie sucked and everyone hated it, but that doesn't mean it can't come back.

  • Thor

    Which movie? In the last two years, the highest grossing movie each year has been a superhero movie, with more in the top 10. The highest grossing movies of all time list has 7 superhero movies on it, 3 of them in the top 10.

    Face it, superhero movies are a sure bet at the box office from a financial point of view.

  • Gunnut2600

    I think its important to point out that comic book freaks...and I place myself as one...are fucking idiots. We are...we piss and moan about shit because we act like "WE" own the characters. We are the ones that write insane amounts of fan fiction, we stalk actors, and we think we know better.

    I mean, case in point "Watchmen". Now not a perfect movie...there was shit about it that annoyed the hell out of me...but dear god to the comic book fans, it was like the writer, director, and actors group shitted on a plate and made people eat it.

    God we are annoying people...

  • Joe Grunenwald

    *shat

    :-)

  • Thor

    Have you seen Misfits? It's a current superhero series coming out of Britain, available on Hulu. It's probably the best antidote to the superhero movie flux we are getting right now.

    In terms of your despair with mainstream heroes: I think this complaint about them can more broadly be applied to the sequel/remake factory that Hollywood has become.

  • Batesian

    Save me, Barry!

  • Dude, you should read Invincible. Also, best of luck.

  • Thank you! And I have read Invincible... Well, not in the last year or so, but nearly all of it before the first big Image crossover event. So, whenever that was. See how much parent company inflicted crossovers bother me?

  • ❤❤❤

  • Tinkerville

    Very sorry to see you go! Way to bury the lede, man.

    As a lifelong comics fan, it's been wonderful reading these posts of yours. You've always presented very thoughtful and articulate insights into all the subjects you write about, so you'll missed round these parts.

    It dawned on me recently that I just wasn't excited about the upcoming Captain America movie, and since he's my favorite superhero of all time, that breaks my heart a little. When you say that moving on and providing closure is essential, I think you make a great point, though I'd argue that comparing comics to a series like Breaking Bad is apples and oranges since they're two completely different landscapes. Endlessly rehashing the same characters, villains, conflicts, and storylines will give anyone superhero fatigue, and I've had a hard time getting people into comics for this exact reason.

    Death, for example, is supposed to mean something. It's supposed to be emotional and visceral, and above all else, permanent. When they constantly bring back "dead" characters, it completely cheapens any emotional impact that those storylines originally had. However, that's been happening for so long that I've gotten used to it so I no longer question those decisions anymore. I doubt that's a good thing by any means, but in a way it comes with the comics territory.

    I think the primary issue for me, and the reason the Captain America movie isn't exciting me, is the studio's need to rush them out as soon as humanly possible to make as much money as they can in a short period of time. On the one hand, it's hard to blame them since they are a business after all. On the other, as a fan I desperately wish they would take the time and effort that these stories and characters deserve. Crossovers have the potential for amazing movies, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how Guardians of the Galaxy turns out. I just doubt Hollywood's ability to care enough about quality to do things right.

  • I'm also looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, but mainly for James Gunn. I love that man's work and really want to see what he does with a budget and the craziest Big Two comic since Metal Men. I will say, though, that I quite enjoyed Grant Morrison's "death of Bruce Wayne" storyline, and a lot of the Bat-titles during that period, because everyone knew it wasn't permanent and was just Morrison doing what Morrison does -- plus we got some cool stories with Dick as Batman and DAMIAN WAYNE IS THE BEST ROBIN EVER, so it had more going for it that ego or commerce. Sort of similarly, Miles Morales in Ultimate Spider-Man after that Peter's death (but, ultimately, Bendis overworks himself.)
    As for Breaking Bad: I wasn't really trying to compare them, but I do think superheroes have as much potential as Walter White in terms of depth and complexity of story/character. It just, almost assuredly, won't happen with any comic/movie/character from Marvel or DC.

  • Guest

    It will be okay. Filmmaking ebbs and flows, but sadly sequels are forever. One day we'll get a superhero movie that ends absolutely. That the masses will hate and the film junkies will adore. There will be no room for a sequel. It will be finished. I have to believe this. Most of the one shot "fan fiction comic book's" that I've read ended up being a favorite. Because they widely use the idea of "what if" Maybe we'll get a movie like that one day. Even if it doesn't have a widely known hero star.

  • Maguita NYC

    We'll miss your Rob!

  • foolsage

    "In short, from here on out, no hero’s or heroine’s stories will ever end." I enjoyed the article, but strongly disagree with your take on current trends. This problem you cite, about how "from here on out" superheroes won't really die, has been a problem in comics for over fifty (50) years now. It's hardly new, and hardly worse now than before.

    Essentially, comic books tend towards stasis for the same reasons sitcoms do (nice comparison there): stasis allows the creators to continue making new stories indefinitely, while significant change is difficult to sustain. Once people find that they enjoy a given character, they're likely to want to read or watch more adventures about that character. With franchises that can last for decades, there's a strong impetus not to change too much, or to undo any significant changes quickly. And, again, we've seen this pretty much continually since the 1960s, which is why "comic book death" has come to mean "temporary setback" in modern parlance.

    I also don't agree that we'll literally never see another director-controlled superhero movie. Even if we put aside indie properties like "Chronicle" (and we shouldn't), it's clear that the movie industry is taking comic book movies more and more seriously as time passes. While, yes, Marvel clearly has a long-term plan for its movie universe, that doesn't mean that a strong director (e.g. Joss Whedon) cannot make his or her mark on a comic property.

    Continuity between comics wasn't a problem for literally decades, in either Marvel or DC. It's actually a fairly simple prospect (for those with experience in the matter) to create a shared universe in which to tell hundreds of stories. At some point, it's true that a shared universe can become a bit cramped, when editorial decisions leave writers painted into a metaphorical corner.

    Take for instance the Crisis on Infinite Earths. In 1985, DC found that their multiverse was in a mess due to years of conflicting editorial policies. They created a massive event to reboot all their comic properties. It took until 1994 for the Crisis to be fully explained, and for the editors to form a coherent timeline, but to be fair, DC comics hadn't ever done this before. Anyhow, that continuity remained essentially unchanged until the Infinite Crisis in 2005. Depending on how you look at it, that's one to two decades' worth of stories before a reboot is necessary. Note too that we're talking about literally tens of thousands of stories, before a reboot is called for. With movies, that simply will not be an issue at all.

    Take care, Rob. I've definitely enjoyed your writing here, even when I disagree on some points. :)

  • Thanks! I've also enjoyed your comments here, even when I disagree on, oh, just about everything. /zing
    If I didn't put it plainly, I meant that the movies will start to -- or, already have -- follow the Big Two comic publishers' model. That's the whole problem (as I see it). I'm much more comfortable with reboots, though even that has its limits, than I am shared universes and mega-crossover events. I'd rather a continuous repetition of totally original and untethered-to-continuity stories about the same character(s) than neverending narratives with stagnant characters and are dramatically inert because the action always supplements the drama. There's room for both, but only one will get any money or studio/publisher support.

    Edited to add: Though, obviously(?), I support stories created because someone needs to tell them rather than because it makes sense financially to do so.

  • It's a shame to see you go but thanks for the always interesting analysis and ruminations.

    I've suffered from event fatigue as well. Both in the cross-franchised world of comics and the more closed worlds of mainstream anime and manga. It's a problem that I've suffered in most of the last few years indistinguishable blockbuster's endings. I'm dying for someone to do just a chase through an abandoned building and a fight with a villain. Something with real tension. Sick of seeing similar buildings explode every summer.

  • Sorry to see you go, buddy. Your contributions have always been excellent, at times brilliant. Glad I could provide you with that Rob Schneider peacock.
    See you on tumblr.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I've enjoyed reading your contributions Rob (this one included of course) and I definitely appreciated the unique viewpoint you brought to the site. I hope we'll at least see you in the funny pages, so to speak.

    Best wishes for whatever the future may have in store for you, and:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • That is my most favorite episode of The Simpsons ever. Seriously.
    "It was an entertaining lie, and, in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer... is no."

  • Boo_Radley

    Superheroes are ridiculous because in their world, everything can be solved by fist-fighting while wearing your underwear over your clothes.

  • Thor

    The American dream.

  • NateMan

    Your final post?? Sorry to see you go, even if the things you found troubling about the Man of Steel were the very things I feel breathe life and humanity into the character. I've always enjoyed your posts, and will miss them here a great deal.

  • Cheers.

  • Fredo

    As always, the key to this will be if we get comic book movies that don't follow the formula. Just as, during the height of the 90s boom, there was Bone, Sandman, Hellboy and Spawn, there will hopefully be comic book movies that aren't just retreads, sequels and reborquels.

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