How to Make a Good Super Hero Movie

Warning: the contents of this post may be extremely geeky.

After watching Spiderman 3 I did some thinking, and I think Hollywood could really improve their track record with superhero movies by following few simple tips. I’m not a movie maker, I have no clue how do you license material from Marvel or DC, how much it costs and etc. These are just some thoughts on representing the adventures of comic book characters on the screen from the point of a viewer and a comic book reader (well, former – I’m bit out of a loop with the newest developments in the Marvel and DC universes).

1. Assume Super Powered Humans Exist

One of the first things that you learn when you start reading any of the Marvel stories is that super powered people are all over the place. There are few dozen super heroes active in New York (Fantastic Four, Avengers, Spider Man, Daredevil etc..) and there are quite a few super villains held at Rikers Island. This is bit different from the DC universe where the common rule is “one hero per city”. Batman operates in Gotham, Superman lives in Metropolis and etc. This is probably why DC heroes sometimes fare better when transplanted on the big screen.

If you tell your audiences that for example, Spider-Man is the only super powered hero in Big Apple, you now how to go through the laborious task of setting up back stories for all his super-powered enemies. For example, let’s take Sandman from Spiderman 3. The movie went out of the way to introduce this character, and show how he got his powers, because in the portrayed universe these things are rare.

But if you tell your audience right of the bat that super powers are not all that rare, you don’t have to do these things. Simply show a glimpse of the Fantastic Four building in the distance, and have people on the street talking about seeing Iron Man the other day. And then, when you need to introduce a new villain you just make them show up. No one will be surprised that some guy can change into sand – I mean, it’s a story about a dude who has spider powers. If they can suspend their disbelief to accept spider-man, they can do the same for most villains.

At some point you can simply mention how this or that guy got his powers. In Marvel universe this usually happens in 4 different ways

  1. Science – it could have been a freak accident (Spider Man, The Hulk), a desired effect (Capitan America) or Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde effect (Green Goblin) or anything in between. Just say the guy had a freak accident at a super science lab and people will know what it means.
  2. Mutation – mutants compose bulk of Marvel heroes (even after the decimation). They make it easy to introduce new heroes because you don’t have to make up silly pseudo science explanations or anything
  3. Supernatural – the hero might be a supernatural being of some sort (Thor), a wizard (Dr. Strange) or his powers might have been granted to him by way of magic, or magical artifact (The Juggernaut)
  4. Technology – the hero relies on technology to do the hero stuff (Iron Man)

Pick any of these, or use a combination. Then just do a quick flashback, or have someone explain the back story of this or that super-dude in a conversation. Seriously, we don’t really need to see the genesis of every super powered person that appears in the movie. We usually just care about the lead hero, and perhaps the main antagonist. A side villain like Sandman could be just some dude who escaped from Rikers.

2. Tell one story out of many

Here is the thing – most popular comic book series have been in print for over a decade. There is no way you can condense all their adventures into two hours. So why even try. Pick a story and tell it the best you can, but hint that this is just one of many adventures. And hell, he might be battling some super powered people off screen while we are busy following someone else. For example we can see the hero coming home with a ripped up costume and then perhaps off hand that he was fighting some recurring minor super villain. Or perhaps we can see headlines on a newsstand as the hero passes by.

This really heps to prepare the audience for when you try to tell them something that clearly existed in the comic book continuity, but would otherwise be very difficult to film. For example if Peter Parker battles super powered villains every day, and then is seen chatting with Human Torch about that one time when Gallactus was trying to eat the Earth it’s not so hard to sell them the Venom story.

“Oh, btw – remember how I got this black costume back when that super being kidnapped us and forced us to fight on that alien planet? Yeah, it turned out it’s alive and I had to get the Fantastic Four to help me remove it.”

Ok, so it still sounds silly but if you set it up correctly people might just buy it.

3. Start in the Middle

This is rarely done in super hero movies, but I really think that it is the correct thing to do because it lets you exploit #2 to the fullest. It was done in Hellboy with a pretty good effect – we meet the hero who is already very experienced, and has existing relationships with other characters on the show that are slowly revealed to the viewers. Then we learn the genesis story by a way of short flashback. Daredevil also used it, but the movie was horrible for other reasons (Ben Affleck, bad script, Ben Affleck and also Ben Affleck).

This type of story is usually best told through the eyes of someone new who just discovers the true identity of the hero. For example, why not start the Spiderman story from the moment when Mary Jane finds out about Peter’s double life? Then we can have Parker himself recount his genesis story, and also explain back stories of his enemies when necessary. So instead of a regular damsel in distress, Spideys girlfriend becomes the vehicle for the audience.

4. Don’t be Afraid of Strong Female Characters

I noticed this weird trend of completely neutering, and pacifying strong female characters in Holywood comic book adaptations. Storm in X-Men is not even a secondary character until the third movie. Which is weird, because she is played by Haley freakin Berry who was probably paid more for that role than Femke Jansen. Same goes for Rogue – in the comic book she is a confident, tough as nails southern girl with an attitude. In the movie she is an insecure, self loathing, angsty teen from the suburbs.

I always remembered Mary Jane Watson as sexy, confident, and cocky. She knew how to put Peter in his place, and was ambitions, driven and knew what she wanted. Compare the Mary Jane played by Kirsten Dunst in the Spider Man move – she is insecure, indecisive, confused and etc.

WTF? DC women like Lois Lane was spared this fate, and retained most of their original personality, but almost all the Marvel girls have been degraded into background roles, or damsels in distress.

Ok, so this one is not really a suggestion but an observation I made. It doesn’t apply to all the cases, but seriously people. Stop taming down all my favorite female heroines!

5. Stick to the Source

Best advice I can give anyone doing any kind of adaptation is to stick to the source. If you follow my suggestions #1, #2 and #3 you now have a single story arc to cover, plus some exposition and maybe a flashback or two. That’s vastly less work to do than having to introduce the hero, and then build a cohesive, insular universe around him.

Of course there are always few things that may get in the way here – like licensing. I don’t know how these things work but I imagine that subtle name dropping, and cameos of various Marvel heroes may actually cost you real money in licensing fees, so this makes following #1 a bit difficult.

For the most part, I think these things would improve experience for both the hard core comic book fans as well as casual viewers. After all, if you stick to the source you probably won’t produce a script as shitty as Spiderman 3. You will likely have something much better, that may be just a little bit more complex. But once again, this is where you do some skillful hand waving. People like mysteries – I mean, we are all watching Lost, aren’t we? So sometimes leaving the difficult stuff unanswered might actually be beneficial to the script integrity.

Would you add anything else to this list? What are your pet peeves about Hollywood super hero movies?

[tags]super hero, hollywood, spiderman, spiderman 3, x-men, hellboy, avengers, fantastic four, iron man, capitan america, storm, rogue, mary jane watson, peter parker, comic books, super hero movies[/tags]

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5 Responses to How to Make a Good Super Hero Movie

  1. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    No comments yet? Must all be playing Nethack. Or X-com. I gotta go……

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Oh no! Maybe they are all *gasp* addicted! Quick, call the media. They should make like an expose on the evil addictiveness of really, really old games. ;)

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  3. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Call your lawyer, too, because you’re responsible. ;)

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  4. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Too funny! The anti-spam word this time was foobar, the spiritual equal to FUBAR, which is what you’d be if the right parents’ group got ahold of you. ;)

    Then it might escalate to Sonuvacrap! :D

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