Lessons Modern Comic Book Superhero Films Can Learn from “Dredd (2012)”
So as I’m sure you’ve all noticed there are a ton of superhero movies and TV shows. Like A TON. There are at least 8 major superhero film releases slated for this year, and almost as many comic book TV series. In only four years, market saturation has become ridiculous, with content scheduled up to 2020 by major studios. Based on my estimation, to get caught up on the entire current story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the name for the Marvel live action video products) you would have to spend about 4.5 days straight watching shows and films, a figure that we might as well round up to a hundred billion years.
In a time already filled with content to experience, chances are you probably won’t want to anyway, as the quality of these pieces wildly fluctuate, from the nice surprise that was Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) to the poorly received Incredible Hulk (2008).
As Syndrome said in the Incredibles (2004), “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
The seemingly endless amount of new superhero film material, and more importantly, the lack of consistency of this subgenre, has left me burnt out, a feeling you may share as well. There’s no indication of how good a superhero movie will be on release day, regardless of the composition of the crew and the resources spent on it. The recently released Batman v. Superman (2016), cost almost half a billion dollars to produce and market, had a stellar group working on it, but was critically panned by numerous major outlets, and at the time of writing this, sits at a 28% aggregate critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
I think it’s clear that the superhero stories that are told in film need a bit of sprucing up to get back on their feet. Now before I go any further, I just want to say that I don’t dislike the superhero film genre, I love it, but as a fan, I would like to see these iconic characters presented in the best possible way on screen. Superhero films are like the sports car your uncle bought in the 1970s, they’re awesome, but most definitely need regular tune ups, else they become a hopeless money sink.
The best way to address the problems present in modern superhero comic book movies is to give an example of a film that manages to properly wrestle with narrative and character. The piece in particular that I’ll be referring to is the 2012 film Dredd, directed by Pete Travis. Dredd is also a comic book adaptation, but unfortunately didn’t get the traction it deserved. Once you’ve finished reading this article, I highly recommend you give it a look!
Keep it Simple.
One of the chief issues with modern comic book films are how story dense they are, there are so many plot threads now, I started using them to stitch a quilt during the last Avengers. The rush to create sweeping, interconnected media universes has required forcing in many different story elements into each individual movie, causing every idea to fight it out for supremacy.
For example, off the top of your head, what is Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) really about? What is the main conflict? There are a lot of great ideas in that film for the Marvel universe, such as Captain America becoming disillusioned about S.H.I.E.L.D., about Hydra returning, about his relationship with Bucky, but none of these elements are really developed enough to be the premise of the movie. The ultimate “goal” or “objective” of the film isn’t very clear, and too much is jammed into the runtime. The titular Winter Soldier feels forced into the film for the sake of a few well choreographed action scenes that lack narrative weight. Modern superhero movies need to have more straightforward objectives, in Dredd, the bulk of the film is about escaping from a villain’s layer, and the simple outline of the movie allows every event to flow into the next easily, and never leaves the audience questioning why something happened or why it was important.
Now this isn’t to say that the plot itself can’t be complex, or it can’t meander. In Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the protagonists are attempting to find an artifact and prevent the villain from acquiring it. While the story zigzags between characters and locales, viewers are always clear on what the end goal is. In essence, the way we as an audience get from point A to B can be a wandering path of twists and turns, or a short jump, as long as we’re told what our destination is, and why it is important to the plot that we get there. Setting up future storylines is fine, just make sure the single contained narrative has its own purpose, rather than just existing to assure you of sequels.
Show the World, Don’t Tell the World
The start of Dredd consists of a narration that outlines the key points that define the setting. It’s under two minutes or so, and is more tonally heavy than plot heavy. It gives us the general information we need to know, and then throws us into the first scene. For the rest of the movie Dredd relies very little on expository dialogue explaining what is happening in the film, the majority of the context we as an audience glean is through depictions of the world, the character conversations, and the actions individuals take. In Dredd we are left to our own conclusions about the world, character backstories, and the ethics of the fictional society. The opening scene of Judge Dredd just performing his job, tell us more about his character and the significance of his faction, than ten more minutes of explanation.
This is an age old issue in story telling, you most definitely have heard it through the adage, “show, don’t tell”. It’s impossible to create any story without at least some explanation of more esoteric ideas, but superhero movies are full of exposition that break the flow of the film.
Looking at Ant-Man (2015), one of the initial scenes shows the protagonist reuniting with a friend. This friend character than goes on to recite the protagonist’s entire history in an exposition dump that is incredibly jarring to the viewer. Rather than showing us throughout the film that the protagonist is a moral person, the audience is told that he is a good person. This seems illogical when we consider that a film is inherently a visual medium, we are literally being shown images on a screen, and we can learn a great deal about the characters through the use of actor expression, body language, shot composition, lighting, background music and sound effects, and so on.
On a related note, an excellent method of developing the setting is to show that characters are cognizant of the world they live in. My favorite moment in Ant-Man is when the major conflict of the film is presented, and a character asks why the issue can’t be delegated to other members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That is the type of question that a character truly living in the Marvel comic book world would ask, and a short satisfactory answer to that (not necessarily a very involved answer) builds the audience’s suspension of disbelief.
In summary, films are inherently visual, and it would benefit superhero films to show more of their story than explain it through clunky exposition.
Characters are the soul of any tale. The audience identifies with some, detests others, and they drive the narrative into interesting places that beg to be seen. An important part of character building is consequence. Actions taken by individuals must have repercussions, good or bad, large or small, and characters grow when these events influence them.
Throughout the film Dredd, the titular character displays a complete adherence to his organization’s often draconian code of ethics. He always performs his duties by the book, and never wavers from the rules, often making morally abhorrent decisions as they are the only ones that comply with the directives as written (he also mostly speaks in one-liners, but that’s besides the point). After the ordeals in the film, and bonding with his apprentice Anderson, he lies to his commander, no longer exactly following the code of justice, but also incorporating his own personal sense of morality. The character doesn’t change in a revolutionary way, and is more or less the same in his mannerisms, but this minor development is significant for him as a character, and for us as an audience.
An issue with many superhero films is that throughout many difficult situations, the characters never really change. Tony Stark is a character who has appeared in about 6 Marvel films, and no matter what happens in his life, or the lessons he learns, he is basically the same character at the outset of every appearance. Tony Stark’s survival of a near death experience is a driving plot element of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (2015), but the character’s personality or actions don’t change, even though we are told they do.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many superhero movies “reset” the world by the end of the film, and there are no lasting changes. All three films in the Iron Man series revolve around a different major antagonist who is essentially a technology industrialist rival of Tony Stark that is creating experimental weapons to take over the planet, making viewers wonder why the ruling bodies in this world don’t establish more oversight of Stark Industries competitors.
At the end of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, the Avengers superhero team, who we’ve only seen together for a short time, disbands and is replaced by a new Avengers superhero team, who we also have only seen together for a short period of time. Though the premise of the large franchise universe is that story events will have wide reaching implications, there have been very few meaningful consequences from one film to the next, and the fact that each film is designed so that newcomers can enter in the midst of sequels prevents one film from leaning too heavily on the next. Superhero films need to establish story and character consequence within the arcs of individual installments instead of creating mostly superficial consequences in follow up films.
In making these simple changes, superhero movies can live up to the historic legacy of their source material and become memorable cinematic experiences in their own right. That being said, what do you feel about the current state of superhero films? How would you improve them or do you feel that subgenre doesn’t need changing?