A total of nine superhero movies came out in 2017, and the industry isn’t slowing down anytime soon. 2018 will be another big year for comic book films, as Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Deadpool 2 are all looking to make an impact on the big screen. Fans of these characters have a lot of room to be excited. That said, too much of anything can be unhealthy, and we’re starting to see that pop up in superhero movies. With FOX, Marvel, Sony, and Warner Bros all working tirelessly to cash in on the superhero trend, the quality of the movies will take a hit. It has come to the point where we think we’ve seen it all.
overSuperhero movies, for the most part, have a lot of the same stylistic choices and tropes that have permeated for the last few years. There are some issues that popped up back in the early 2000s and are still going on today. If superhero movies are going to thrive any longer, then Hollywood needs to pay attention and get rid of these 20 cliche things that we find in nearly every comic book film. No superhero is safe from the minds of big business.
20. UNDERDOG PROTAGONIST
When Spider-Man came out and audiences were shown the tale of a young high school boy gaining superpowers despite being universally disliked by everyone in his personal life, that set a trend.
People love rooting for the underdog and, as a result, studios are willing to give it to them over and over again.
This was later utilized in Guardians of the Galaxy with literally every member of the team, as well as how the Flash was incorporated into Justice League. There’s something fulfilling about seeing a character who is fought by the whole world learn how to overcome his enemies and save the day. The fact of the matter is that as long as this strategy works, there’s no reason for movies to not use it.
19. THEY GET THE GIRL
This isn’t just a trope of superhero movies, but of cinema as a whole. Big blockbusters love inserting unnecessary or unbelievable love stories into their movies. Many times, we see a hero fighting for a girl he loves. Captain America ended up getting Peggy Carter to love him against all odds. Iron Man has an on-again off-again relationship with Pepper. You get the idea.
There are some movies that subvert this cliche, like The Dark Knight and Wonder Woman, but they’re few and far between. Even Star-Lord, at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, gets Gamora to like him after they’re finished fighting an entire planet. Even superhero TV shows are bringing this in, with Oliver and Felicity now married along with Iris and Barry. They’re all happy endings, and that’s not how life works.
18. POINTLESS ACTION SCENES
We’ve seen movies that have action for action’s sake, and the biggest offenders of this are superhero movies. It’s difficult to draw a line to where an action scene turns from meaningful to pointless, but the good ones usually put something at stake, challenge the hero both physically and mentally, and make the audience feel like somebody is in serious danger.
The sad part with this is that a lot of superhero movies don’t have any of these factors in their action scenes.
Doctor Strange was just glorified punching. Batman V Superman had fight scenes that overstayed their welcome in a matter of minutes. Even Justice League‘s big final act featured a lot of moments that didn’t add anything to the story being told. It was just there because it looked cool.
17. ORCHESTRAL SOUNDTRACKS
There aren’t a lot of superhero soundtracks that are memorable anymore. Whether it’s because Marvel refuses to pick a theme for their heroes (minus that big Avengers score) or Sony and FOX just don’t care, that’s the trend nowadays. Typically, each superhero movie has a bombastic orchestral score to go along with the larger-than-life ideas that are depicted on screen.
This trend was started with X-Men and Spider-Man and still continues today. In order to compensate, movies like Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and Suicide Squad are using actual songs to help tell the story (which is arguably starting to become a trope in its own right). If Hollywood wants to have the next The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, they’re going to have to ditch the generic orchestral scores.
16. ORIGIN STORY
Do we even need to go into detail about this one? If you’ve been living under a rock and aren’t sure what we mean, then just go through all of the Batman movies and count how many times we see Thomas and Martha Wayne die in an alley. If that doesn’t fit your fancy, maybe you’d rather see the two different interpretations of Uncle Ben’s “with great power comes great responsibility” line. You have your pick.
When a superhero movie spends so much time on an origin story, a lot of the more interesting parts get left by the wayside.
Many movies can be summed up as a special person sees a tragedy, gets some powers, or both, then has to deal with some villain who is also going through his/her origin story at the same time. The two fight and the superhero comes out on top. Sound familiar?
15. CONFUSING DIALOGUE
“I’m the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs.” When that line first debuted in The Dark Knight, most people were confused above all else. The fact of the matter is that many superhero movies have confusing dialogue like this that doesn’t quite add up. It takes multiple viewings in order for it to make sense.
Another great example is how Steppenwolf continuously uses the word “mother” in reference to the MacGuffin of the film. From there, basically every single one of his lines are just as strange as that. Many superhero movies want to be about something and have some greater philosophical meaning, but without the work or focus to get there, many lines that should be heavy are left feeling a bit off when the credits start rolling.
14. POWERFUL FEMALE CHARACTERS WHO DO NOTHING
There was a complaint for a long time that women didn’t get properly represented in superhero films. To compensate for this, Marvel introduced Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. Both of these characters are competent fighters, but don’t add much in terms of story importance.
You could take Black Widow out of The Avengers and it wouldn’t change a thing.
Need more examples? What about Hope Van Dyne in Ant-Man? Hollywood has only solved half the problem. They’ve incorporated powerful female characters, but they haven’t given them any purpose in the narratives that they’re in. Thankfully, Warner Bros did this issue justice with Wonder Woman and Marvel seems to be joining the trend with Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel.
13. MOTIVATION FROM THEIR LOVED ONES
How many times have we seen a climax where the protagonist is about ready to be killed, but then they think about their loved ones and immediately get the power to fight and save the day? Nearly every Spider-Man film features this in some capacity. Tim Burton’s Batman film showed Bruce Wayne fighting the Joker to save the life of the woman he was dating at the time.
The list goes on and on. Realistically speaking, it’s possible that seeing someone you care about in danger would give you the adrenaline to fight back, but there comes a point when you’d be physically too weak to go on. Furthermore. when this scenario is shown over and over across the film industry itself, it starts to get a little grating. The worst example would have to be the entire final act of Suicide Squad.
12. SETTING UP A SEQUEL
If you have an iconic character who resonates with the audience, why stop at just one adventure? Nintendo has known this strategy for decades, and it’s something that Hollywood picked up very quickly as well. Instead of just having one X-Men film and being done with it, FOX created an entire universe of movies surrounding these mutants.
However, the profitability of superhero movies means that studios are going to endlessly try to push sequels to the audience.
Green Lantern tried to set up a sequel by turning Sinestro yellow. Spider-Man 4 was speculated to see Curt Connors take on his Lizard persona. The list is endless. The issue here is that audiences now want to be given a complete story when they go to the theaters and not feel like they’re also watching a trailer. We’re looking at you, Marvel.
11. THE HERO IS ABOUT TO DIE WHEN…
Picture this: the protagonist of a story is fighting the main villain. They trade some blows before the villain gets the upper hand. He gets ready to end the life of our protagonist but suddenly starts to slow down. In that split second, another hero comes to save the day by pushing the bad guy away. The protagonist gets up, dusts himself off, and gets ready to fight once more.
This is something that seems to never die. It doesn’t just happen in superhero movies, but all movies in general. Ronan the Accuser was about to destroy Xandar before being distracted by Star-Lord’s random dancing. Bane was about to kill Batman in The Dark Knight Rises before Catwoman drove in and blasted him. Even Superman was about to kill Batman before he said the infamous name “Martha.” In the movie world, we call that a deus ex machina.
10. VILLAIN MONOLOGUE
If there’s something that goes hand-in-hand with a deus ex machina, it’s the infamous bad guy monologue. Instead of taking the opportunity to kill the hero when they get the chance, they have to take the time to monologue about their plans and ideas, as if they’re directly communicating to the audience rather than the main character.
These monologues almost always give the hero enough time to devise a plan to bring the bad guy down or learn how to stop his plan altogether.
Ares did it in Wonder Woman. Loki did it in Thor. Strangely enough, one of the few superhero movies to subvert this cliche was the mostly panned Avengers: Age of Ultron. In fact, the homicidal robot actually poked fun at this common trope.
9. THE VILLAIN ENDS THEMSELVES
Have you ever seen a movie where the villain lets his evil plan go to his head and the result is that he inadvertently ends themselves? If you say “no” and you like superhero movies, then you’re a liar. Just go back and watch Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Venom all end up offing themselves in the end.
There aren’t a lot of creative ways of dealing with villains anymore. Not only are many of them generally underdeveloped, but they’re also either just taken down by the hero or off themselves in some way. It’s quick, easy, and requires little to no creativity. We have to praise Thor: Ragnarok for putting this cliche to rest, as Taika Waititi actually came up with an inventive way of dealing with a villain. Hela did not end herself.
8. DISPOSABLE HENCHMEN
Other than Crossbones, can you name any bad guys that Captain America took down in The Winter Soldier? Could you name any of the ones he brought down in The First Avenger? What about the goons that Batman took down in literally any one of his movies? If the answer is yes, then you probably have too much time on your hands.
Movies need to have quick and easy ways to get their tentpole superheroes to flex their muscles and fight bad guys.
The most common way of doing this is by having a myriad of henchmen who are disposable and faceless. It’s gotten to the point where there are entire CGI armies of identical soldiers for heroes to beat up. The Chitauri in The Avengers, the robots in Age of Ultron, the Parademons in Justice League, and the weird goo people in Suicide Squad are all guilty of this.
7. DEAD PARENTS
To be fair, this is something that originates from the comics, so the movies aren’t technically at fault for this. That said, after seeing someone with dead parents so many times, it starts to lose its emotional weight on the audience. Seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents get shot no longer has a serious effect on most people. It’s just another aspect to his character that we know is coming. The same thing can be said for Uncle Ben’s death and the destruction of Krypton.
The entire climax of Captain America: Civil War centered around Tony figuring out that Bucky was the one assigned to kill his parents. There has to be another way to motivate ordinary people to use their abilities to become heroes. It can’t all be just because “somebody I loved died and I have to honor their memory.”
6. SOURCE MATERIAL CHANGED FOR THE WORSE
One of the biggest arguments we hear when a movie based on a comic book or novel comes out is that it’s not good because it isn’t like the source material. On a purely factual level, that’s not a valid argument. The people in charge of the film adaptations have to change the story to fit this new medium.
Simply put, you can’t tell a story in movie format the same way you would in a comic book.
That said, there are many times where changes are made to a character’s origin that tarnish the movie. For example, go watch the Fantastic Four reboot. Everything about Marvel’s First Family was changed, and not for the better. Then there were the alterations to Spider-Man’s suit and mentor figure to fit in with the MCU. Source material will be altered in a movie, but it’s not always for the better.
5. HUMOR WHEN IT’S NOT NEEDED (AND VICE VERSA)
Humor is difficult to get right. Even popular comedy movies don’t know how to tell a good joke sometimes. Superhero movies, for quite some time, have suffered some tonal crises that result in humor inserted where it doesn’t fit the moment, as well as some dark scenes where it doesn’t quite fit either.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was easily Marvel’s low point when it came to too much humor. The same can be said for DC’s Justice League. On the other side of the spectrum, FOX’s Fantastic Four reboot was way too horrific at times for the story they were trying to tell. These problems have to do with establishing a consistent tone and sticking with it. Unfortunately, it’s not something that many of these big budget movies know how to do well.
4. FAMILIAR PLOT LINES
The Avengers, Suicide Squad, and Big Hero 6 all share one thing in common: they are team-up movies that each feature a forgettable villain trying to take over the world in the form of a sky beam. That’s not where similarities between superhero movies end, either.
The genre suffers from the problem of familiar plot lines and threads that make many of them blend together.
Where do you draw the fundamental difference between Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy? They both feature unlikely teams of criminals working together to try and do something beneficial to the world. Furthermore, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man are all essentially the same movie, featuring a hotheaded protagonist hit rock bottom before becoming a superhero and reaching toward a path of enlightenment. They also have to fight an alternate-colored version of themselves.
When it comes to superheroes and brooding, Batman practically defined it. Having a dark and tortured mindset ever since he witnessed the death of his parents, Batman takes everything seriously and always seems unhappy. Unfortunately, so many studios have wanted to replicate the success that Batman has had on pop culture and have made many other heroes brood as a result.
The clear example is Oliver Queen in Arrow. Taking a grittier approach to the character, this version is known as the “Batman” of the universe, brooding and frowning often. The same can be said for Hank Pym in Ant-Man, and Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man series. Don’t even get us started on Magneto. The point here is if you’re looking for someone to brood on the big screen, superhero movies are a good place to start.
2. “WE’RE NOT SO DIFFERENT YOU AND I”
“We’re not so different, you and I.” How many times have you heard that one shoved at the protagonist by a villain that has the hero on the ropes? Building a powerful antagonist is when the writers have them functionally warring for the same thing, but in different ways. In a lot of aspects, a good protagonist and antagonist will be similar to each other.
That being said, movies are so ready to tell the audience of that fact rather than show them.
This was a trademark line in the first Spider-Man film. Green Goblin kidnaps the wall-crawler and they have a conversation on top of a building. Goblin wants Spidey to work with him and says the standard “we’re not so different” line to try and convince him.
1. THE VILLAIN IS AN EVIL VERSION OF THE HERO
Who did Iron Man fight in the first film? Iron Monger: who was a bigger and evil version of Iron Man. Who did Captain America, the greatest patriot in the world, fight first? Red Skull, the greatest Nazi in the world. Ant-Man fought Yellow Jacket. Superman fought General Zod. The Flash fought the Reverse-Flash. The list goes on and on.
The reality is that a lot of the big villains in superhero movies are nothing more than just evil versions of the hero, complete with the same set of powers. The only difference between them is that they operate with different color schemes. Part of why Batman and Spider-Man have such praised villains is because they’re diverse and don’t stem from palette swaps. There is creativity and thematic resonance put into them.
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