We at CBR love superhero movies, as you can probably tell from our coverage. It never gets old to see a character we’ve only seen in four colors on a printed page brought to life on a huge screen, and some comic book movies have gone beyond just being good action flicks to become actual cinematic treasures. At the same time, we’ve seen so many superhero movies at this point that we’ve started to notice a few things that really bug us.
We’re going to go over things that have become cliches in superhero movies, and they need to stop. This is our manifesto to the movie makers to put these on the back burner for future movies. Just to set the ground rules, we’re mostly going to be talking about superhero movie cliches, not cliches about superheroes. We could get into things like weird origins and characters whose first and last names that start with the same letter, but that’s more a fault of the comics than the movies. No, this article will be about things the movies have done all on their own. Here’s CBR’s list of things that we never want to see in comic book movies again.
16. THE ORIGIN
Unless you’re a mutant member of the X-Men, most superheroes aren’t born. They’re made. That’s why most comic book movies, especially ones we’ve never seen in a movie before, have a flashback or opening prologue explaining where the hero came from. However, the time for origin sequences might have passed.
We’ve seen Spider-Man’s origin in movies three times. We’ve seen the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and the aftermath four times in movies. It’s time to give the origin a rest. Spider-Man: Homecoming broke new ground by rebooting the hero without giving his origin at all. And you know what? We didn’t mind a bit. There are some heroes we’re so familiar with, we can skip their origin, no matter how many times it’s been rebooted.
15. INACCURATE COSTUMES
In 2000’s X-Men, Wolverine was given a black leather costume to wear and complained, “You actually go outside in these things?” Cyclops replied, “Well, what would you prefer, yellow Spandex?” That was a reference to his comic book costume, but also the frustration of the fans who wanted him to wear it. Yet X-Men started a trend in movies where colorful skin-tight costumes were replaced with dark leather or armor.
The reason most movies ditch the old costumes is to make it more “realistic.” They think audiences wouldn’t accept the real costumes and want to make them more modern. Yet movies like 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse with Psylocke, and Batman in Batman v Superman, showed how great these costumes can look on screen. Let Wolverine finally rock that yellow Spandex, we say!
14. THE VILLAIN WITH A CONNECTION
It arguably started with 1989’s Batman where Bruce Wayne was studying footage of the Joker and remembered an odd phrase he said earlier: “You ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” He realized he’d heard it before when his parents were killed. The man who killed his parents was the Joker! It was a shocking twist that caught fans by surprise because it didn’t come from the comics.
Since then, other movies have changed classic villains to have a personal connection to the hero. Ego the Living Planet is Star-Lord’s father! The Winter Soldier killed Tony Stark’s parents! It was a shock the first time, and a good way to add emotion to the fight, but now it’s time to find a new trick.
13. TRAINING MONTAGE
It’s been seen in everything from 2003’s Daredevil to 2005’s Batman Begins to Batman v Superman: the moment where the hero goes through a montage of grueling training. It’s supposed to show how hard the hero works to get ready for their final battle with the villain, and impress us with what the hero puts him or herself through. It’s also completely unnecessary.
We, as an audience, know that the hero works out. When the hero or heroine takes off their costume and is bulging with muscles, that’s a good clue that the hero exercises regularly. For a two-hour movie, we don’t go to see the hero pumping iron and going through obstacle courses for five or ten minutes. We want to see the superheroes doing what they’re supposed to do, which is fight.
12. THE CLUELESS ONE
There’s Aunt May from 2002’s Spider-Man. Or Jimmy Olsen in Superman. In every superhero movie, there’s always the friend or family member who knows the superhero’s secret, and then there’s the one who doesn’t know the secret. The clueless one is always a source of tension where the hero has to go through elaborate hoops to keep from revealing the secret, but it isn’t needed.
In 2008’s Iron Man, the ending blew fans away by revealing Tony Stark’s identity. We were used to superhero movies stringing the secret identity thing on for years, but the Iron Man series proved that secret identities are old hat. Stark’s story has been made more interesting by getting rid of the cluelessness and moving on. Superhero movies need to get rid of the secret identities and explore the consequences that follow.
11. THE SKY BEAM
Most comic book movies want to end with a bang, and have the heroes fight some world-shattering (or at least city-shattering) threat in the climax. It’s become a cliche of action movies to have the hero battling armies of henchmen on their way to defeating the big villain, and superhero movies are the same way. What’s also become a new cliche is what we’ll call the “giant sky beam.”
You may not know that term, but you know what it means: a huge beam of light coming out of the clouds, either sucking everything in or sending something out. It’s the Chitauri wormhole in 2012’s The Avengers or Doctor’s Doom’s black hole in 2015’s Fantastic Four. It was cool the first few times, but it’s gotten old. Time to find a new visual, guys.
10. THE LOST LOVE
Peter Parker has Mary Jane Watson. Clark Kent has Lois Lane. Even Star-Lord has Gamora. In every superhero movie, there seems to be the girl that got away, the woman the hero loves who either doesn’t love them back or gets into a cycle of breaking up and getting back together. It’s all so familiar and repetitive.
Do we even need romance in superhero movies anymore? The cycle of romance is getting old, and most people who go to comic book movies want to see action, not love stories. Marvel started out with the romance storylines, but that’s faded. Tony Stark’s relationship with Pepper Potts moved into the background while Thor’s relationship with Jane Foster vanished as well. Maybe it’s time to drop romance or make it the focus instead of just cramming it into the movie.
9. THE COOL COSTUME
Almost every superhero has a costume, and a lot of them are great. Batman has his black outfit with the scalloped wings and pointy-eared cowl. Spider-Man has the red and blue tights with the webbing pattern and faceless mask. Superman has the standard red and blue tights with a cape. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re clearly designed and made with care, and that makes no sense whatsoever.
Most superheroes don’t have any training in sewing or costume design before they become heroes, and certainly don’t get fashion design as one of their powers, so how did they make the costume? In the comics, there’s often a more complex story explaining where the costumes came from, but the movies tend to skip that. Just taking a few minutes to explain the costume would make them more realistic.
8. ALIENS ARE NO BIG DEAL
In the real world, aliens are a mysterious force that we don’t even know exists. In comic book movies, aliens are almost boring. Superman announces he’s an alien, alien soldiers come pouring out of a wormhole in Avengers, and aliens hand out new technology like candy elsewhere. While we don’t mind aliens in superhero movies, what we do mind is that no one makes a big deal about it.
In comic book movies, aliens walk down the street and no one screams or even takes pictures. Yet there are thousands of scientists around the world who have dedicated their entire life to find a single cell of an alien lifeform or even the faintest blip of an alien signal. To get proof that aliens exist would cause everyone on Earth to go crazy in the real world. Let’s have more of that in our superhero movies.
7. THE DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
For a long time, the only major role for women in comic book movies was as someone for the real hero to rescue. We can look at Lois Lane screaming for Superman to save her from a falling helicopter, Spider-Man swinging in to save Mary Jane Watson from the Green Goblin or the Green Lantern making a ramp to save Carol Ferris. All of them involve the hero saving their girl.
What’s missing from that list is women sweeping in to save men or women who are heroes of their own. This is changing, especially with female heroes like Scarlet Witch and Wonder Woman, and women who are even serving as villains like Hela and Amanda Waller. It’s time to pull the plug on damsels in distress, and that’s already happening.
6. THE FAKE-OUT DEATH
With comic book movies about superheroes beating supervillains in major cities, it seems like there should be more dead bodies lying around after the fight. That might be why so many superhero movies have a moment where a major character ends up lying on the battlefield while the hero (or heroes) gather around and mourn the loss. Then, of course, the character starts coughing or the character pops out from behind something or someone uses a power to bring the fallen person back to life. Yup, we’re talking about the fake-out.
While this might have worked back in the days of Superman reversing time to save Lois Lane, we’re a little past that now. We want to see real consequences to the action. That’s why the death of Agent Coulson in Avengers had such an impact. We need more real deaths.
5. THE MACGUFFIN
The Tesseract in The Avengers. The orb in Guardians of the Galaxy. The Aether in Thor: The Dark World. The tritium in Spider-Man 2. All of these have one thing in common: they’re all classic examples of a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a term for something that drives a story by being what everyone wants and that’s really its only purpose. If you took it out of the movie, you would have no movie. Superhero movies aren’t the only stories to use McGuffins, of course, but it seems to come up often there.
A MacGuffin is a lazy way to build a story. If you look at the best superhero movies like Wonder Woman, Iron Man, and Batman Begins, none of them depend on a MacGuffin. It’s time for superhero movies to take the time to get off that crutch.
4. BAD JOKES
There’s a moment in 2016’s Doctor Strange where he puts on his cloak and looks grimly into the mirror until the collar starts poking him in the face. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the heroes are striding in slow-motion to save the Galaxy, then Rocket pulls on his crotch. Both have one thing in common: an emotional moment spoiled by a gag.
Almost all superhero movies have jokes in them, and they’re not all bad. Audiences hated the grim tone of Batman v Superman, and Wonder Woman had some great laughs. The problem is jokes at the expense of the story. Batman and Robin spent more time on Mister Freeze’s ice puns than the actual plot. It’s a way of winking at the audience and whispering, “We’re not taking this too seriously.” Well, audiences want to take them seriously.
3. NO NICKNAMES
If you ask anyone who’s seen 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises who Anne Hathaway played, they would all say Catwoman. You know who didn’t say that? Anyone in the actual movie. In the movie, she’s Selina Kyle and the only nods to her nickname were her binoculars that would flip up to make cat-like ears. We can also look at Iron Man where Obediah Stane’s massive iron armor is never actually called Iron Monger. And did you notice no one called Natasha Romanov “Black Widow” in The Avengers?
Every now and then, a movie will look at a character in the comics and say, “Well, we can’t call them that. That’s silly. But I really want that character.” The solution is to introduce the character but have no one speak his or her codename. Come on, have the actor loudly call out, “Call me Ego the Living Planet!”
2. DREAM SEQUENCES
In Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker had a daydream of Uncle Ben trying to convince him to continue his role as Spider-Man. Wolverine kept dreaming of Jean Grey in The Wolverine. Batman v Superman went to Inception-level when Batman woke up from a dream about Superman conquering the world to see the Flash calling out to him right before he woke up from that dream. The dream sequence is common in movies, but none more so than comic book movies.
Dream sequences are a good way to bring story elements into the superhero movie that are too controversial or impactful to actually happen. They’re also a good way to drive audiences right out of the movie. Nothing makes a viewer more frustrated than discovering that shocking twist never actually happened. That’s five or ten minutes we could use for real events.
1. RECASTING THE SAME ACTORS
Halle Berry has been Catwoman for DC and Storm for Marvel. Chris Evans has been the Human Torch and Captain America. When you look at comic book movies, there are a few actors who keep popping up, and that’s not cool.
Are there so few actors in Hollywood that they have to keep re-using the same ones over and over again? No, not really. It’s just easier to put a known quantity on the screen. Not every actor can handle the athleticism, heavy action, green screen and uncomfortable costumes of a comic book movie, that’s true. Yet audiences would like to see someone new and we’re sure there are actors who would cut off their own toes to be in a big-budget franchise. Give them a shot.
What superhero movie cliches do you think need to go? Let us know in the comments!
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