Anghus Houvouras on superhero movies and the military-industrial complex…
To say that comic book movies have become formulaic is like saying that Michael Bay enjoys explosions and hot women. It’s painfully obvious and hardly a revelation.
I sat through Fantastic Four last week, and like many of you checked out around the halfway point, and began to pick apart some of the lazy choices and uninspired bits. This was easier that finding Waldo in an orgy. There were so many comic book movie mainstays that felt cribbed from the superhero movie playbook, but one of them started to needle me the more I thought about it.
After our group of super-intelligent young people get bestowed super powers, they are immediately whisked away to a secret bunker to be experimented on by the Government. It’s a highly plausible scenario in the super-grounded reality that so many of these movies are trying to achieve, but it’s become so commonplace it’s becoming super-boring.
In almost every comic book movie we’ve seen, the Government is somehow involved and they’re usually portrayed in the exact same light. They are either out to stop our heroes or find some way to convert their abilities into military technology for profit and power. The Fantastic Four are whisked away to a super powered Gitmo to hone their powers. Before you know it, The Thing is out there busting heads, killing 43 people, and protecting the interests of good ol’ Uncle Sam.
Hank Pym’s Ant-Man suit had to be hidden because of the fear that it would fall into the wrong hands and become the ultimate weapon… for our Government or someone else’s. Tony Stark appeared before Congress in Iron Man 2 to address the concern that his suit and the technology behind it would end up in foreign hands. Soon enough, the Government has their own version of Iron Man with War Machine. Speaking of addressing Congress, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice prominently features Superman going before the American Government to address the destruction of Metropolis. Lex Luthor gets his hands on the corpse of General Zod to experiment on, no doubt with the help of LexCorp’s military contracts to develop super weapons of mass destruction. Green Lantern had an appearance from Amanda Waller who wanted to investigate the purple-faced alien that landed on our doorstep. Now we have a new Amanda Waller preparing to lead a super powered Task Force X into combat with 2016’s Suicide Squad.
Almost every modern comic book movie has taken this approach. The American Government has some kind of vested interest in super power individuals. Again, I understand the realism. However, it’s become so commonplace in the grounded reality of our comic book movies that the films are beginning to suffer. It’s almost as if the creative minds behind these movies are so rooted in reality that they literally have nowhere to go but to employ the Government as a storytelling option.
It’s this kind of thinking that is making our comic book movies so boring. As if our creative types can’t imagine a world where superheroes exist without a bureaucratic Government or Military-Industrial Complex involved.
I started thinking of all the 21st century comic book adaptations and tried to see if any of them avoided using this storytelling device. At first I thought ‘Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies’. Then I remembered that all of Batman’s gear came from Lucius Fox who was developing the suit, the memory fabric, and the Tumbler for the Government. In The Dark Knight the sonar technology was a Government contract that Bruce Wayne had entered into with the military. Remember Fox’s speech in The Dark Knight about his sonar technology… wait for it… ‘falling into the wrong hands’. Bruce Wayne would use the same logic with his nuclear reactor in The Dark Knight Rises, and while he didn’t use it for military purposes, there was the whole subplot involving Bane stealing all the high-tech Batman toys to help take over Gotham.
Then I thought ‘Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.” Nope. Norman Osborne’s Green Goblin suit, glider, and super strength serum was a Government contract. Spider-Man 2 and 3 get away a bit cleaner, although all the goblin tech in the wretched third installment are variations on the original goblin tech. And if you remember the Amazing Spider-Man movies (which I’m guessing you’d rather not), Oscorp was doing contract work for the Government when Peter Parker’s dad tried to destroy his research because he was worried about it… ‘falling into the wrong hands’. Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner said something similar to Doctor Sterns when he warned “if we lose this we’ll never get it back” in regards to his irradiated blood being used by the Government to create more Hulks.
It’s hard to ding Marvel for their heavy Government/Military presence as it was woven into the DNA back in Phase One. The first time we saw Nick Fury appear in the post-credits sequence of Iron Man, we knew that the Avengers would be a Government venture with a lot of shadowy cloak & dagger shenanigans. Speaking of DNA, the X-Men movies have always been about mutants who fear reprisal from a world who hates them which eventually leads to the Military-Industrial Complex developing the Sentinels. The connection is once again there, but it’s harder to fault since it’s a staple of the source material.
The 21st Century’s comic book adaptations have all been so focused on reality that they have been severely inhibited in their portrayals of a world where people possess amazing abilities. 1978’s Superman pitched us the idea that ‘You will believe a man can fly’. The modern variation of that seems to be ‘You will believe a man can fly and the Government will want to know why and find a way to use it to control the world’. You can blame the Ultimate Comics that seems to be the versions of the characters most referenced in Marvel adaptations. Or you can blame a strange obsession with keeping these heroes bound by the boring, bureaucratic staples of the real world.
Wouldn’t Fantastic Four have greatly benefited from ditching the grounded reality of the real world for a crazy universe of super-science and space exploration? What did the idea of militarizing our superheroes bring to this tired adaptation? The answer: absolutely nothing.
We live in an age where filmmakers can make anything happen. And yet, we’re still seeing comic book movies crippled by lazy storytelling. Many of our favorite comic book characters have creatively ‘fallen into the wrong hands’ and I think we’d be better off with some superhero movies that abandon the stale, tired Military-Industrial plot.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.