I recently saw the promos of Krrish 3. Fabulous effects. The look of the movie is really world class. There was a line in the promo which said “An evil was being born, to rule the world”. Of course there is nothing wrong with the line. And this blog piece is not really about Krrish. That line just rekindled some old questions which led to some more and so on. The immediate question was, why would that evil want to rule the world? And who decided that it was an evil?
Really, the whole world? Dharavi included? What about Dalai Lama and his disciples?
It just does not make any sense that anybody would want to do that, even if they could. If nothing else, total world domination by one individual (together with his bad army) would entail a host of logistical problems. But that is just one of the questions which comics (the medium which gave the world most if its superheroes) have been getting away with, for ages. The reason given being, and quite rightly so, because the comics are meant for kids, who can’t care less. When I started reading comics, I never really questioned why the Superhero so badly wanted to battle the bad guys. Why does it do nothing but battle the bad guys? I also never questioned why the Superheroes invariably wore a suit. Would it not be wise to wear some camouflage and not such bright colors like red, yellow, green and blue? Is it because they want to stand out in the crowd and be seen? Is it really a good combat practice to do so? Maybe they do want to be seen, to be seen as a symbol of Goodness, who is also strong and give out a message to the bad guys to stop their bad business because there will be consequences? But in that case, why do the superheroes also wear a mask? Why do they want to be seen, but not want their faces to be visible? Why do most of them continue to lead an alternative life, as a commoner? Why don’t they proudly tell the world that they are the Superheroes?
In comics, we really do not care. We just accept them as facts of comics’ life. Some city, similar to ours, but fictional, where unique things happen. Superheroes in suits fight exotic villains. They are their own self-contained world. We read comics and are entertained. That is all that matters. But it was all meant for the kids, for the young. Kids really are the biggest consumers of comics. And while it was for kids, it was fine.
Soon, Superhero movies followed. And for quite some time, they were aimed at the fans of comic books too. Basically, they were nothing more than a literal moving adaptation of the comics itself. And hence, these questions did not apply to them because they, like their parent comics, were not to be taken seriously.
But it did not take the movie makers long to realize the obvious. They realized that they really do not need to make exact movie replicas of the comic books. Movies were a different medium and they demanded a different telling of the stories, even if the stories themselves were old. Also the movies need not be aimed at the young only.
Spiderman(2002) was not the first movie which featured a superhero. But it was very different. The most important difference being, it was the first movie which strived to impress those audiences also who were not necessarily the readers of spider man comics. In short, it tried to stand on its own as a movie, not a superhero movie, not a comic book movie, just a movie. And most importantly, it was effective in doing that. It was a huge success, which showed that non-comics-readers also watched and liked it. In order to do so, it had to answer some of the questions I mentioned above. The movie managed to answer some of them well, others not quite so. For example, it tells us the evolution of spider man’s suit. Or why it has to lead a double life. These it manages to explain reasonably well. But it does not offer a great explanation to why the spider man wants to fight bad guys, I mean, he could have very well stopped after catching his grandfather’s killer.
But why do these questions matter at all? I mean, who gives a damn, right? Not quite.
I think these questions matter to any sincere, thinking director/production-house who is making a serious movie based on superheroes. And that is precisely what the directors are doing these days: they are making realistic superhero movies. And then, you cannot ignore these things. When Zack Snyder made ‘Man of Steel’ with Christopher Nolan producing, they had to remove the red briefs of Superman, because what would they have said to Steven Spielberg, when he asked about it? ‘Hey Zack, why is your hero wearing underwear on top’? They could not just say that the original comics had them so. Similarly, they gave some explanation for the ‘S’ mark on the chest of Superman, and it was not that S stood for Superman (They said it is not an S at all, it is a symbol which stands for Hope in Superman’s native planet). They would have removed it too, but it was just too vital for the superman character. They had to make these changes because the red briefs and a random initials-crest do not belong in the real world. In fact, this red brief is such an absurd feature of Superman that the previous superman movie, Superman Returns, though not courageous enough to do away with it altogether, showed very few shots where you can see the guy donning the brief. (For an amazing view on why Superman and other superheroes wore undies on top, see this). Even the name ‘Superman’ is not that great, and they make all the effort in both the movies to use the precise term.
But the one superhero adaptation which changed the face of superhero movies was Christopher Nolan’s Batman (series). Christopher Nolan is an absurdly intelligent director. And he made an extremely serious movie about a superhero which was aimed to impress mature audience. The movie was serious because it tried to be totally believable. I think it is no coincidence that it was a Batman movie. Batman, for various reasons, is a superhero who can exist in an everyday world. He does not really need a separate universe to exist. Batman’s strength is his great cardio, his will power and his amazing gadgets, through his money. A lot of guys could be Batman. Similarly Tony Stark and Ironman make a great movie superhero, because he is totally exist-able too. My point is, you can make a totally believable movie with these guys. And Nolan did a fabulous job at that. All three of his Batman movies won critical praise and broke box-office records. And he meticulously explained each and every known Batman fact, his beginning, his motive to fight guys, his motive to hide behind a mask, the motives of all its villains, everything. The result was three very compelling movies. They featured amazing action sequences and the unique hero-villain battles, which are central to any comic-book storytelling, but Nolan’s movies were much more than that. The action sequences were great; but it was really the story and the complexity of characters which found praise. The Joker is a great example of that. The problem with making a convincing superhero movie, or rather with retelling any famous story, is that your audiences know a lot of facts beforehand. Your success or failure depends on how well you can explain all those facts in a new way. And Nolan did a great job at that, with liberal help from Hans Zimmer’s music, I must add. 🙂
But this realistic portraying of Superheroes give rise to another whole set of inconsistencies. And they have nothing to do with the style of movie making; these are inherent qualities of comic book story-telling. For example, I was watching ‘The dark Knight Rises’ recently, and I suddenly realized that Bane, and The Joker previously, were deriving so much pleasure in fighting and defeating Batman, that I could not help but wonder if Batman gave rise to those nasty villains? I mean, both Bane and Joker were not really into killing or torturing people, they wanted to defeat Batman, because he was such a brilliant, grand good hero. It was like they were in there for the challenge. And innocent people were being hurt in the process. This was kind of self-defeating. Batman was giving rise to villains who were tormenting the people who Batman set out to protect in the first place. Would it not be better for the people of Gotham that Batman trained a super police force of sorts with his expertise and resources and that force protected the city of Gotham with batman as its strategic commander but not a central figure?
One huge problem with all of these stories is the culture of fist-fighting and over reliance on physical strength, in spite of all the amazing things happening around. In The Avengers, one guy turns into a big green monster, one guy can fly and shoot missiles, one guy is coming from an alien planet and all these super cool things, but they still fight each other with hands whenever they get a chance. I mean, who fights with their bare hands in today’s world? Armies all over the world aim at confronting their enemies from a distance and finishing the battle there. The problem is the scope of the battle. Loki is coming to subjugate the earth and he is starting with a city? Really? Why is he not magic bombing an entire nation? The fighting units of his army are so small in scope; I cannot be sure how he plans to conquer the entire world in this fashion. And remember that guy just came from an alien planet, so he must be resourceful. Problem is, how else would you portray an eye catching hero-villain showdown?
The scope of superheroes also is very inconsistent. Batman wants to fight crime so badly, but it never disturbs him that there are other cities in the country where crime rate is high too? He is just content fighting for his city mates? Don’t superheroes become disillusioned by crimes in other cities? What about other countries? Do they feel bad by the civil war scene in Africa? What about poverty and pollution and drugs? Don’t they feel a sense of futility when they are saving 50 people in a city by a super-villain while thousands died from hunger elsewhere in the world? Do they ever feel like joining the Red Cross or politics so that they can help more people? Don’t they realize that real villains do not necessarily fight or maybe not look villainous at all? I hope you are getting my point.
Amazingly, all of these questions don’t exist for comics; they are just comics after all. They rise with serious, realistic movie making.
So, what really makes a good Superhero movie?
I think, Hancock was a very good superhero concept. The movie was ok, but Hancock makes a good superhero. He has superpowers but that do not automatically motivate him to do good for people. In fact, he is a hopeless drunk, which is very plausible for a non-ageing, lonely person who is a freak. People do not really like him, for he does more destruction than good. But he comes around, with some help, and choses the right path. Then he becomes a hero. Superhero.