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Free Form Friday: What’s happened to the superheroes?

There’s a Marvel comics movie in the theaters right now, The Marvels, that I have no interest in seeing. I subscribed to Disney in large part to see Wandavision, but there are Marvel and Star Wars shows that I might never get around to watching. As for the DC Universe? Well, the first Wonder Woman was pretty good, but otherwise…if its at the drive-in, I suppose I’ll see it… (Was Black Adam this year? Did I leave an entire movie out of my drive-in year in review? As I type this, without looking it up, I actually don’t remember).

So, what went wrong?

I remember when I first heard that there was a Batman movie in the works, back when I was in high school, reading comics every week. Back then, I was a Marvel guy, but the idea of seeing Batman in a movie was pretty exciting. Of course, I had already seen a couple of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, and those were cool (they still are cool— they have held up remarkably well). I think part of the appeal of comic books for me back in the 80s is that they allowed for fantastic images and concepts that were too impossible to be convincingly recreated in movies or on television. The idea of seeing someone try to make a movie that made the attempt was enough to get me through the door. That Batman turned out to be a great movie, with great acting, great sets, famous faces and witty dialogue left me wanting more. And in the years since, I, and everyone else, have certainly gotten more.

In the span of a few years, with the advent of CGI, the superhero movie went from a neat trick to something in which we’d (and by, “we,” I mean, “I”) come to expect to see what previously could only be imagined, or depicted in two dimensions on newsprint. I’d also expect that the villain character would be infamous coming into the movie (Lex Luthor, The Joker, Magneto) played by a big-named actor (Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Ian McKellen), and that the hero would be a headliner— Spider Man, Iron Man, Superman— someone I’d known since childhood. The genre appealed to nostalgia even before should have been able to feel nostalgic. And then there was the dialogue— if you think about Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, or Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man— those guys had some pretty good lines. That too became part of the expectation.

More so for Marvel than other superhero stories, there was also the hook of having a relatable moral. Marvel heroes were relatable, dealing with problems not-too-dissimilar to our own. This was usually the case in the actual comics, but also in most of the movies that began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000– in that case, the X-Men’s superpowers were a stand-in for differences. The contrasting approaches to dealing with bullying and persecution from Professor X and Magneto were meant to translate into the choice between violent and nonviolent resistance.

Almost all of that is gone from much of the current crop of super hero movies and shows. There’s clearly something wrong, and there are a lot of theories out there. There’s too much. The movies and shows have taken on an agenda that distracts from the storytelling. The movies are too formulaic. There’s too much reliance on CGI.

Some of these common criticisms might be true, but I’m not sure any of those are what I’m struggling with, which brings me to Season 2 of Loki, which, unlike some of the other recent movies and shows, I watched. Tom Hiddleston is such a compelling actor that it would take a far worse show than the current season for me to look away. Also, I have enough residual interest in the character of Loki to be interesting in seeing what happens to him.

But that’s kind of the first problem— the character in Season 2 is hardly Loki at all. For most of the show, Loki is running around in a collared shirt and tie. He occasionally shows some gratuitous displays of magic (including magic that would have been helpful for him in earlier adventures but for some reason he didn’t use at the time), and he reminds us at least twice that he is, you know, a god. But for the most part, the character is quite ordinary. He doesn’t look or act like a space Viking, which is part of what gave him his comic book super villain appeal. Other than one throwaway gag, there’s hardly any connection between the character in this series and Norse mythology. Thor, the Yin to Loki’s Yang, gets hardly a mention. In fact, for a series that begins moments after Loki’s failed attack on New York City (from the fist Avengers), his personality and orientation changed so suddenly and totally that he basically is an entirely different character.

The second problem with the season is that Loki finds himself in an alternate reality with rules so hard to follow that I’d have difficulty explaining what catastrophic problem Loki is trying to avert. Something about getting a space loom to prevent timelines from collapsing. It is either very complicated, totally nonsensical or so detached from any analogous situation in the real world that it holds no life lesson. Marvel Comics were always about the life lesson— the stories were generally aimed at teenagers coming into adulthood. The most famous Marvel moral comes from Spider Man— “with great power comes great responsibility.” But most of the comics had some point. The super powers were actually not the point— readers were supposed to relate to the heroes and their dilemmas. That has been missing for much of Loki Season 2.

So far, most of the problems with Loki Season 2 seem to be endemic throughout the larger genre as its developed— Loki has been de-Lokized, but many of the new movies and shows feature characters that I don’t remember at all from the comics. I hardly remembered the Guardians of the Galaxy, but the writing was so good, the chemistry between actors worked so well, that the first Guardians movie proved that Marvel could deviate from Captain America and Iron Man and still attract an audience. But Marvel seems to have learned the lesson too well. I remember thinking how cool it would be to see a Batman movie— but who are the Marvels? (OK, I vaguely remember two of the three Marvels from when I read comics, but I wouldn’t have thought, even in the 80s, that it would be cool to see a movie about them. Instead, I’d wonder why them instead of, say, the Dr. Doom).

And speaking of Dr. Doom— where is he? Dr. Doom is the Lex Luthor of Marvel Comics— the one Marvel villain that people who never read Marvel Comics has at least heard of. And if somehow, you haven’t heard of Dr. Doom, his name tells you all you really need to know. Yet he is totally absent from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who is the villain in The Marvels? Dar-Benn, played by Zawe Ashton. Dar-Benn? I never heard of her either. Nor had I ever heard of Zawe Ashton, though I since learned that she is Tom Hiddleston’s wife. Maybe, like her husband, Zawe Ashton is a compelling enough actor to overcome her lack of notoriety coming into the role (I never heard of Tom Hiddleston before he first played Loki). My point is not about whether or not Zawe Ashton can act— my point is that neither the character nor the actress is making me want to see the movie.

In Loki, the villain is played by Jonathan Majors. Although I am not especially familiar with Jonathan Majors, I’ll stipulate that he was established coming into the role. But Loki does as much as possible to keep his character from being a selling point for the show. We’re all supposed to know that the multiple versions of the same character played by Majors is supposed to be Kang the Conqueror, but he’s never referred to as such in the entire series. Nor does he appear in the iconic Kang attire from the comics. And that’s assuming you have some familiarity with who Kang from the comics was in the first place. We have come far from eagerly anticipating how Jack Nicholson would portray the Joker.

I will give Loki credit in this regard— the series does not culminate in the traditional hero-versus-villain final battle. Loki faces his final challenge totally alone, and not while battling a bad guy. That said, someone is going to have to explain to me exactly what it is he did.

And that brings us back to the excessive complexity, which has become far too common in superhero movies. Here I don’t mean the need to have watched 750 previous movies and shows to understand what’s happening, but rather the complexity within the individual storylines. It’s not that the plot is especially complex, but the rules of reality are complex to the point of being distracting. There’s one point in Loki, when, to demonstrate that he had learned a lot of information, Loki begins saying a lot of goblygook very quickly. We’re not supposed to understand what he’s saying, which is the joke (in this case, the joke worked for me). But I felt that way throughout much of the season, and throughout many of the more recent superhero movies and shows I’ve seen. I didn’t understand what the characters are talking about. When the premise requires too much of an investment to understand, it’s hard to feel emotionally attached to the rest of the plot.

I don’t especially have a problem with these stories being formulaic, however Loki, like so many movies since Avengers: Endgame, has fallen down the time travel rabbit hole (or maybe I should say wormhole). The gag has worn thin. Within this particular series, we’re stuck in the Groundhog Day loop of watching Loki stuck in the Groundhog Day loop of re-living the same events over and over until he figures out how to break the cycle. It’s been done. More problematic is that time travel is usually used as a convenient excuse to give the main characters a do-over, but this is especially not analogous to real life. We don’t often get do-overs. This year’s most underrated action movie, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, puts the lie to the concept— the punchline of that movie is that even with a magic time travel device, we cannot change the past but we have agency in shaping the future. That’s real life.

There’s more wrong specifically with Loki, but the bottom line is this— super hero stories work when we can relate to them. Yes, the special effects are part of their appeal, but so too is the connection to our own past— the nostalgia factor. Absent the relatability and the nostalgia, the typical formulas just are not going to work. Experiments can work, like the serious Joker movie, that take the genre in a different direction. But most of the current movies and shows don’t event make an attempt at that. Instead, well, I don’t know what they are attempting.

I have full confidence that someone will figure it out. But for now, most of the folks making these movies seem to be chasing something as illusory as their movies’ special effects.

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