Friday, August 22, 2008

The Secret of Superhero Movies

Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran an article detailing Warner Brother's new strategy for Superhero movies. Make them dark, "just like Batman." More proof if any was needed that Hollywood lives in a bubble and just does not understand their audience. Much less, the secret to Superhero movies.

"The Dark Knight" made $478 million as of Friday, August 22, 2008, not because it was "dark" or "edgy." Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov believes:

Creatively, he sees exploring the evil side to characters as the key to unlocking some of Warner Bros.' DC properties. "We're going to try to go dark to the extent that the characters allow it," he says. That goes for the company's Superman franchise as well.

The correct term for this is stupidity. "The Dark Knight" was successful because it hit the emotional and story core of the character, when he was created back in 1939. Which was and is, the "moral revenge" story, with a character who takes revenge (and action) within strict moral limits. That's why Batman does not kill, even though he might have good reason to do so. Moreover, Batman is an ordinary man. Unlike the other Superheroes, he has no powers whatsoever other than what an intelligent and highly motivated and disciplined man could potentially have, with the aid of money and technology. He's the direct descendant of Edmund Dantes, and Sherlock Holmes, with a dash of Zorro. Batman, lacking any superpowers, pretty much has to be intimidating and ruthless (right up to the strict moral lines he'll never cross).

Batman in the comics and movies consistently beats, dangles over great heights, and otherwise terrifies the worst and least of crooks, but never, ever kills anyone.


Because Batman is a power-fantasy for guys.

The secret to comics is who created and read them, back when they were popular, first in the late 1930's and early 1940's, and again in the 1960's (the "Golden" and "Silver" age respectively). The Comics creators were mostly Jewish, nerdy-smart guys, who liked the pretty girls who had no time for them, and preferred the wealthy athletes in High School and College. In wish fulfillment, these mostly Jewish artists and writers, who in the 1930s and early 1940s lived at a time when actual, real Nazis were active in America (the German-American Bund), created (almost exclusively male) characters that provided wish fulfillment to every young man and boy who was not a high-status, wealthy athlete, liked by guys and pursued by girls.

Which is about 90% of the male population, at one time or another. That's what comics were, and the reason for the characters success. Superman is the most globally recognized fictional character. Because of that secret.

Yes, it's really that simple. Male wish fulfillment is the secret to Superhero success.

Spider-Man's nerdy guy element of suddenly having a superpower, and winning the girl, harkens directly back to Superman, and Shuster and Siegel's empowerment fantasy. Complete with High School Jock foil to defeat and beat for the girl's affection. Even Iron Man fits this mode. While Tony Stark may be a wealthy, billionaire playboy, at heart he is a nerd, and is happiest playing and building and experimenting with technology. He builds his own superpower. No wonder nerdy guys love him. He's one of them, as a Superhero.

The problem for Studio execs, and in particular Robinov, is that comics today are not what they once were. Kids and nerdy young men mostly don't read them. Comics can cost in excess of $5 each, and are available only in Comic Book shops, which are few in number. They are written for a much older audience, median age of 40, the hipster crowd. An audience seeking not male empowerment fantasies, but uber-PC, ultra-liberal critiques of average people (and their politicians and values). There is either the grim-and-gritty ultraviolent superhero only marginally distinct from the villain (if at all). Or superteams of politically correct gay, addict, lesbian, latina, etc. superbeings who rule America to protect "the world" from un-PC Americans. Such as DC/Wildstorm's "The Authority". Remember them?

There is a reason you don't.

The dirty little secret behind comics and comic book writers today is that the writers have completely repudiated the male empowerment fantasy, where the hero has some power and gets the girl or at least defeats the bad guy (within acceptable moral limits) and saves ordinary people. "The Authority" is merely the dream of the hipster and what he/she would do if they ruled America and/or the world. Very importantly, the male empowerment Superhero does not want to rule the world (that's the Supervillain's department). He wants to save it, and do so within the kinds of rules that ordinary men and boys set for themselves. No sadism. Mostly no killing. Protecting innocents. Following all the rules.

Because, in the world of the original Golden and Silver age empowerment fantasies, the rules were quite explicit, and the reason for the characters success. Superman's been popular since 1938 for a reason. And it's not being "dark," "hip," or "edgy." Certainly not identifying with an evil side, or the villain. Lex Luthor is Superman's main villain, and other than being bald, his persona can be extremely variable. Superman is always the same. The Ultimate American (along with Captain America).

Here are the rules:

1. A character with great power must show great restraint, lest he fall into villain territory. The amount of restraint and humanity a Superhero shows is directly proportional to his power. Superman must be everyman empathetic to even the villains, whereas ordinary Batman can do pretty much anything but kill people.

2. The character must be someone the male audience can identify with and reasonably project themselves into, because the character is a male empowerment fantasy. Villains and characters indistinguishable from villains won't work, no matter how "edgy" and hip they might be among the creative class and upper-income urbanites.

3. The character must actively defend the conventional morality and beliefs of the average person, who after all forms the audience/readership for the Superhero. This means, among other things, the assimilationist Patriotism of the Golden/Silver age, mostly Jewish creators, which most ordinary Americans still hold today. Captain America, punching out Hitler in 1940, a year before America's entry into the War, at a time of deep isolationism and pro-Hitler sentiment, from Charles Lindbergh to Woody Guthrie to the Daughters of the American Revolution, is a superhero, because he embodies the values and beliefs of the average guy. "Apollo" and "the Midnighter," openly gay Super-couple (and thinly disguised Superman/Batman clones) who believe themselves better than the average guy and act accordingly as dictators, are not Superheroes.

4. The Superhero is the enemy of PC, and the embodiment of doing the right thing, even at the cost of social isolation. What hipsters and the cool people don't understand, is that the average male audience is often socially isolated, particularly in High School, where social cliques abound and a strict social hierarchy rules. For the hipster, secure at or near the top of the urban social hierarchy, there is nothing worse than being cast out from the glitterati. The average guy who read comics, felt it was acceptable since that social reality already informed their existence.

5. The Superhero must have a sense of wonder. The Superhero is not merely a hero like Indiana Jones or John McClane. He is above all else, a sense of possibility, of wonder, excitement, and strangeness. The villains are scared of this wonder.

6. The Superhero's costume must reinforce the sense of wonder. The costume is important, it visually distinguishes the hero from a two-fisted ordinary man, into a sense of possibility and wonder, or terror and menace (to villains), or awesome power, or any combination thereof.

7. The Superhero must embody a deep emotional truth or sense of aspiration in their audience/readership. Superman and Captain America embody the optimism and power of American patriotism at it's best. Batman the moral revenge fantasy, Spider-Man the power of puberty and it's body changing effects, Iron Man the ability to make world-changing tools through technology as an uber-nerd, Captain Marvel and the Hulk every little boy's fantasy of being big and strong. Through either a magic word or massive temper tantrum. Green Lantern is a cop with a power-ring, and the Flash is speed personified, able to save many by being just fast enough. There are many, many possibilities, but each has to appeal to some part or aspect of the readership and audience.

8. The villain defines the hero, in what the hero will not allow, and will fight to stop. For Superman, it's Robber Baron greed in Lex Luthor. For Batman, it's the insane desire of the criminal to inflict sadistic pain for the purpose of inflicting pain and misery (the Joker). For Green Lantern, it's Sinestro who wants to rule the world with a power ring the opposite of his own, to create chaos and war instead of law and order. The villain might be the complete opposite of the hero (Lex Luthor to Clark Kent) or similar but with a huge difference (Sinestro and Green Lantern). But the hero must always fight the villain's plans and his morality (or often, lack of it). That's why he's the hero. And why the audience loves him.

9. The hero must win, and the villain lose. This is a male empowerment fantasy, after all, not an art-film for hipsters in Greenwich Village or Santa Monica.

Hollywood bubble figures like Robinov don't get it. Today's Comic book writers don't make stories or characters who appeal to much of anyone beyond the tiny, hipster and aging crowd of today's comic book readers. Comics today circulate at a fraction of the readership they held as recently as the speculation boom of the early 1990's, let alone WWII or the Silver Age. Some marginal comics circulate at 30,000 copies a week. Superman in the early 1990's sold 2 million copies a week, and had several titles a month, to boot! Most of the new characters (or PC-updated ones) created in the last few years have failed to catch on in any meaningful way. Nearly all the iconic, widely recognized, or even popular Superheroes were created at least forty years ago, by pulp-energy, fringe writers and artists seeking to connect with socially isolated, nerdy young men. The cool and the hip crowd did not read comics. Which is why these characters, even relatively unknown to the general public characters like Iron Man, are popular.

And why "The Authority" or "Watchmen" are not. "Watchmen" will be a flop.

My suggestion to Robinov, to make DC Superhero movies that will make money:

1. Yes, follow Marvel's plan of introducing Superheros in solo adventures with cameo cross-overs to create anticipation and excitement for a team movie.
2. Don't hire any DC Comics writer or editor, in fact keep them far away from your movies with no input.
3. Don't use anything story-wise done in the last fifteen years or so, because it will violate the secret of Superheroes -- the stories will be about how cool and hip and edgy the writers are, not male empowerment fantasies.
4. Repeat constantly, "male empowerment fantasy" to understand what your movies will be and what they won't (everything else).
5. Understand that demographics means that your male audience will be older than 17, by a large margin. They'll be in their twenties, thirties, and forties, but will still want stories that provide "male empowerment," see #4. This means themes that are mature, while still delivering the "male empowerment fantasy" such as Iron Man. With it's forty-plus lead and adult (but light) story.
6. Use writers and directors who understand the core of the character (and his villains), as originally conceived and proved by time to be popular. This means no Bryan Singer tributes to Richard Donner. Or inserting of any "cool" and PC subtext that subverts the male empowerment fantasy. You may need to search outside of who you thought would be appropriate, and should beware of those seeking to make an art movie instead of a well-crafted male empowerment fantasy (Angst Lee would be a good example of who not to hire).
7. The right casting is critical, and as shown by both the Batman and Iron Man movies, the audience is older, so an older and more experienced actor is certainly appropriate, and no barrier but rather often a critical element to success.
8. Don't rush the movies. The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four, and Hulk movies all show what happens: the stories move away from the core of the character's male empowerment fantasy and changes into star vehicles, special effects seminars, or arty angst fests.
9. Understand, not every character is Batman, and don't be afraid to sparingly use Batman to show that many DC characters are unlike Batman. The Flash is a sunny optimist, as befits a speedster. Green Lantern is a conservative, "right-stuff" supercop with a power ring that can do nearly anything. Captain Marvel is an eleven year old boy literally inside "Earth's Mightiest Mortal" and possessed of magical super-strength and speed and invincibility. Green Arrow is a notorious womanizer (Batman is a semi-monk) with a personal life beyond messy.
10. The villain is important, but only so far as he makes the hero the hero. Die Hard was not about Hans Gruber, but John McClane. Don't make the mistake that too many writers, particularly current comic book writers make and fall in love with the villain. He's there to be defeated in the end, after all.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with your notion that comicbook writers should be kept far away from any movie scripts if they want a successful movie. The most successful comicbook movies are the ones that stuck most closely to the comicbook. Sin City, 300, Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, all are heavily inspired by the comics. You do far worse when they do not. Catwoman 2, anybody?

Green Lantern will be a brilliant movie. WB has their own Star Wars franchise just waiting to make them billions.

Anonymous said...


Excellent blog. I just stumbled upon it today and I've read all your entries. Do I detect traces of Spengler in your style and choice of content?

Whiskey said...

First Anon --

I want to draw a careful distinction between the "old guard" such as Denny O'Neil, Frank Miller, and perhaps Brian Michael Bendis, with the "new guard" such as Mark Millar or Joss Whedon or those type of guys. Particularly those enamored of DC's Dan Didio's uber-PC and multicultural desires. Which includes killing off straight white male characters and replacing them with gays and hispanics and so on.

From Stan Lee to Frank Miller, the old line writers understood that male empowerment was the key to the fantasies they constructed. Geeky, "ordinary" guys get some sort of superpower (with Batman it's discipline and will) and so on. Guys watch "Superhero" versions of themselves on screen.

However, the "new school" of upper class, upscale, mostly WASP, Ivy League yuppie liberal writers don't have this experience. They're the guys that had no problem getting women into their life and respect of their peers. Therefore they write about uber-cool guys struggling for status dominance who bear no relation to the potential audience or their concerns.

Look at Spider-Man vs. "The Authority." How many guys are like Peter Parker before the superpowers, versus say "Apollo" or "the MidNighter" who are two gay lovers with superpowers?

For old-school writers, characters who resemble in some important ways their audience like Peter Parker made them money in the pulp environment (and do today in movies). For the new-school guys, gay superheros or other fringe/marginal stuff, like villains as heroes, etc. gets them acclaim from their peers.

Which brings the other dirty little secret: comics TODAY don't make much money, it's the licensing and movies. Marvel's Annual Reports available at show only 15% of revenue from publications. The rest comes from movies and toys. Most of Marvel and DC's money comes from work done decades ago, some half a century ago or more, by guys who could not get work today.

DC does have lots of great characters, but like most very simple things requires a lot of skill to execute properly. Allowing say Dan Didio's favorite writers to write the screenplay for Green Lantern to satisfy the writers not the audience is IMHO a direct route to failure. The movie would be all about how much cooler the writers are than the audience.

Second Anon -- yes I have read Spengler's blog quite a lot. Demographics do shape the social environment and hardly anyone talks about it.

Kamal S. said...

I am shocked I missed this gem..

As a gen X, former boy comic book reader, I can say that you hit the nose right on the head. I really think that comic books became irrelevant after my generation. Everything produced after 1992 has simply become increasingly hip, edgy, but utterly missing that magic formula that made them appeal to socially marginal, introspective, imaginative boys...

I enjoy a few DC Vertigo titles - as an adult, and in moderation. Grant Morrison, for example, is a writer whose titles I find interesting. The DC "Hellblazer" series, dark, disturbing, and decadent, is an interesting read.. They are like a nasty vice... sort of like literary Gin and Tonics..

But I recognize that they have no mass appeal. And I certainly would not have read them in High School, because they were simply too weird and too distant from the sort of wish fantasy that you identify.