Save Us From Superheroes

Pop Culture

Save Us From Superheroes

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

The superhero is dead.

But it’s not a death fit for a tearful funeral. It’s a The Walking Dead kind of death where the departed refuse to depart, and instead swarm upon humanity to terrorise and horrify us.

This May, we suffered through the latest offering from Marvel: Iron Fist. The show, which introduces a new character to the already overpopulated, sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, was universally derided upon its release. Among a long litany of criticisms, it was also called formulaic, uninspired, and an underwhelming project that exposed long-standing shortcomings with the tired superhero genre.

From the first episode, Iron Fist plays out like pure filler. It’s merely meant to set pieces in place, so that Marvel can clobber us over the head with The Defenders in the near future. With antagonists and sidekicks borrowed from the Daredevil series, and an uninspired origin story of a rich orphan who becomes a superhero after his parents’ death, Iron Fist completes the downward spiral for Marvel. What started out with a bang with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, ended with a whimper with Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

Watching Iron Fist go up in flames thrilled me. I guess “some men just want to watch the world burn.” I use this quote from the Dark Knight in a bid to remind you of a time when the superhero genre was actually great. Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman films broke new ground for the genre, moving it away from the campy, OTT aesthetic associated with it and re-establishing its connection to reality.

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were also spaced three years apart (2005 and 2008 respectively), and the final instalment of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, followed after four years. The breathing space between the movies made the heart grow fonder.

This overabundance of superheroes has led to catastrophic glitch in the genre’s storytelling mechanism.

In contrast, just last year, we had the Avengers, Suicide Squad, and X-Men competing for our attention. And this is without even mentioning the two big daddies of the genre duking it out in their own film, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. If we were to take a headcount, we’d have enough superheroes to fill the roster of a cricket squad, with players left out even after picking reserves.

This overabundance of superheroes has led to catastrophic glitch in the genre’s storytelling mechanism. No longer do directors and writers attempt to tell us a complete story within a film or series. Instead, each new offering is merely a primer for the next big release. I miss the days when I could walk into a theatre, watch a regular guy acquire superpowers, face down injustice, and come out triumphant. It fed into an escapist/empowerment fantasy that I share with many fans of the genre. Now, being force-fed sequel after sequel makes you feel like your goose is being cooked for a feast of foie gras that the greedy studios will enjoy.

It’s a trend that’s gone so far that studios actually have the gall to release films incomplete, as if they were beta testing a software. The worst offender was last year’s Batman V Superman, where director Zack Snyder released an extended edition after the film’s run in theatres had ended to a chorus of boos. Pompously titled “The Ultimate Edition”, this contained scenes the director swore gave the meandering plot of the film better direction.

Sadly, even a film where the best parts were withheld by the director, pulled in a global box office collection of 855 million USD, so I wonder what that says about the followers of the genre. With a haul larger than the GDP of many countries, Batman V Superman shows a complete blindness on our part. When we robotically consume an assembly-line product without a soul (or a fresh plot), we give in: We stop demanding more, we ensure that the makers of the genre stop trying harder.

Possibly the worst offenders in this shitfest are the superfans. You know, the ones who mug up the entire comic-book storyline – apocryphal material and theories et al – before watching the movie. They’re the folks sitting behind you in the theatre, pointing out Easter eggs to those around them as if sharing the location of buried treasure. Remember that friend who wants to compare notes after watching The Avengers, and will scoff if you didn’t spot every damned reference? He’s a superfan, and he’s a problem.

It’s the superfans who embolden studios, directors, and writers to adopt the lazy approach to storytelling. By shaming those who went in expecting to be given a film with a beginning, middle, and end, they perpetuate a vicious cycle. They’re the ones because of whom, the films end up as 50 per cent trailer for the sequel, and 50 per cent fan-service nerdgasm.

Someone has to say no, enough, I’ve had it. Given the stupid and unfeasible volume of superhero adaptations, it’s high time we called out the genre for this drip-feeding approach. We need more films like this year’s Logan that told us a self-contained story while maintaining its link to other instalments in the franchise. Sadly, Logan ends with the death of Wolverine, effectively ending hope for more films in the series.

Unless Ekta Kapoor steps in and resurrects him like her heroes from saas-bahu serials. Then again, judging by the quality and the assembly-line quantity, maybe she already has.

The superhero is truly dead. And I, for one, couldn’t be bothered to cry.