So, to find out the answer to the question, read on……
With the news of yet another superhero re-boot (Spider-Man) and following on from the recent successes of The Dark Knight in particular, as well as Iron Man, it seemed an appropriate time to discuss superhero films in a little more detail. Indeed, with the Green Lantern film in production, Iron Man 2 to come this year and the prospect of more comic-book based films from Marvel building up to the Avengers in 2012, with the possibility of new Batman and Superman films in the next three or four years, this is as good as it has ever been for comic-book fans.
There have been a lot of comic book films since the first major one – Richard Donner’s brilliant “Super-Man The Movie” appropriately enough, given he was the first superhero and the term was inspired by him. Indeed Christopher Nolan, the man behind the success of the last two Batman films, said when he began making “Batman Begins” that one of his biggest inspirations was Donner’s masterpiece with the Man of Steel, specifically in how it approached the character. And I would say that ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Superman’ are the best two superhero films ever made (tell us yours in the comments below).
So what does make a great superhero film? Here’s a few suggestions with examples, both good and bad….
1. Stick to the heart of the character(s)
This is such a simple and obvious idea, yet sometimes people forget it. The secret of success for the recent Batman films and the original Superman was that they tapped into the heart of the character. They didn’t mess with the basics, and they didn’t try to be clever with the character. Batman has always been a dark, brooding, ruthless character, tormented and driven by his past and his demons, fighting against all the odds. Superman at his heart was always a character who represented an ideal, who inspired hope, who stood for certain values, who set the example. A man who did the right thing. Even with Spider-Man, they stuck to the essence of the character, Peter Parker, and his relationship with Mary Jane Watson, which is the essence of the character. It works.
2. Don’t overload the film with villains
Batman and Robin – arguably the worst superhero film ever – had about three or four villains. Spider-Man 3 – a big disappointment after the first two – had three villains. Superman IV – one of the worst superhero films – had two or three villains. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Superman The Movie, as well as the first two Spider-Man films and Iron Man, had one major villain.
Notice the pattern?
Stick to one major villain instead of two or three, it makes a massive difference. Otherwise you have to explain the origins and history of more than one character, which takes time and can make the film rushed and cluttered. Spider-Man 3 was the best example of how this can happen. Its a big temptation, because some studios think more villains = bigger box office draw, which is not true at all. Keep it to one.
3. Give the superhero human problems, make them authentic
Superheroes may be invincible – especially Superman – but in their own personal relationships and lives – work, money, women for example, personal sacrifices they make which we don’t have to make, they face some of the same problems we do. I think people worry too much about making superheroes ‘dark’ when they should just be making them real, and authentic. Give them problems that superpowers can’t solve.
In Spider-Man, Peter Parker is constantly having to sacrifice a happy life with Mary Jane, success, his studies, his best friend and a stable job in order to be Spider-Man. In Superman, Clark Kent is in love with Lois. He is conflicted from doing the right thing (not turning the earth back and interfering with history), or following his heart and disobeying his real father. In the recent Batman films Bruce Wayne has always been conflicted by his deep desire to have a happy life with his true love and his commitment and obligation to protect Gotham and avenge his parents. Not only that but he doesn’t have any powers, and has gone through the grief and pain of losing his parents, which means we can relate to him a little more.
4. Get the right director and a big budget, not one or the other
Richard Donner, Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan all had several things in common. They all clearly had a vision for the franchise and where they wanted to take it, they all understood the heart of the character(s) and didn’t mess with it, in the main had a real love for the character(s) and were all in themselves excellent directors.
Many of the worst superhero films have suffered from a lack of investment, which has led to poor special effects and corner cutting. Superman IV suffered from this most clearly. Either they’ve had big budgets and bad directors or vice versa, or sometimes neither. Its vital to have both to make it work, especially post-Avatar.
5. Get a good script
This can’t be underestimated. The story needs to be strong, it needs to be powerful, it needs to be character driven and to tap into the heart the character and bring conflict into it, with one strong villain. All the best superhero films have this at their heart.
6. Get the casting right – in both heroes, girlfriends and villains
Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marlon Brando & Gene Hackman in Superman. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man, and Christian Bale, Michael Caine and Heath Ledger in the Batman films – and indeed, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men. All superb actors born for their roles. All hugely successful films. It makes a big difference.
7. Reboot when necessary, and keep it relevant
Spider-Man is getting a reboot when, in my opinion he doesn’t need it. Batman needed a reboot and got it from Christopher Nolan and we hear Superman is getting a reboot – which he needed all along. ‘Superman Returns’ was a good film but it appeared to be about a Superman from the 80’s, not a Superman for the 21st century. It was a wasted opportunity. You need to keep the characters and their worlds relevant, to sometimes take away or change elements of their world to keep them fresh. As long as you don’t take the heart of the character.
8. Comic book films don’t equal kiddie films
A large proportion of comic book fans are adults, the characters are adults, and its set in a real world today. The films need to appeal to young people in one sense, but also be grounded enough in reality to appeal to adults. The Batman films, the early Spider-Man films and Superman all did this brilliantly. This, I fear, may be one of the failings of the next set of Spider-Man films.
9. Keep it real
Already been hinted at, but very important. Don’t set the films in some fantasy version of the world which isn’t authentic or believable, but in the real world where people face real issues and which has real problems. The trick is to take these fantastical characters, and make them real people in a real world. This applies to the costumes too, although with some, like Spider-Man and Superman, this would mess with the heart of the character, whereas with X-Men it clearly doesn’t. But adapt and change little things, make it real and keep the heart.
10. Get a ‘Kick-Ass’ soundtrack
Superman, the Christopher Nolan Batman films and the Spider-Man films all had excellent soundtracks, memorable and recognizable (especially Superman), which define their character. It may seem a small thing, but its important.
11. They aren’t comedies
One of the problems with Batman and Robin and Superman III especially, with the poor casting of Richard Prior (who is a great comedian) is that there was too much comedy, too much cheese. Obviously there needs to be room for irony and in-jokes, especially with characters like Superman and Spider-Man who are a little ‘lighter’ than Batman, but they can’t be made as comedy films trying to be deliberately funny and not taking the characters seriously. They need to be taken seriously. The first Superman got a great balance between being serious, but also having a small tongue in cheek in jokes in character. The balance has to be right.
12. Don’t rush it
If it takes a while to get the right combination, then wait. Its better to wait and get it right, than rush it and get it wrong. Don’t rush out a sequel to cash in or meet a date, take your time to get it right. All the best superhero films have taken their time and have reaped the benefits.
13. Don’t break any of these rules
You need to remember all these factors when it comes to making your film, and shouldn’t sacrifice or ignore any of them.
So, there it is. A long list, but I think it just about covers everything. Its not easy to get a comic book adaption/superhero film right. When it goes right it can be amazing (The Dark Knight/Superman), when people get it wrong with the same characters it can be a disaster (Batman and Robin/Superman IV). We have a Spiderman and Superman reboot, Green Lantern and the Avengers at least to look forward to as new franchises. Lets hope they get it right.