Director Ridley Scott has some strange explanations for his dislike of superhero films. When asked by Digital Spy if he would ever direct one, he responded he couldn’t “believe in the thin, gossamer tight-rope of the non-reality of the situation of the superhero.”
Scott then more or less instantly contradicts himself by saying he’s played in that sort of world before. "I've done that kind of movie — Blade Runner really is a comic strip when you think about it, it's a dark story told in an unreal world,” he stated. “You could almost put Batman or Superman in that world, that atmosphere, except I'd have a fucking good story, as opposed to no story!"
So Scott’s problem has nothing to do with superheroes as an idea or the modern superhero movie as a kind of loose genre, but films with bad stories. Which is fair enough, but let’s maybe not drag superheroes into the conversation as if the two things are linked.
A matter of respect
Last year, revered film critic and columnist Peter Bradshaw wrote a piece for Esquire about why superhero movies deserved more respect than they currently receive. Bradshaw said if he had been asked what the most extraordinary scene in any film was prior to the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, he would have answered with one of the obvious: something by Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson or Kathryn Bigelow.
Now, however, Bradshaw said the most extraordinary piece of cinema featured Quicksilver (Evan Peters) during his moment of action in Days of Future Past. After breaking into the Pentagon with Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to rescue a young Magneto, they’re cornered by a group of soldiers during their escape. When the armed men open fire, Quicksilver springs into action and, using his ability to move at inhuman speeds, alters the situation so they make it out alive.
Bradshaw said the scene was a quintessential superhero moment, calling it operatic, dynamic, melancholic and, of course, cinematic.” The critic added that “its emotional and dramatic effects don't really make sense, but they are superb.”
In his defense piece, Bradshaw said superhero movies were able to get away with more than other films because we automatically suspend our disbelief the minute we walk into the theater. That’s what makes origin stories so often tedious; we’ve already accepted the idea of a man with the powers of a spider. It’s what happens next that we care about.
“[Superhero films] are surreal and extravagant gestures of colour in a dull world; they are detonations of pop-art fun; an almost abstract distillation of adventure, of the need for action and confrontation,” Bradshaw wrote. “They are about the need to escape our ordinary, mundane lives.”
The very reason that Scott doesn’t like superhero movies is often what makes them so popular, but it’s unfair to call films like The Dark Knight, Captain America: Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy subpar just because they focus on unrealistic situations. The idea that story is what separates Blade Runner from every superhero story in existence is a bit hard to take from the director of Prometheus.
In a 2008 article on movie blog site Slash Film, David Chen broke down all of the themes and aspects of the story that made The Dark Knight exceptional. Chen argued that The Dark Knight focused on real problems affecting society, despite the often surreal fantasy of the characters and setting.
“At its best, The Dark Knight holds a mirror up to us as viewers and asks us to look closely, to examine ourselves as humans and as citizens,” Chen wrote. “It doesn’t always do this gracefully, but it tries far more than any comic book movie in recent memory has ever done. The fact that it succeeds most of the time is a testament to [director Chrisopher] Nolan’s script and artistry.”
Directors like Christopher Nolan or Bryan Singer use their films about superhuman people to tell ordinary tales, and that’s why we find them so captivating. It’s not about the fantasy of being able to fly, we’re attracted to the idea these characters can do amazing things yet still grapple with recognizable problems. We want to see ourselves in them just as much as we want to see them in ourselves.
None have does this as well as Civil War. For two movies, the Avengers have wreaked havoc on countless cities in an attempt to save the world from total destruction, but it’s not until Civil War that they start to question their roles. It’s a topic I tackled in my review:
To be a superhero, things must be sacrificed. Personal relationships, a chance at a normal life or even just being able to take a vacation. Existing as an extraordinary being means giving up the ordinary aspects of life that many of us take for granted. When they're faced with the reality of the consequences of their actions, however, they begin to question everything they thought they knew. It's that internal struggle that eventually leads to the grand battle between themselves where the movie finds its heart.
Superhero movies are still a genre in and of themselves, and they’re unlikely to compete with Scorsese’s latest at the Oscars, but to say they lack story as a whole is wildly inaccurate. Even directors like Michael Bay, who has said that he would never direct a superhero movie because he didn’t want to feel like a “second or third in something,” has respect for how far superhero movies have come.
“I really liked Civil War,” Bay told Collider in December. “I like a lot of the Marvel movies. When I saw Iron Man it broke a lot of new ground for me, and it was a great character. Funny, witty, I liked that about it.”
In his interview with Digital Spy, Scott said he wanted to continue making smart movies. He said he was worried about the future of cinema as a whole and the contribution superhero movies were making to it. Scott said that "cinema mainly is pretty bad,” as if there was an art form in existence where the majority of the work being released is more likely to be mediocre or poor than excellent.
Putting characters in tights isn’t making movies any better or worse, but with more than $11.4 billion spent at the North American box office in 2016, and a majority of positive reviews for Marvel films, it’s clear that most audiences are okay with where the industry is headed. And if a superhero movie makes you feel something, it’s doing its job, whether Scott likes it or not.