Taking a break from producing audiobooks and writing Mike.Sierra.Echo to discuss why superheroes are so played out: There’s no *there* there, anymore. Like the tired Westerns of the 1970s and 80s, superhero movies, books, and video games are rapidly approaching the cliff where there’s just nothing else to talk about. We’ve been discussing superheroes for 90 years, folks. It was bound to happen at some point.
Don’t get me wrong – I love a well-told superhero movie. Thing is, sadly – most superhero movies aren’t well told. They aren’t doing interesting things with the the overarching trope of origin story > conflict > second-act heartbreak > third-act battle and redemption, anymore. They could, but they aren’t, and it’s getting *SO* played out.
What makes it really sad, is that people know intrinsically that superhero stories could be so much more. For example, Sean Kelly gives an EPIC breakdown of how much better we’d be if Batman actually fought crime instead of beating people up. Read on:
One of the big problems with “dark and gritty” Batman movies is that the people writing them can’t craft a mystery that’s so complex only Batman can solve it, so Batman’s “superpower” ends up being “the ability to violate people’s Constitutional rights.” Batman “gets results” because he doesn’t have to follow the rules that cops do, thus implying that cops would be so much more effective at their jobs if they didn’t have to follow those rules.
And the grittier the Batman movie is, the fewer powers he’s granted through his wealth. In a heightened reality Batman has supercomputers, ninja skills, fascinating nonlethal gadgets. A gritty batman has all the same powers as a cop in riot armor with no legal restrictions. If Jim Gordon tied up a criminal and beat the **** out of him while screaming “Tell me where the girl is!” he would be subject to lawsuits, suspensions, etc. Batman’s only “superpower” in a gritty movie is that nobody can stop him from hurting people.
The Batman of the 80s and 90s had “wonderful toys” that did set him apart from the police force, and they emphasized his battles against similarly-heightened supervillains with ray guns and magic plants and exploding rubber ducks. He’s not just putting muggers in wheelchairs. When Batman was first created, policing was very primitive, and the gulf between what the cops had – six-shooters and cars that didn’t have seatbelts – and what Batman has was much greater, which made the necessity of Batman seem much greater.
Nowadays though, when a GCPD officer calls in that the suspect is driving a “black… tank?” it gets a laugh, but why? Cops have tanks. Cops have lots of tanks. They have armor on-par with what a gritty Batman wears. They have shock guns and gas grenades and thermal imaging. Physically, cops nowadays have pretty much all the same capabilities as Batman does. The only thing that makes him different from them is that he’s gets to be *WORSE* than them.
This is what makes Batman an advertisement for abusive policing, packed movie theatres cheering for brutal violations of our social contract and an implication that we could have thousands of Batmans if we’d just look the other way and let cops take care of things. And truly, I’ve got a lot of Angry Facebook Uncles who have said just that when talking about the protests in our cities these last several months, “If we all just looked the other way for a night the cops could take care of this once and for all.”
How does one address this? Simple: make Joe Chill a cop. It’s hardly beyond the scope of imagination that a crooked cop in an economically-blighted city could be committing crimes on the side. Our real history is full of cops committing domestic abuse, rape, murder. So make Joe Chill into Officer Joe Chill, ten-year veteran of the GCPD. He tries to rob the Waynes, things go sideways, and he guns them down. Bruce identifies him at the station, the other cops cover for him, say Bruce is confused.
Joe Chill says that yes, it was his police sidearm used in the murder, but that’s because his gun was stolen from him. You know how these animals in Gotham can be. He gets two months paid leave as punishment for losing his sidearm. So instead of spending ten years learning how to fight against street crime and mob bosses, he spends ten years with his eyes firmly fixed on police corruption, the blue boy’s club that protects murderers.
Bruce knows that when cops die, that’s when cities crack down in new and horrifying ways, so he’s careful to never take a life. When he catches a cop beating his wife, or shaking down a store owner, or abusing a black man at a traffic stop, he leaves them tied up and dangling. Conservative pundits around Gotham would immediately label Batman a menace, and even as Batman starts using his computers and surveillance cameras to prove he was in the right, that these cops were dirty, people would still flock to defend the cop’s ****** version of events.
Joe Chill, of course, is now the Commissioner. Untouchable, beloved by the public for a series of high-profile crackdowns on things like petty theft and homeless people sleeping on subway vents for warmth. He’s sending in cops in riot armor to break up tent villages under overpasses, he’s arresting people who try to feed the homeless, he’s making the cops more and more militarized, and Gotham’s wealthy elite love him for it.
Jim Gordon is explicitly called out in the story for being the coward he is. In most portrayals of his early career he’s seen as a lone good cop surrounded by corrupt ones, but Batman shames him for the things he’s allowed to happen right in front of him. Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, has returned to Gotham after a long absence and is upsetting the wealthy elite with the way he behaves. He’s opened Wayne Manor to the indigent of Gotham City, the entire grounds are swarming with poor people. He doesn’t allow cops inside.
The people have had enough, they’re rising up in protest against the cops. And the cops are out for blood, riot shields at the ready, gas grenades prepared. They’ve got beanbag rounds and tasers and batons. But the people of Gotham have Batman. When the cops get ready to assault the peaceful protesters, that’s when Batman drops out of the sky, neutralizing their “less-lethal” armaments, taking them down before they can hurt anyone.
Batman takes control of the satellites around Gotham, broadcasting live to the whole world with instant replay what each cop was trying to do before Batman intervened. Eventually, as happens sometimes, the tide of public opinion turns enough that some officers start getting disciplined, and when that happens furious cops start quitting the force in droves, closing down entire precincts in protest. “You’ll be begging for us back” they say.
Except they don’t. That’s when Bruce Wayne steps in, using what’s left of his money and privilege to fund new alternatives to policing in that part of Gotham. Showing a new way of doing things. Volunteers going door to door to help their neighbors. And each volunteer wears a bat pin on their chest. #DefundBatman
Yeah, It’s Cool – So What?
You’re probably like me when you read Kelly’s pitch. I’d watch the *heck* out of that movie. I’d love to see a positive, actionable version of the future where each one of us is making positive change. They – large studios – wouldn’t dare make that movie and that’s another reason why there’s no *there* there when it comes to superheroes.
The stories, the characters? Those are all intellectual property (IP). The companies that could afford to buy that IP – large studios and corporations like Disney and Sony – are companies with quarterly earning reports and stock prices and analysts. Those corporate components are all there to make sure that the studio is going to make money next year. You can’t blame them from doing it, but the result is that large studios are notoriously risk adverse.
You can imagine the conversation. Some young middle-manager says: “I’ve got a great idea! Let’s make Batman a modern social justice warrior with a roadmap for alternative policing in large urban environments. People will love it. What do you say??”
I can hear the crickets from here.
This Will Not End Well
Long story long, is that when it comes to superhero movies – there’s no *there* there. We’re in the final stages of superhero story exploration and people are going to wake up one day and just … move on. Just as Westerns didn’t die all at once, superhero movies won’t die overnight. But they will die.
Here’s how it’ll happen. Superhero movies will stop making money. Then, studios will make fewer of them. We’ll start making fun of them – like, OMG, so played out! You’ll see the long slow slide continue for a decade, and then eventually all you’ll get are low-budget, low-interest shows for the old farts like us.
Ever think about that? Superhero movies and shows are going to be for Millennials what ‘Matlock’ and ‘Walker: Texas Ranger’ were for Boomers. Our kids and grandkids will roll their eyes when the movies or shows come on. “Let’s go folks,” they’ll say. “Pop Pop is watching his stories.”
So yeah – this is why I’m pretty much over superhero stories except for ones that do interesting things like Superhero Shrink. Don’t give me ultra-violence, don’t give me the same Heroes Journey. Give me something interesting – a different concept – to think about. Otherwise, when it comes to superheroes – there’s no *there* there.