Wednesday, April 17, 2024

My Breaking Point with Live-Action Superheroes

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I’m tired of live-action superhero media.

I do still enjoy some superhero related shows and movies—I love X-Men: Days of Future Past, and still consume the Marvel series on Netflix that aren’t Iron Fist. Against all odds, I am looking forward to the extended cut of Suicide Squad coming out in December. But for the most part, this arm of the super-genre has lost its shine for me.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. The successes of the Dark Knight Trilogy, the X-Men series, and Spider-Man trilogy paved the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the proliferation of superheroes in film. Nowadays you can’t turn left or right without seeing a new superhero property taking off. It’s gotten to be a little much. But it’s not just over-saturation—it’s a perfect cocktail of overused tropes in combination with the sheer amount of media that’s causing a lot of us fatigue.

There is nothing interesting about white bread

Let’s rewind the tapes back to the summer of 2014. I saw Guardians of the Galaxy twice that August, in the space of two weeks. The first time, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The second time, my enjoyment was marred by the realization of the movie’s sexism and ableism.

Little did I know, this would be a microcosm for my falling out with the mainstream MCU as a whole. The nine months between GotG and The Avengers: Age of Ultron were spent looking back on the franchise and realizing its less forgivable flaws. By the time I got to 2015, I was pretty done. AoU was the final, excruciating nail in the coffin. I’ve been patently avoiding the movies since then.

Similarly (though not nearly to the same extent), I’ve become disenfranchised with The Dark Knight Trilogy for reasons of racism and their unwillingness to explore it, given the subject matter. It’s also why I watch the various Marvel television shows with a critical eye.


This is a problem that’s widespread in most media. But, I find it particularly prominent in live-action superhero adaptations, because so many of them are hailed as being progressive. The MCU is a big offender, on this front.

GotG has, as of this writing, the most diverse cast in an MCU film, but still centers on a cisgender, heterosexual white guy. The –isms in this movie are never called out, and are so tertiary that they could be removed without affecting the film at all. And let’s not forget the sexist joke that contradicts the canon the movie establishes earlier on.

GotG is actually one of the tamer examples. There’s also AoU, with such gems as unintentionally calling Natasha Romanoff a monster for being infertile, and the mess that is the portrayal of the Maximoffs.

Jessica Jones is touted as a feminist masterwork despite having few women of color and coming dangerously close to turning its main character into a rapist without comment. Daredevil ignores the racism of gentrification and plays favorites with the white love interest in season 2. and Captain America: The First Avenger ignores racism and the Holocaust.

On the DC side, the TDK trilogy is always called real and gritty despite, as I said, never talking about the –isms inherent to the subjects it broaches. This is especially egregious in The Dark Knight Rises, which deigns to talk about classism in America without ever once touching on racism. And with no prominent characters of colors. You can’t do that.

It really sucks to have your favorite stories fall apart under scrutiny because the writers don’t really care about people like you. The problem can be easily remedied by centering non-white stories and getting non-white writers. Just look at Luke Cage. But live-action superhero media doesn’t seem to be largely interested in that. Instead they’d rather lean back on their white bread protagonists and white-washed politics, while getting props for doing the bare minimum in portraying white women and black cishet men.

Everything is the same and none of it good

My experiences with the DC Expanded Universe have been much less dramatic. Once upon a time I was excited about Man of Steel. I heard that the movie was bad and then saw for myself. Rinse and repeat with Batman vs Superman but with less excitement, and eventually Suicide Squad’s theatrical cut.

This franchise is another beast entirely. The DCEU’s problem isn’t that its darker parts are buried under the good. It’s that the movies aren’t that good, and the people in charge of making them refuse to make them better.

Adding more heroes doesn’t count.

Man of Steel was a perfect portent of things to come. The movie tried to mimic the tone of The Dark Knight Trilogy, for no other reason than the TDK trilogy was good, so doing that should make MoS good too. There was no thematic reason for it to look or feel that way. Its editing made no sense, and the movie’s morals were all mixed up.

While BvS did justify the tone, it still suffered from moral issues and a nonsensical plot. Suicide Squad tried to break the mold, but that movie got chopped to pieces until it was something else entirely. The only reason Justice League is happening so soon is because of the success The Avengers. Having the team movie happen before the entire team is introduced takes away from the development of the individual members. Batman was lucky to come out of BvS as well off as he did.

The DCEU didn’t fall apart for me. It’s more that the franchise never put itself together. They try to leech off of more successful films and hope for the best. When that inevitably fails, rinse and repeat for the next one instead of trying to improve. If I was as invested with this franchise as I was with Marvel, I would be infuriated. Where is the creativity? Or, at least, the effort?

What can they do?

The various companies making these movies have got to do better. If more people go the way I have, their mega-franchises (and wannabe mega-franchises) will be in big trouble. They’ve got to be more sensitive, more aware, and more creative. Otherwise the entire superhero genre in film and TV is going to suffer from serious seasonal rot, and who knows how (or if) it will recover.

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers.

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