Super-Heroes Are Faking It

Every super-hero movie requires a significant suspension of disbelief, but in 1978 when director Richard Donner brought “Superman” to the silver screen he infused the movie with considerable believability by imagining the Man of Steel’s Metropolis as a thinly-veiled version of late-twentieth century New York City. When the character defied gravity and soared over his adopted city, what laid below him was that uniquely beautiful, earthbound constellation of lights that is the Manhattan skyline — even including, during one sequence, the Statue of Liberty. In his secret identity of Clark Kent he clumsily made his way through the unmistakable congestion of midtown Manhattan to report to work at the real-life headquarters of The Daily News, which stood in for the fictional Daily Planet. Arch-nemesis Lex Luthor’s underground lair was an abandoned wing of the iconic Grand Central Terminal. Superman apprehended a burglar scaling the famous Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street. And so on.

Of course it’s not necessary to film absurdist fantasies — and super-hero movies are nothing if not that — in real locations, but imparting some sense of reality in these films can add so much, as they did for Donner. It’s fine to watch a super-human character negotiating an unreal world, but it’s more thrilling, more engaging, more entertaining to watch a super-human character negotiating a world that looks something like the world we know — the real world.

Getting Unreal

I saw “Captain America: The First Avenger” last night and it opts for the more contemporarily familiar strategy of a world that is conveniently not very much likes ours at all. It tells the story of character so unrealistic his only problem is he can’t do enough good for his country, and compounds that dramatic hindrance by constructing a reality around him that’s thoroughly fake.

Ostensibly set during the Second World War, very little in the movie looks, feels, smells or tastes like the first half of the 1940s. Of course, there are nods to the style and fashions and objects of that time period, but the sets amount to little more than blatantly CG-enhanced versions of Disney’s Main Street, and the movie is riddled with anachronistically fantastical technology — ray-gun blasters stolen from “Star Trek,” steampunk-style computer screens and Reagan-era stealth aircraft. At one point, when the film’s timeline fast forwards to present day, its actors are sloppily green-screened against the backdrop of contemporary Times Square and it feels as if the filmmakers just can’t be bothered to mask the utter phoniness of their enterprise.

It’s no secret that these elaborate evasions of reality are a result of Hollywood’s depressingly low opinion of audiences. Judging by box office receipts, moviegoers seem not to care much whether these worlds resemble our own or not. Or perhaps more to the point, they really enjoy this brand of spectacular mediocrity that has no regard for dramatic tension rooted in recognizably human landscapes. Pyrotechnics and noise and adrenaline without honest magic suits them just fine.

For my part, I find “Captain America” and its ilk to be alienating and sad, mostly because I care for genre films so much and believe they can be so much better. But, as many readers will no doubt agree, I’m probably guilty of harboring unrealistic expectations — there may never be a “Godfather”-level artistic triumph in the super-hero genre (and not even Christoper Nolan’s ambitious but overpraised “Dark Knight” comes close), and to hope for one is childish. But if you can’t indulge your inner child and your sense of hope at the movies, then it’s a grim time.



  1. Khoi, nice write up. I think the Marvel way seems to suspend reality for all these worlds to intersect and come together. I enjoyed the movie, isn’t good for us enjoy a sense of what it could have been 🙂

    But i think Dark Knight has been a closer resemblance to what you are referring to. It was the one the movie in this genre that felt like it could happen in our reality…

    glad to read your take and hope that more speak out against these type of movies to help them get better.

  2. The first X-Men movie was groundbreaking in that it seemed to start a recent shift towards better story-telling in superhero movies. Nolan’s Batman trilogy picked up the baton and has taken it as far as any superhero movie before or since. Unfortunately, it seems like ever since X-Men, the decision-makers behind the Marvel movies have made a conscious effort to move towards bling and mediocrity. I still don’t understand why everyone was so hyped up about the first Iron Man movie—it was subpar and borderline ridiculous. It’s looking more and more like Nolan’s Batman is the exception and not the new rule. I like mindless entertainment more than most, but not the exact same mindless entertainment several times each summer.

  3. I have more in-depth comments about this article, which I don’t have time for at the moment, but I would like to point out that the actors weren’t “sloppily green-screened against the backdrop of contemporary Times Square.” That scene was filmed on location. I witnessed some of it.

  4. Certainly, Nolan’s Batman feels absolutely rooted in a mildly fantastical alternate version of Chicago. If you’ve ever lived in Chicago or are familiar with the city, the game of spotting how Gotham’s geography matched up or was re-imagined based on Chicago’s was quite fun and lent a realistic gravitas to those films.

    I think it really depends on where and how these films execute their surroundings and realities. I caught Thor in the theater and while it was set in a small town in New Mexico, it felt refreshing and surprisingly down-to-earth compared to the God-realms of Asgard scenes which were ridiculously Skittles over-the-rainbow-like.

  5. Khoi, I’m curious what you thought of Unbreakable, which was, for me, the closest we’ve come to “a super-human character negotiating a world that looks something like the world we know.”

  6. I have to point out one error in your post: there was no sloppy green-screening in Times Square, they filmed it directly there. I watched them do it.

    Photos here.

  7. I think super-heroes aren’t just to entertain us. There is always the underlying burden of responsibility that these heroes want us to bear, just like he is. Perhaps this underlying reality makes the movie makers want to base their movies in real cities and real incidents.

  8. As a British kid growing up in the 1970s, Superman’s New York city seemed as fantastical and unreal as the characters inhabiting it.

    On the other hand, Captain America’s New York seems very solid and familiar – if only because many of those scenes were filmed right here in Manchester.

  9. I stand corrected regarding the Times Square scene. Even though it was filmed on location, I swear parts of that scene look like they were green screened (and probably were). But even if there was no green screen involved, it just goes to show that in a movie like this — where the point is to get you to believe in something unreal — even the real stuff ends up looking fake.

  10. I couldn’t agree with you more Khoi.

    That being said, I would like to point out, as someone who grew up with comics and couldn’t wait to get to the local convenience store to get the newest issues (yeah, that long ago 🙂 ) Is anyone really that surprised? This is EXACTLY what Marvel has done for over 60+ years, only the medium has changed.

    There are at least 5 Spider-Man titles, and quite often one top notch creative team on the flagship title “Amazing Spider-Man” then, some lesser talented folks on the other 5… and throughout “Amazing..” are all sorts of asterisks… tying in a part of dialogue from one of their other ‘less’ cared about titles. Now those people on those other titles care very deeply, and I am sure work very hard, but there is a clear division of the quality. The movies are that same model taken to film. Based on the box office returns, it’s not changing anytime soon either.

  11. Really, he’s one of the most uneventful characters in the comic book universe. This movie couldn’t help but be a paint by numbers experience as the source material isn’t that strong. Exception was when Kirby was drawing the pencils in the 70s w/the Falcon side kick.

    Also, anyone w/half a brain knows your little rebuttal on the Unsolicited Redesigns bit is in response to Andy Rutledge. Guy is a prick, call him out on it.

  12. Hi Khoi,

    I generally agree with your take on the current superhero movie, although I’d have to disagree about Captain America, because I think they got a lot right. Granted I have a pretty big tolerance for these movies, having spent my early teens consuming comics and movies, and wishing they could put something that resembles a “real” comic book up on screen.

    Most great action movies are about super heroics (James Bond, Indiana Jones) – but the current slew of Marvel and DC properties are literally comic book movies, with all the necessary baggage of adaption. I agree they fail by comparison to the excellent Superman, but the difference, I’d argue, is that Richard Donner crafted his film in the familiar (and nostalgic) style of a Hollywood movie musical- with goofy Clark Kent changing his identity like Danny Kaye might break out a song. Superman had incredible power as a love story, but the villains and threats were used often for comedic effect. As well, there is a reason the character Superman has endured in the American psyche like Mickey Mouse, he represents the everyman who can be anything. He requires little introduction to a general audience.

    In Captain America – the lasers sucked, and the Norse myth/Cube business was shoehorned in to hold the Marvel movies together, but honestly- none of it was cheesier or more preposterous than what was in comic books of the 40’s (and Jack Kirby had a hand in all of it over 4 decades). I wish the Red Skull had more depth, but I loved him on screen. Character-wise, I had never found much personality in the comic book CA – but I thought they hit all the beats of making him sincere and human, and I bought the love story. Finally, it looks like a lot of the stealth planes and outlandish technology were based on 3rd Reich concepts and drawings (which makes the Reagan era overtones a little more ominous). As you can tell, I was charmed by the movie, and that’s probably the teenager in me who’s happy they can, and do get these images up on screen.

  13. I enjoyed Captain America but then I am a big comic book fan. I didn’t think it was fantastic though, just pretty good, the main issues being that yes it does try to appeal to the “family” audience and sacrifices a lot of depth and grit to achieve it.

    I’d highly recommend reading the Ultimates comics – they portray a very unique vision of Captain America!

  14. Haven’t seen it, but I will. I think my relatively high tolerance for mediocrity in these films is that they often get *something* right, something spot-on. And perhaps in collecting these experiences, these moments of near-sublimity among hours of muck, we get what we want or something close to it: an augmentation of our imagination. One more set piece for the world in our heads.

    That said, and with a usually unflinching dedication to finish any book or movie I start, looking for some scrap of Quality (per Pirsig), I tried to watch _Jonah Hex_ last night. It has Malkovich, and Brolin. And Megan Fox was hotter before, but is still nice to look at. But Brolin and Malkovich were cardboard at best, and for all her natural good looks and not-so-gentle makeover, Megan Fox was utterly boring. I dropped out a half-hour in, and that was a stretch.

    Give me the third _Resident Evil_ movie (arguably better than tangentially related) or either _Iron Man_. (Ugh to the first two _X-Men_ movies, the only two I watched).

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