Spencer’s Soapbox: Stop Calling Superhero Movies Realistic

Shared Universe Continuities Isn’t the Mark of Success

(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in to the latest installment below and check out the previous ones by clicking here.)

There was a time not that long ago when two buzz words were used on every new superhero movie, “Grounded” and “Realistic.” Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” movies started the trend, despite their inclusion of fear-inducing toxin, tank-like cars driving on rooftops, and an entire city in America being held hostage for months. After the success of those films (which arguably was not because they were “grounded”), everyone and their mother wanted to make “realistic” heroes. The entire reason Sony rebooted the Spider-Man franchise was to make it “grounded and realistic” yet they went ahead and included the Lizard as their first main villain and then put Paul Giamatti in a suit of Rhino armor in the sequel. None of these movies were realistic, and if they ever were that’s not why audiences loved or hated them.

Recently, Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Kevin Tsujihara said the following: “The key thing is that the movies and the television shows and the games, everything looks very different… you have to be able to take advantage of the diversity of these characters.” That’s smart. This shows that, despite what some might think, WB and DC Entertainment have a plan. They’re ready to embrace the scope of the DCU instead of trying to make every character mimic a successful Batman franchise. Tsujihara also said this: “The worlds of DC are very different. They’re steeped in realism, and they’re a little bit edgier than Marvel’s movies.” I won’t argue that maybe the DCU films are edgier, especially after Superman snapped General Zod’s neck, but on what planet are stories featuring a flying hero, greek gods, underwater kings, space cops, and faster than bullet runners “steeped in realism?”

Now this isn’t a dog pile on DC, because I like their content and I get where they’re coming from with these nonsense labels. Things like “Arrow” and Man of Steel were approached not from the “What if the hero was realistic?” question but the “How does the world respond?” question. This certainly makes sense from a writing and world-building stand point and the DNA of it can clearly be seen in these things. Once the writers remembered they were writing a character that shoots lasers out of his eyes or carries around a boxing-glove arrow, they have to let it go. Showcasing a proper military response in a movie about alien invaders still doesn’t make it realistic, if it did then Mars Attacks! would be considered realistic.

Another recent example is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was sometimes referred to as being “grounded.” It makes sense in the writing of the film which hinges on a Big Brother-esque storyline, something that is in fact in the news on a regular basis. It’s also about not one but two characters from the 1940s who survived for decades by being literally frozen. Lest we forget the inclusion of The Falcon, Arnim Zola as a computer, and the three co-ordinated helicarriers. The upcoming reboot of Fantastic Four has been described using these terms too. I’m sure they’re referring to the outlandish science of the movie and the character’s relationships and family dynamics, but this is also a movie with a girl that can turn invisible and a rock person.

“Grounded” and “Realistic” have no meaning anymore. They’ve been destroyed. Filmmakers and producers rely on them to keep fan interest, but they add no substance to the conversation or even in the production of these things. Studios think this is what audiences want to hear, but it isn’t. Last year featured some of the least realistic superhero movies in recent memory. All told it dwarfed the previous year’s superhero movies in terms of box office and in fact set records with almost all of them. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the highest debut of an April release (and out-grossed its predecessor by $344 million), X-Men: Days of Future Past is the highest grossing “X-Men” movie by nearly $300 million, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was the highest-grossing “Turtles” movie by $280 million, Big Hero 6 was the highest-grossing animated movie of the year, and Guardians of the Galaxy is the biggest Marvel Studios debut film ever.

Marvel Studios made $1.5 billion on a movie about The Avengers fighting aliens and they’re about to do similar business in a movie where they fight an army of robots. As a studio they’re totally complacent in creating “non-realisitic” movies and in fact flaunt the fantastical of their films in the trailers. And guess what? The audience doesn’t care. Entertain us, make us laugh, makes us cry, show us something we can’t see in the real world, that’s why we go to the movies! Make good movies with fun characters and cool visuals that can make us smile and forget about our problems. Realistic superhero movies are dead, they were killed by a talking raccoon with a machine gun.