James Bond saves the world sometimes. So does Captain Kirk. But at least in the movies, superheroes don't - they're too busy fighting personal spats. Here's why superheroes on the big screen should save the damn world now and then.
High stakes are a crucial part of why we root for a hero. We don't just want the hero to win because we like him or her, but because really bad shit will happen if s/he loses. And high stakes are also a crucial ingredient of the all-important "fuck yeah" moment. The higher the stakes, the greater the triumph when the hero comes through.
But also, there's another reason why higher stakes are often better for a heroic narrative: they make the world seem bigger. The more that's at stake, the more we believe that this hero belongs to a whole world full of real stuff. It's part of world-building, in fact — to convince us that the whole world is at stake, a movie has to show us that world, at least to some extent. Conversely, the lower the stakes, the more claustrophobic and one-horse-town the hero's world is likely to seem.
Plus the higher the stakes, the more noble and altruistic the hero seems. He or she is willing to sacrifice him/herself to save the entire world. You have to award points for that, really. Almost any character flaw or personality tick pales in the face of such nobility. Mother Teresa never stopped Galactus from swallowing up the planet. How many planet-busting bombs did Gandhi defuse? None.
Last, and most important, there's nothing wrong with superheroes being larger than life and having huge, world-shattering adventures. They're superheroes, right?
Every time, it's personal
But if you look at the plots of superhero movies, you see a progression towards smallness. Check it out. Here's a list of what's at stake in major live-action superhero movies:
- Superman. Lex Luthor wants to cause a giant earthquake, destroying a big chunk of California, to boost his real estate scheme.
- Superman II. Three members of Superman's own race show up and try to take over the world, and Superman has to save the world from them.
- Batman. The Joker threatens to lure the population of Gotham out into the streets, then kill tons of people with his Joker gas. Batman saves Gotham City from the Joker.
- Batman Returns. The Penguin runs for mayor of Gotham City, and when he loses, he schemes to steal the city's first-born sons, and then later to blow it up using penguins with rocket launchers. I think. I'm not saying it makes sense, but the stakes are high. Batman saves Gotham City from destruction again.
- Batman Forever. I'm really not sure, to be honest.
- Batman And Robin. Ummm... Mr. Freeze tries to freeze Gotham.
- X-Men. Magneto plans to use a machine to turn world leaders into mutants.
- Unbreakable. There's a huge twist, and it turns out Mr. Glass has killed a lot of people, so the hero stops him.
- Spider-Man. The Green Goblin takes a tram car full of children hostage, and Spider-Man saves them.
- Daredevil. The Kingpin, uh, wants to go on being the Kingpin. And kill Daredevil.
- X-Men 2. Professor X is mind-controlled to use Cerebro, first to kill all mutants on Earth and later to kill all humans.
- The Hulk. Bruce Banner fights his dad, who's a jerk. Also, the army sends some helicopters.
- The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The mysterious "M" wants to start a world war and supply super-powered weapons to both sides.
- Spider-Man 2. Otto Octavius, driven mad by his own cybernetic tentacles, plans to set off a doomsday reactor that threatens to destroy New York City. Spider-Man saves the city.
- Batman Begins. Ra's Al Ghul plans to use the Scarecrow's fear gas to poison the entire water supply of Gotham, leading to the entire city's destruction. Batman saves the city.
- Fantastic Four. Uh... the F.F. fight their former friend Doctor Doom, who wants to kill them.
- X-Men: The Last Stand. Magneto teams up with Jean Grey to destroy a facility where a little boy is being used to create a cure for mutants.
- Superman Returns. Lex Luthor plans to raise a new landmass made out of Kryptonite crystals, thus destroying the United States and killing millions of people.
- Ghost Rider. The Devil is seeking a contract for a thousand lost souls, which would enable him to create Hell on Earth and defeat God. Or something.
- Spider-Man 3. Peter Parker's former coworker and the guy who killed Peter Parker's uncle try to kill Peter. They try really really hard.
- Fantastic Four 2. Galactus shows up to devour the Earth, but he's just a cloud. Still, the Earth is in danger.
- Iron Man. Iron Man's old mentor turns out to be supplying weapons to terrorists, and also wants to kill Iron Man. Iron Man succeeds in not dying.
- The Incredible Hulk. The army wants to control the Hulk's power, so they turn a guy into a pseudo-Hulk, and he trashes a couple blocks of Harlem. Property values might take a year or two to recover.
- Hancock. A bank robber whom Hancock stopped tries to kill Hancock in revenge.
- The Dark Knight. The Joker kills a bunch of people and threatens to kill a bunch more, to prove that nobody is incorruptible.
- Watchmen. As in the classic graphic novel, Ozymandias succeeds in destroying New York, to avert a nuclear war. In the big-screen version, though, the destruction is somewhat bloodless and sanitized.
- X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The army wants to control Wolverine's power, so they turn a guy into a super-Wolverine, and he trashes Three Mile Island.
- Iron Man 2. Whiplash wants to tarnish Tony Stark's legacy, in a way too spoilery to reveal here. Suffice to say, the stakes are fairly low.
When you look at it this way, a progression becomes pretty obvious — in recent years, the stories of superhero movies have become smaller and more intimate, and the hero is not just saving the day, he's at the center of events. If you take away the explosions and fight scenes, these movies would be getting shown on the Sundance Channel, because they're fundamentally about a handful of people having conflict amongst themselves.
Thing is, if the hero's main objective is to avoid getting killed or captured by the bad guys, it's perfectly understandable — nobody would want to be exploited by the military, or killed by your former friends, or whatever. It's a reasonable motivation. What it isn't, is heroic.
The bad guy is the hero's friend/uncle/ex-girlfriend/mortgage lender
The root of the problem is something we've ranted about before. The people making movies seem to believe that it makes more sense if they only have to deal with one origin story, for both the hero and the villain. Thus, the villain of a superhero movie increasingly tends to be the hero's best friend, or brother, or dad, or ex-wife.
This was always true, to some extent — the Green Goblin was always the father of Peter Parker's friend Harry Osborn. And Doctor Doom was always a university friend of Reed Richards — but in the comics, the accident that scars Doctor Doom's face isn't the same one that gives the Fantastic Four their powers.
But making the Incredible Hulk fight his own dad just cheapens the character, almost beyond redemption. Seriously. The Hulk doesn't fight his own dad. He fights would-be conquerors from outer space, and giant robots, and mutated sea lizards. The whole reason why the Hulk, who is a terrible monster, becomes a hero is because there are worse monsters out there, and we need the Hulk to fight them. That's the only reason why we care about the Hulk at all, other than feeling vaguely sorry for him when he plays his little piano theme.
I loved some of these recent movies, including Iron Man and The Dark Knight — but by and large, superhero films have been pushing the "small world" thing way too far. The conflict between hero and villain becomes a personal vendetta, with maybe a slim layer of ideology layered on top to make it seem more "relevant."
It's easy to see why this happens — it makes for a more coherent story, at first glance. It's more personal, because the story of the relationship between the hero and the villain is at the center of the movie from the beginning, and we don't need to introduce the villain separately. It makes the whole thing much more sleek and stylized to have the villain of Batman Begins be the guy who teaches Bruce Wayne to be Batman in the first place. But it also makes the hero's world tiny, even claustrophobic.
And even though it seems at first glance like making everything personal increases the intensity of the story, in the end it actually makes things less dramatic. Especially when the stakes are so low. It feels like a personal brawl rather than something that affects lots of people. Superheroes need reasons to become superheroes, other than just having power, and huge, almost unimaginable threats are a big part of that.
So instead of the "supervillain becomes a villain to take down the hero" model, why not do the opposite? There's a huge, terrible villain, who is in the process of doing really awful things and will do even more awful things if not stopped. And the hero, who has some abilities but mostly has raw pluck, puts on a costume and becomes a superhero because if he doesn't stop this huge, massive villain — who is not the hero's uncle — then who will? Because somebody's got to stand up to evil in this world, or evil will win.
Isn't that a better message to send than "Don't let your dad be a jerk to you?" When you see evil threatening to destroy everything, it's up to you to stand up and become the sort of person who fights evil. Because that's what heroes do.