Will 2011 be the year that superheroes break out of their same old formula?

There are more superhero films coming in 2011 than in the past few years put together — but will they all be cookie-cutter super-adventures, or something a bit wilder and more different? Could this be the year superheroes stretch out?

As we showed the other day, there are a lot of escapist thrillrides coming out next year. And the year's superhero films include Green Hornet, Super, Thor, X-Men: First Class, The Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger.

So does that mean we're going to be buried in superheroic cliches, from the reluctant hero to the all-important "with great power" lesson? Is it going to be a flood of samey films in which an ordinary schmoe gets power and then has to grow as a person, finally confronting a supervillain who's his/her mirror image?

Maybe not. What we've learned thus far about this coming year's films makes it seem like we might be tossing the old cookie cutter away.

We were already thinking about this after reading a Guardian article that claims last year's Kick-Ass has "made a profound and lasting impact on the world of comic-book films," by showing that comic-book movies can be more ironic, and a bit self-mocking, without going full-on Joel Schumacher campy.

Will 2011 be the year that superheroes break out of their same old formula?

And then, in a comment on our earlier post about mold-breaking superhero movies, Zack Stentz (co-writer of Thor and X-Men: First Class) wrote:

Superhero movies are already moving away from the conventional "origin story-gain powers-powers are awesome-powers are troublesome-fight villain who's an even more powerful version of the hero" template, which is already beginning to wear thin. The perception at the studios is that 10 years into the latest cycle of superhero movies, audiences are familiar enough with the form that filmmakers don't have to start from scratch and explain what a superhero is in every movie.

The main way they're doing that right now is taking the superhero form and grafting it with other genres.

So Captain America is a World War II drama with superhero elements, X-Men: First Class is a 1960s spy drama with mutant intrigue, Thor is a big mythological Wagnerian opera thingy with superheroics added in. Of the year's big superhero films, the two Greens both seem more like traditional origin stories, where an ordinary guy gets power. But in the case of Green Hornet, it seems to come with a dose of indie slacker comedy, plus there's the whole "pretending to be bad guys" storyline. And in the case of Green Lantern, there's a huge helping of space opera.

As usual, movies are following in the footsteps of comics, which have long since stretched their big-money characters in a million different directions. You can't possibly do something more off-the-wall with DC's characters than DC's own Elseworlds graphic novels, which included Soviet Superman, Victorian Wonder Woman and Hippie Batgirl, among many others. This past year, Grant Morrison gave us Cowboy Batman as well as Pirate Batman and Ultra-Corporate-Franchising Batman.

So will 2011 be the year that superhero movies break the mold once and for all? If I had to guess, I'd say that they're going to stretch the mold, but not break it.

Will 2011 be the year that superheroes break out of their same old formula?

A few things come to mind, after thinking about this. First, superhero movies (and almost all comic-book adaptations generally) are just a subset of action movies, which have their own conventions. And second, superheroes are barely a genre — they're really just a hundred other genres shoved together and wrapped in spandex. Third, superhero stories on film provide a very specific type of escapism that has to be delivered in a pretty specific way.

Taking these one at a time:

1) Superhero movies are just a subset of action movies. This seems pretty obvious, on the face of it, but what it means is that even if superhero films break out of the "origin story" and "grappling with power and identity" bubbles, they're still going to be mostly trapped in another, slightly larger bubble. There'll still be three to five action scenes in the movie, with a big boss battle in the final act. There'll still be the troubled-but-wisecracking hero. People will still walk away from explosions and fall from great heights without any injury. Various modes of transportation will crash or collide with other modes of transportation. There will be an improbably hot chick in a skintight suit, whose only personality trait is that she knows kung fu. Etc. etc. All of which is fine — we love action movies, for the same reason we love horror movies and kung-fu movies, and it's not for the creative storytelling.

If superhero films, in particular, do bring something that's not an ingredient of standard action movies, it's the fact that they talk about the uses and abuses of power — even the Batman films, where he supposedly has no superpowers. We'd love to see a superhero film that takes this theme to some new places.

Will 2011 be the year that superheroes break out of their same old formula?

2) Superheroes are barely a genre of their own. What do the Spectre, the Incredible Hulk, the Punisher, Superman, the X-Men, the Question and Green Lantern have in common? Almost nothing. They don't even all wear costumes, and they don't even all have superpowers. Really, superheroes, as a genre, stand for "larger than life action heroes who either appeared in comics first, or are loosely based on a comic book idea." You'll notice that whenever Hollywood does a superhero film that isn't based on comics, the film-makers are much more careful to adhere to conventions like the costume, the secret identity, the wacky origin, and so on — because otherwise, you won't know this is a superhero at all.

Superheroes are basically pulp heroes, from an era when comics creators were pulling inspiration from every possible source. Vengeful ghosts? Sure! Lensmen? Why not? Alien champions? Sounds good. And so on. The main thing they have in common, apart from having been published first on cheap paper, is the fact that they're generally characters a teenager can identify with and fantasize about being. And they all exist in a zone of heightened reality, not unlike the one occupied by the movie version of James Bond.

So you can't really break the mold too much with a superhero film, or you've just got a generic action movie about people with powers, like Push, or Wanted. Not that that's a bad thing.

Will 2011 be the year that superheroes break out of their same old formula?

3) People want a very specific thing out of superhero films. And it's not that different from what they want out of Harry Potter or Star Wars or Star Trek. It's a particular type of escapism that speaks to their anxieties. And one reason why we love origin stories so much, it seems to me, is because we want to have it reconfirmed for us, over and over, that a nerdy outcast who gets pushed around in school could really become a titan, or a demigod. Or that a regular kid stuck in Kansas could learn to fly. Plus, we want to know why this person chose to do these larger-than-life, crazy things with that power, instead of just using it to get rich and get laid, like we would have. And that choice mostly happens in the first movie, although the second movie often imposes a fake version of that choice via the "hero wants to quit being a hero" trope.

As Gerard Jones writes in the introduction to Men of Tomorrow, the essential book about the origins of superhero comics:

Many of these young men lacked fathers, either in physical fact or in some emotional dimension. Most had not been permitted to grow as children ideally should grow, having been either forced prematurely into the role of an adult or held in the emotional world of early childhood, or sometimes both at once. They played at grownup power and independence early while still nurturing the fantasies of the nursery. They dreamed of tomorrow, but it was a fantasy tomorrow, compounded of boyish science fiction dreams and wild hopes for their own success. To a degree that shocked even them, however, they saw and shaped America's tomorrow.

Their relationships with masculinity, sexuality, power, individuality, violence, authority, and the modern fluidity of the self were so tangled and so heartfelt that their work spoke to the anxieties of modern life more sympathetically, more completely than they could have foreseen in their most inflated summer daydreams.

Those anxieties — about how to be successful, how to be an adult in a confusing world — haven't exactly gone away since, either for society or for the people who grew up reading superhero stories. And those are the anxieties and fantasies that superhero narratives are meant to address. They're power fantasies.

And one other ingredient in the classic superhero story comes to mind — at least since the Silver Age if not earlier, superhero comics are basically soap operas, in which relationship troubles and other real-life challenges interweave with the latest villainous plot to blow shit up. Because of the nature of movies, we're never going to get that level of serialized, arc-driven, soap-operatic stories about Peter Parker's struggles to pay the rent. So a lot of what has made superheroes so compelling on paper can't actually make the jump to the big screen — all that we're left with is the skeleton of the story, the "nerdy outcast becomes a hero" splash page, in widescreen Imax with a thundering soundtrack.

Really, the best we can hope for is that we'll continue to see the occasional superhero movie that rises above the mediocre pack and does what all great action movies — hell, all great movies generally — do: Tell a story that feels unique and yet timeless, in which the action feels like part of the story, and not just set pieces mandated by the toy companies. If we get one really groundbreaking superhero movie in 2011, that'll be a victory for great justice.