Superheroes Bore Me

I’ve mentioned quite often in posts, and in comments to posts, is that I’m quite bored by superhero movies. Somehow though I’ve never been moved to post about exactly why in detail. A few recent conversations about it made me realize it might make a good Sunday Sermons post.

The thing is that it does go beyond being just bored. There is a cultural aspect to it that’s gotten under my skin more and more. It has to do with the massive violence and destruction inherent in these movies and with a fundamental aspect of these comic book superhero stories.

They center on fighting, and I’ve never been a fan of it.

I’ve never much liked war movies, for example, although there are some that rise above it by putting the war in the background and being good stories about people. (The Sand Pebbles is one example; one I’ve blogged about.)

I’ve also never really gone for westerns, although there are many more exceptions than for war movies. The western is such a major part of American life — almost the quintessential American story — and there are many outstanding westerns.

There is also that there isn’t so much killing in westerns as in, or at the least implied by, war movies. (Ironically, westerns do have enough killing that most believe the “wild wild west” really was that way.)

A bigger exception for me is martial arts movies. I went through a phase of being really into them, and I still enjoy them. For one thing, killing isn’t a huge aspect of these, and — as in murder mysteries — it’s usually treated with horror and as a motivation (often revenge in martial arts films; solving the case in mysteries).

The other thing about martial arts movies is that the actors are usually trained martial artists — there is a reality to what they do despite the careful and showy choreography. The camera stands back and watches the dance (and a dance is exactly what it is; martial artists are skilled athletes).

Compare that with fight scenes in western movies featuring actors usually lacking any training and which often aren’t even allowed in the fight scenes, which are done by stunt doubles. To conceal the fraud, the filmmakers use tight closeups and fast edits. Often it’s hard to tell what’s even happening.

(One thing that made the Matrix movies so enjoyable is that Keanu Reeves trained, and trained hard, to learn martial arts.)

§

A primary criteria here is the extent to which a story revolves around fighting.

A war movie that focuses on battles, or a western that focuses on gun fights, aren’t as interesting to me as those that focus on people. In fact, most do. Good storytellers understand that what engages are the characters. They are the substance; any fights are just a noisy means to an end.

Martial arts films, because of the skills involved, are a little different. They are often more akin to a form of ballet than anything else. The story can be just a framework on which to hang the performances. Even so, the best martial arts films are the ones with good stories.

Contrast these with superhero movies, which do tend to center on the fighting, but which rarely (if ever) involve the actual skills of the actors. They typically involve the skills of the CGI animators — which is the primary attraction.

There are stories, of course, but those stories are usually utterly ridiculous and can’t survive the merest critical analysis or appeal to logic.

What’s even more ridiculous to me is how often these battles boil down to people punching each other. All those super powers, and it’s just fisticuffs. Very boring and utterly uncreative.

§

A friend compared them to Bugs Bunny cartoons, which I found apt. An even better comparison might be to Road Runner or Tom & Jerry cartoons, which focus on violent conflict between the main characters.

Superhero films have their origins in comic books, which I think is a much better format for them. It keeps them at a distance and helps maintain the level of absurdity.

Modern superhero films are very realistic and immersive. They read like real life. They also take themselves seriously, and I’ve long thought both aspects are part of the problem.

The thing about Road Runner (or other) cartoons is how clearly unreal they are. The violence in them is — literally — cartoonish. No one can have a stick of dynamite blow up in their hand, but it happens in cartoons all the time. We accept it as a silly surreal joke — a gag.

But in superhero films it’s not a gag. (Except in the Deadpool movies, which I rather liked because they don’t take themselves seriously. In those the violence is a gag.)

§

For me the first inklings of concern go back to the first Star Wars movie in 1977. The climax of that movie, and its sequels, is the blowing up of the Death Star. Many have commented on the lost lives of technicians and their families, but the usual reaction of the audience is to cheer.

One might suggest that anyone who worked on the Death Star was somehow complicit, but that first film also involved the blowing up of an entire planet, Alderaan. Darth Vader does that to try to force Princess Leila to talk.

I admit I cheered that opening night at the Death Star’s destruction, but even back in 1977 I was a bit appalled by the destruction of a completely innocent planet.

Imagine a villain nuking an entire city just to force someone to talk.

As time went on and various observers pointed out the implications of blowing up those Death Stars and audiences cheering about it, and I found myself nodding.

That’s a lot of death for my “entertainment” — too much, way too much, for my taste. There is also that I’ve never cared for space battles, which I see as kind of dumb. They’re an attempt to translate war movie fighter pilot battles to space, and it’s silly and boring. If you’ve seen one such, you’ve seen them all.

§

My feelings about this crystalized while watching the big CGI battle in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I began to think about all the CGI death laid out for my “entertainment”— all the CGI widows and children implied by all that CGI death.

Ever since I’ve had a hard time with movies that are realistic, immersive, and meant to be taken seriously, but which feature massive amounts of destruction and death.

The saving grace is a good story. That’s why the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V & VI) still work okay(-ish) for me. For one thing, they broke new ground — they hadn’t become the commodity that are now. For another, the stories are engaging and rather sweetly naïve.

In contrast, episodes I, II, and III, are utter junk — silly and the least believable and most annoying romance ever set to film. Most of what’s followed has a cynical commodity feel and the sense of being created by a committee.

The Hobbit trilogy also had that cynical money-grab feel, and it didn’t have the saving graces of originality or a good story. (Stretching that little book into a trilogy was a profound absurdity.)

§ §

That commodity feel is another reason I find superhero movies so boring. They have huge budgets and need to pull in a huge box office just to break even. As such, they’re designed for mass appeal, which makes them shallow and untextured.

They are essentially just a framework for CGI-gasms, and an excuse for the big battle finale.

Not too long ago I finally saw the first Avengers (2012) film. I was surprised to notice how much like any of the most recent Marvel films it was. For that matter, it wasn’t that different from the first X-Men film in 2000.

That first X-Men film had a budget of $75 million and it earned almost $300 million. The first Avengers film had a budget of $220 million and brought in $1.5 billion. The most recent, Avengers: Endgame (2019), had a budget of $356 million and brought in almost $2.8 billion.

For that matter, the Lord of the Rings trilogy cost $281 million and brought in almost $3 billion. The Hobbit trilogy cost $745 million and also brought in almost $3 billion.

In comparison, Domino’s Pizza, in 2020, had a revenue of almost $4.2 billion.

In contrast, three movies I’ve posted about recently:

  • The Art of Self Defense (2019) — I had a hard time finding a budget figure, but it might be $3 million. It’s brought in $2.4 million, so it hasn’t even broken even.
  • Colossal (2016) — budget of $15 million and a return of only $4.5 million. This one didn’t break even in a big way!
  • Attack the Block (2011) — budget of £8 million and a return of only £4.1 million. Another “failure.” (Currently, £8 million is just under $11 million USD.)

This offends me on two levels. Firstly, that little gems like this lose money, which makes them rare. Secondly, that good stories like these are disdained by the viewing public. It was never more true that there’s no accounting for taste (and, I’m sorry, but most people don’t have any).

On a third level, I find something distasteful about the sheer sums of money involved, and what that all implies, but that’s a topic for another day.

§ §

So far I’ve mentioned the focus on fighting (and damned silly fighting at that) and the violence and destruction involved. There is another aspect that condemns superhero movies in my eyes: the fantasy aspect.

I’ve written before (more than once, and more than twice) about my perception of how our attachment to fantasy of all types seems a form of dangerous soma, a form of lotus-eating.

The problem isn’t the fantasy (or the violence or the fighting or the destruction), itself. The problem comes when we get lost in it, when we lose our grounding in reality. Once again, that great 10-word summary of modern culture by Leon Wieseltier:

“Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”

The problem is that we’ve gotten lost in our own fantasies. We’ve lost our balance in the real world, and I see the consequences of that all around us. From the relatively benign Flat Earthers to the far worse anti-vaxxers to the downright dangerous far right mental cases, it’s all a spectrum of people having lost touch with reality.

It makes me feel the human race is sliding backwards into the dark ages.

Are superhero movies to blame? No, of course not. But I see them as a reflection of our lost minds and infantile childishness. Comic books brought to highly detailed realistic life and treated as something serious.

On some level the implications disgust me a little, but overall I just don’t find them interesting (a Big Sin in my book). They wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so huge and if fantasy bullshit wasn’t such a major part of everyone’s diet.

Junk food is fine in moderation, but living on it will kill you. Likewise, living on junk food for the mind will kill your mind.

Stay grounded in reality, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

17 responses to “Superheroes Bore Me

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Okay, that turned into a bit of a rant, but I’m so very dismayed by the current arc of our culture — the effects of which I see every day. Besides, what a good sermon for if not a bit of a rant? 😉

    Truth is, I’m not just bored by superhero films, but just a little put off by them because they’re so childish and empty of substance. They really do seem an indicator of our infantile self-involved cultural mind, plus they center on fighting, which is really the last thing we need these days.

    One way to put it is that I see them as shit-covered raisins, and, as much as I do like raisins, I won’t eat shit for the love of them.

    To emphasize: it’s more the cultural context (the shit covering) that bothers me than the movies themselves, which I see as generally harmless stupid fun.

    They’re amusement park rides, a momentary thrill quickly forgotten, but I think taking them seriously is a Bad Idea.

  • Blue Ice-Tea

    I was with you until you started slamming fantasy as a genre. I actually like superhero movies a lot (and Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings), but I think you make some very good points in this post. I especially liked your point about martial arts movies and how the fighting in them is more fun to watch than in films with a lot of fast editing and CGI.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Oh, I’m not slamming fantasy as a genre! My favorite science fiction series, bar none, is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. What I’m slamming is our culture having become lost in fantasy lotus dreams.

      I’ve been a fan of the Lord of the Rings novels since high school, and have read them many times. I thought Jackson did an outstanding job on the movie version. It’s amazingly close to how I’ve visualized the story all these years, and I’ve seen it several times.

      That said, I see a difference between a battle described in a book and a highly realistic CGI version. It’s not that it turned me against the movie — far from it — but it marks the point where I began to question all the highly realistic death and destruction. Even so, I’m more inclined to be okay with a war between positive evil and positive good that takes place in an obvious fantasy setting and is based on an outstanding and classic story than I am with superhero stories supposedly set in this world and which don’t survive the least critical analysis or logic.

      (FWIW, I meant this post just to be about how and why I find superhero movies boring, but I do have issues with the casual violence that pervades our culture and which we take for granted (but Janet Jackson shows a nipple and the country goes ape shit) and ever since January 6th I also have major issues with our detachment from physical reality.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    When I was younger, I used to take these movies and shows fairly seriously. The problem was I recognized pretty early how problematic they were in terms of reality. I would make up excuses for how the ships in Star Wars could move like airplanes and aircraft carriers despite being in space. (Inertial drives with the “thrust” actually being exhaust.)

    I pretty much did that until my late 30s, then realized I was trying too hard to make these things work realistically. That’s when the Bugs Bunny analogy first occurred to me. The trick was not to take them seriously, even when they themselves did. (There are limits. A movie which layers the seriousness too thick breaks the strategy, at least unless it’s really a serious movie.)

    The problem was that making excuses for the movies or shows was a habit, so I had to develop a new habit to override it whenever I started to do it. That’s when I discovered that I habitually made excuses for a lot more things than movies.

    There’s something to be said for not taking most things in life too seriously.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The trick sometimes is deciding what to take seriously and what not to!

      What you describe about finding excuses is what I came to call Star Trekking it, because I did a lot of filling in the blanks or making such excuses there. By the time Star Wars first came out I was in college and studying filmmaking, so I saw it as the fairy tale it is and just accepted it as fantasy dressed up as science fiction.

      What I never could reconcile was how, in those old space opera movies, when a rocket took off, the flame of the exhaust often bent upwards! Even as a pre-teen kid I’d already seen the real thing in Project Mercury launches by then, so I knew there was something wrong with those 1950s movies.

      As I mentioned in an earlier discussion, and touched on in this post, I can accept just about any premise, but then the storyteller has to remain true to that premise. Lord of the Rings and Star Wars have a certain latitude as fantasies that take place in alternate realities. Conversely, superhero films and Star Trek take place in the “real world” and don’t get that latitude.

      Your tactic of seeing some works as similar to Bugs Bunny is essentially what I do with Fairy Tale but it’s much easier there because it is a cartoon and takes place in a mythical setting.

      Sort of along those same lines, I find superhero cartoons more palatable than the “realistic” movies.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Very few movies get rocket thrust right. To some degree, that’s a factor of what the public will accept. If a movie actually showed what thrust in space looks like, most people would think it was a special effect gone bad. Even most NASA videos show a tapered flame, not the wide spread that actually happens in vacuum.

        It’s similar to sound in space. The thinking being people will assume something’s broken if there’s no sound at all. (In both cases, I tend to think moviemakers underestimate audiences. But I’m open to the possibility that I’m overestimating them.)

        Interestingly, even “live action” superhero movies are heavily animated these days. It’s just that the animation is so realistic we don’t think of it that way. I mostly think of them as high production cartoons.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, there is “dramatic license”, especially with science stuff. There are things that act as recognizable icons so people aren’t distracted or puzzled. As you say, even NASA uses it because, in the case of exhaust, most people have seen what comes out of rocket launches, missiles, and jet engines, but far fewer have observed engines operating in space. Despite actually being correct, the average perception can be that it “looks wrong” — even subliminally.

        In the case of sound, as you say, it can lead people to think the sound is actually broken. As I understand it, when they were doing the title sequence for the original Star Trek they considered not adding the “whoosh” of the Enterprise, but decided the sequence just didn’t play well without it. (I’d have to agree.) Silence worked very well in 2001: A Space Odyssey because it matched the tone of the film. With other things, such as the Trek credits, the sound effects add some energy.

        It’s true that superhero movies are animated, but it’s on the far end of the spectrum of animation styles. They go to great lengths to make it “photo realistic” — as if it had actually been photographed. On the other end of the spectrum is the kind of simplistic animation of cartoons. I’ve mentioned that anime, Fairy Tail. They normally use a fairly simple animation style such as seen in most modern animations. Often they include surreal touches like superimposed emoji symbols. In one of the recent episodes they bumped the style of certain characters to a more realistic drawing style — better shading, more realistic outlines — and even had other characters comment about “Oh, you’re in a more realistic style now!” Cracked me up. One of the things that keeps me watching is the creative touches like that.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        2001 was uncompromising in having extended stretches of time without sound and no music, but that isn’t the only option. I thought the lack of sound worked well in Firefly, Gravity, Interstellar, and Ad Astra. Gravity added music to give a surreal feel to the destruction taking place as the debris hit. Same thing in Ad Astra for the battle scene on the moon. It’s all in the execution.

        It reminds me of the Jurassic Park depiction of dinosaurs. If they had depicted them as paleontologists now see them, audience wouldn’t have accepted it, or so the reasoning goes. Again, I think it would have depended on how it was executed.

        It’ll be interesting to see if The Expanse has any effects on how spaceflight is portrayed in media SF. It’s not without its problems. (The Epstein drive is widely recognized as magic.) But it’s still a giant improvement over most movies and shows.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I still haven’t seen Interstellar or Ad Astra, but based on everything I’ve heard I can’t say I’m chomping at the bit, although I’d certainly watch them (at least Interstellar) if they showed up on one of my streaming platforms. I never noticed Firefly one way or the other. I’m currently re-watching it again — about halfway through. I’ll have to pay more attention.

        I can’t recall where I saw this, but fairly recently there was a quip that, if Stanley Kubrick had been assigned by the government to fake the Moon landing, he would have insisted on shooting it on location. 🙂

        As you point out in mentioning Gravity, Interstellar, Ad Astra, and The Expanse, verisimilitude is becoming more important in SF space films. Some of that is fan pressure. YouTuber Scott Manley has been once voice criticizing films for bad depictions, and one of his recent videos talks about how he was brought in to help make an upcoming film (Stowaway) more authentic.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think you’re right about fans growing more demanding. I enjoyed the show Dark Matter, but it felt old school in its depictions compared to The Expanse. It’s notable that Dark Matter failed while The Expanse succeeded, aside from its near death experience because SyFy sucks. Of course, Dark Matter failing was probably also because SyFy sucks since they kept Killjoys, which was just as unrealistic.

        I had serious issues with both Interstellar and Ad Astra, but I think they’re both worth watching, just for the visual experience if nothing else.

        I hadn’t heard of Stowaway. Interesting. And it’s about to be released on Netflix. Netflix originals seem like more misses than hits, but it definitely looks like it’ll be worth checking out.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Stowaway looks to feature some interesting space flight stuff. It involves a space craft in a fixed elliptical orbit such that it intersects with both Earth and Mars. Getting to Mars, or back to Earth, involves hitching a ride when orbits intersect. The transport system features modules connected by cables and rotating about a common center to provide some gravity during the trip. Scott Manley apparently had a fair bit of input on its design.

        I need to get around to watching Dark Matter again. It wasn’t great, but I remember enjoying it, especially the android.

  • Michael

    A good war movie, Wyrd, in my opinion, is The Thin Red Line. Have you seen that one? It’s pretty long, but it’s one of my favorites.

    Also, recently I started listening to an Ezra Klein podcast interview with Ted Chiang, a sci fi writer I wasn’t familiar with. He’s on my list for the near future to check out. At any rate, Chiang made an interesting point early in the podcast I thought was interesting, about super heroes. He said, if you think about it–(which I haven’t really, haha)–super heroes are generally used to defend the status quo, and that’s why he doesn’t like them. They have these crazy extravagant skills or whatever, but they generally defend existing or received narratives about the world and don’t create genuine societal transformation. I thought it was an interesting observation…

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I don’t know anything about The Thin Red Line. What makes it one of your favorites?

      I haven’t read a lot of Ted Chiang’s work, but his short story, Story of Your Life, blew me away. As you probably know, it’s the basis of the movie Arrival, which I thought was excellent. The short story is even better in how it explores the notion that knowing the future doesn’t necessarily make life boring. As with the performance of a well-known play, sometimes the magic is in the performance, not the mystery of “what will happen next?”

      It brings to mind how children love watching the same same movie over and over (and over and over). Or like hearing the same bedtime story every night. (To tie this to the other post, my thought it that their lives are filled with constant novelty, so they like experiencing something familiar and known. It gives their developing minds a rest.)

      • Michael

        Ted Chiang is definitely on the list. I loved the movie Arrival so look forward to reading some of his stories…

        As to The Thin Red Line, it’s hard to say. I think it’s a movie with a lot going on, with commentary on life and war and all sorts of things. In a way it’s an exploration of some pretty deep themes about meaning and life dressed up as a war movie. But it has so many moving parts and somehow it just lands with me…

        Yes, I can watch movies I love over and over, too. It’s sometimes just the sensation it evokes and not the uncertainty about what’s going to happen, you know? Like, I can’t explain it, but I can watch the race scenes from the Secretariat movie over and over, too, and I think it’s just the feeling it evokes of overcoming, enduring, flying into the heart of things or something. And it’s the feeling I love, and it can be evoked again and again–as long as I don’t watch it on repeat or something, because then it becomes too much and just sort of crumbles. Like repeating the same word over and over until it’s utterly meaningless… 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s interesting to me that some things, such as songs or poems or paintings, we experience over and over without fatigue. Same with ocean waves, camp fires, and clouds. Other things, books or movies especially, we typically only experience once or a few times. (Except for those beloved books or films we revisit many times.)

        (Speaking for myself, there are many more books I revisit than films. It takes something pretty special to make anything worth many visits. That said, I think good work generally benefits from reading or seeing twice, especially if the plot has twists.)

        I think it has to do with how much we can bring to the table. Songs and so forth are all abstract enough to allow for reflection. We see ourselves in art, and the less concrete it is, the easier that is. (The canonical ink blots!) Something with a strong narrative is more likely to be one-and-done unless something about the content or style really grabs. (Although, again, if it’s any good, it’s probably worth a second go, but who has the time?)

        In comparison, how many times have I heard those Fleetwood Mac tunes? I still love’m!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Watching the third season of Black Lightning on Netflix the past week reminded me once again that, yep, live action superhero shows just don’t do much for me.

    Along the same lines, I watched the first season of Invincible on Amazon Prime. The show is based on the comic. I was hoping for something either very comic or very deconstructive, but the series is semi-standard modern superhero business. Very gory with a fair bit of killing, but otherwise basically kinda Eh!

  • Tons of TV | Logos con carne

    […] me another issue is the whole superhero thing, which I am so over. Part of the problem is the fundamental absurdity of superheroes. The superhero-with-family trope […]

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