How Superhero Movies Lost Their Humanity

Too self-serious (The Dark Knight) or too bloated (The Avengers), the genre's last great film was Spider-Man 2. What happened?

Spider-Man 2 opens and closes with those blue eyes. They belong to Mary Jane Watson, the girl Peter Parker wants but can’t have, because superheroes don’t have time for that. Between these shots the camera spins from train tops to minivans to montages set to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” The movie is never about bombs or bluster or universe-building. It’s about a boy who loves a girl.

“You want to get some chow mein?” he says, a limp attempt to save his world.

“Peter, I’m getting married.”

Sam Raimi’s film is like a pop-up comic book, vibrant and loud. The webslinger (played by Tobey Maguire) broods in melancholy and monologue like an emo teenager, yet the movie itself doesn’t wallow in self-seriousness like The Dark Knight. The fight scenes are intimate, an outward expression of Peter’s feelings. Doctor Octopus, the poetry-quoting bad guy, doesn’t want to destroy the world—at least not more than a few blocks of Manhattan—he’d rather hurt the one girl Peter cares about.

For much of the movie Spider-Man isn’t even in costume—like when an unmasked Peter stops a runaway train with his back, the weight of the world pushing down on him. Spider-Man 2 isn’t without flaws—James Franco doesn’t have much to do but gel his hair—yet it’s arguably the best superhero film in the genre’s short history.

Eleven years later, what went wrong with the superhero movie?

“It’s become convoluted corporate destinies,” Miles Millar told me. He and Alfred Gough wrote Spider-Man 2’s story (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay author Michael Chabon is also credited, with a fraction of his draft making it to the film). “Instead of a compelling movie, something which is complete within itself, other agendas are at play, which makes these movies feel less like movies and more like TV shows or product placement for toys. They’ve literally become not about finding the dramatic core or the emotional stake for the characters.”

So if nerd rage gave us the ability to travel in time and kill the monster that has become these comic book movies, perhaps we’d go back to 1991 and slap the Warner Brothers executive who demanded that there be two villains in Batman Forever. Or maybe we’d go to 2006 and tell Marvel that there’s no way to pump out seven quality movies before unveiling The Avengers. Or maybe we’d just zip into 2016 and tell Zack Snyder to not mess things up.But alas, superpowers aren’t a real thing and there’s no way to really revisit the days of future past. So here we are, and Batman is so profoundly sad. And he should be. Not only is he going to share the screen with Superman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Robin, Aquaman, and Cyborg, but Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sounds less like a film and more like a money-laundering scheme.

“You’d think that Superman and Batman being in a movie together would be enough,” said Millar. “It’s the curse of The Avengers, which is like, slam as many people in there.”

“I call it property damage,” said Gough. “How many cities can we crush and how many times can we save the world? You know, it gets a little mind-numbing.”

Mind-numbing is a billion-dollar industry. This is what the next five years looks like: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Fantastic Four, Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, Gambit, Doctor Strange, Wolverine sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Fantastic Four 2, Wonder Woman, Marvel/Sony’s Spider-Man, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League Part 1, The Flash, Avengers: Infinity War Part 1, Black Panther, Aquaman, Captain Marvel, Shazam, Avengers: Infinity War Part 2, Justice League Part 2, Inhumans, Cyborg, Green Lantern.

Don’t be fooled by the studios and audiences’ commitment, because not everyone is happy. Shortly before Guardians of the Galaxy, a fresh adaptation of an old comic (basically the love child of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, whose best character is a tree that says three words), superhero fatigue was a real thing. This was spawned by the disastrous The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a film which ambitiously cast a black actor, Jamie Foxx, as the bad guy, painted him white like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, and gave him the motivations of Jim Carrey’s Riddler. He said things like, “It’s my birthday, now it’s time for me to light my candles!”

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In an essay titled “Things Crashing into Other Things: Or, My Superhero Movie Problem,” Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the genre is “where imagination goes to drown itself,” and that the “post-Iron Man Marvel films have honed the soft bigotry of low expectations into a science, to the point where every new movie coasts on an initial burst of mild audience surprise.” The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson said that studios are fine with making relentlessly average movies, while audiences are fine with that, too. And Grantland’s Wesley Morris lamented: “It’s a shame that comic-book movies are now where a lot of the Hollywood action genre resides. That emphasis on action misses the point of what else is great about comic books—the narrative trapdoors, the allegories, the shadings of these characters that take place over 30 illustrated pages.”

In other words, generic action without emotional heart can be kryptonite to movies. Especially when your protagonist wears tights.

“You’ve sort of got very glib and cartoony in the worst,” said Millar. “We used to hear the word ‘comicbooky,’ which is always a disparaging word. I think ultimately I look at these movies and guess what? They’re now comic-booky and I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

“They’ve become pieces in a bigger machine,” said Gough. “And I think sometimes the movies can start to feel like wallpaper.”

Gough and Millar entered the superhero universe in 2001 with television’s Smallville, a teen drama about Superman’s origin. In those pioneer days, Bryan Singer’s X-Men was the only thing they had to show the “very nervous head of the studio” that a superhero story could be compelling. Back then, the studios were wondering if this genre was actually sustainable, or just lucky. (It had been a few years since George Clooney’s nipple-suit in Batman & Robin.)

Liberated from the origin story a few years later, Gough and Millar explored who Spider-Man was behind the mask. Turns out great power and great responsibility is such a downer. Peter loses his job delivering pizza. He’s flunking out of school. The suit is itchy and rides up in the crotch. And forget about love.

Spider-Man 2’s best scenes between Peter and Mary Jane punch harder than any diabolical goon. “That’s good, companionship,” mumbles Peter, finding out that Mary Jane has a boyfriend. “I’m with John, he'll get me my drink,” Mary Jane barks at him.

And in the film’s climax, Mary Jane sees Peter unmasked for the first time as he holds up a wall from crushing her.

“Hi,” he says. “Hi.”

“This is really heavy.”

Gough and Millar don’t dislike all superhero blockbusters: Batman Begins, Iron Man, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and X-Men: Days of Future Past stand above the rest. The Avengers, they said, successfully crammed so much in two hours, mainly because audiences were force-fed a history with the characters in the years before. (As for the fanboy darling The Dark Knight, Gough and Millar said it was a “hot mess” with plot holes and bloated second acts and that it was elevated by Heath Ledger.)

So how does this end? With reading generally in decline, does the soul, for lack of a better word, of comic book characters reside in these bloated “corporate destinies”?

The first superhero blockbuster for those who didn’t grow up reading comic books ends with Spider-Man swinging away, as the camera lingers on those blue eyes. Despite dumping her fiancé on their wedding day for Peter, she’s still sad. She knows dating a superhero is a bad idea. If only MJ knew that the third movie would be an overstuffed flop, that less than 10 years later the franchise would reboot to little applause, and soon after that the studios would reset again. Spider-Man 2’s web was about to snap.