Why is it that many superhero movies and comics that focus on the awesome character fail to make it past issue 9 (or a very ill-made, and ill-funded, sequel)? The reason is because superheroes are reactive characters. They aren’t meant to be the action takers.
Since their first appearance in the dark ages of the early 1900’s, superhero stories have followed a formula: a threat puts people in danger, the hero learns about the threat and then shows up and neutralizes it. The hero didn’t take any story action other than deciding to go help.
The superhero genre, at its core, is full of plot-driven stories. And that’s a good thing.
I feel there needs to be an exception stated at this point: origin stories. Origins usually have a reactive element in the same way that every other story has, but they’re also full of character driven action as the hero makes decisions to act in ways that ordinary people wouldn’t – this is the moment we get to see them become heroes.
Why are origin stories different?
Think about the differences in the Batman and Iron Man movie franchises.
So many people love Batman Begins and Iron Man 1. Their favorite heroes are on screen in amazing ways. “There has never been a superhero movie (better/more accurate) than this,” fans say. But what changed with the second and third movies? Many comic book fans say they didn’t like Iron Man 2 or 3 (I loved them, for the record), but those same fans say that The Dark Knight is possibly the best superhero movie of all time.
Why did Batman work with the fans while Iron Man had mixed reviews with diehard fans? Because we already knew Batman’s story. It was told in the first movie. In fact, it was the only Batman movie that was about Batman. In the second movie we get to see a story about Batman’s villains. This may also be the reason that Batman’s villains are often given such high regard – they have whole movies made about them.
Iron Man was rightfully about Iron Man. We needed to learn his story, who he is, why he does what he does. But we knew all that going into the second movie. What’s different in the second and third movies? The new tech and the new threat. Let’s see that! Instead we get to see more into the head of Tony Stark (which is awesome, but then Iron Man movies are a different type of movie than Batman, they’re more about Tony’s arc of character growth, which the Batman movies tried to include but everyone was more interested in the villains).
Unless the subsequent movies are solely about the character’s growth, like Iron Man 3, a hero almost always needs to be reactive to make future stories compelling.
So, after the first story arc of a comic book/movie, do we need to see a reactive character forever?
No. While it is a successful formula that has carried franchises such as Batman and Spider-man on for decades, it isn’t necessary, provided there are other elements at play.
What are the exceptions?
- Origin stories (as already pointed out, this is when we learn why the hero is a hero. I has to be about them).
- Stories about how difficult it is, or what it means, to be a hero (this is the premise of Arrow, the TV show about Green Arrow that is fantastic for many, many reasons).
- Investigative stories (many Batman comics use this method to keep the focus on Batman and not on the villains).
- Value testing (when the hero’s values are to be tested, and that is the climax of the story, the villain can remain a side-element).
- Team-ups (the focus is on the interaction between the heroes. Villains become the glue that sticks them together).
There may be others, but the crux of it is this: if it’s about the hero, it better show something new (BIG and new). If it’s just about the hero with a new love interest/complication and maybe getting some new technology, those are called sub-plots. Shift the focus on what is complicating that love interest (or threatening the new one) and what the hero will need that new technology for. This is why The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 worked so well. Now that we know about the hero, tell us a story about a villain who would test their resolve. Who would put them through hell and show us their absolute limits. Show us what it takes, and means, to be a hero.
In the end, the subject of a superhero story is not the hero, nor the villain. It’s the human condition. It’s about the choices we make and why we make them. It’s about us.