Superhero movies are all the same. The same plot. The same characters. Only the names are changed to protect the innocent. It’s gotten to the point where “superhero fatigue” is something we may have to prescribe medication for soon. But I believe this is but one phase in the world’s introduction to the superhero genre, and the original medium, comic books, have already shown us the cure.
I suppose the argument –– “every story in every movie is the same” –– could be made for pretty much any genre. They all follow the same Save the Cat story structure. But, historically, that has never been a problem. How many times have we sat through, and loved, a movie that follows The Hero’s Journey scene for scene?
The problem isn’t with story structure. The problem, as comic books have shown us, is that the style needs a shift to keep it fresh. I’m not talking a tonal shift like what DC attempted with their recent movies, but a shift in style.
Let me explain.
The superhero genre is not defined by people with powers solving problems. If that were the case, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and even The Vampire Diaries would all be considered superhero stories. I won’t offer a definition of what the superhero genre actually is because I feel that the genre has subverted itself often enough to not need one. Or…
Every Story with Powers is a Superhero Story.
Comics have golden ages, silver ages, iron ages, and a bunch of other ages that are defined in different ways by different people. Terms such as four-color and grayscale are often used to describe the types of stories within comic books. What they define are shifts in tone. Four-color comics feature colorful costumes, codenames, and heroes that do not kill. As things move through the grayscale, from four-color to dark, we get more killing, sex, and drug use.
Every ten years or so, comic book sales see a slump as readers get tired of the same thing done over and over again. The first thing to change is tone, going a little darker (or lighter, if the current trend is for dark storylines). That often gets some traction, being different enough to catch our eye. But tonal shifts are a bandaid, as the same style is still being used. It isn’t until the style is changed that you begin to see sales steadily rise, and new sub-genres created.
How do you change the style of a superhero story? You subvert every trope the genre has at the moment. The comics do this every ten-twelve years, and it has kept them going for almost a century.
The Movies Need to Shift Styles
For the last ten years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given us some great four-color movies. Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man have some very shiny costumes, with colorful speech and codenames (except Thor, but even he got a “mortal” name for a minute in the first movie).
When DC jumped on the wagon, they did what every comic company does when they see that something works but may be getting boring: they change the tone. DC had problems with this tonal shift because their characters were the first to define what it meant to be four-color in the first place. Despite that, movies like Wonder Woman and, very likely as I have not seen it yet, Aquaman, work well with this new tone because they are edgier characters who can handle a tonal shift better than, say, Superman.
Even Deadpool and Logan represent tonal shifts that have already begun to run their course. An R-rated superhero movie is still a superhero movie, just with more sex, drugs, and killing.
As superhero movies continue to (unintentionally) follow the traditional shifts we see in comic book history, the next thing we’ll see is style.
What is Style?
I’ve been beating this bush long enough.
Style isn’t how we tell the same superhero stories (that’s tone). Style is what’s being told. Style is the difference between Harry Potter and Doctor Strange. Both use magic, both solve problems, and both save the world. But Harry is a kid in a school fumbling his way through learning magic, while Doctor Strange is the sorcerer supreme, tasked with protecting Earth from extra-dimensional threats.
Another style shift is Star Wars, which really is a superhero story (they also made some of the best comics back in the Clone Wars days). Jedi are super-powered heroes of the Republic.
These are the kinds of style shifts we are going to see from the next stages of superhero movies –– maybe not from Marvel, as they will likely keep the four-color wave alive for a few more years by bringing the X-Men into the MCU.
But over the next two years, we’re also going to see Valiant Comics make their introduction to comic book movie making with titles like Bloodshot and Ninjak. Bloodshot is a super soldier who protects the world from high-technological threats like those that created him, and Ninjak is James Bond, if James Bond were a ninja who took down super-powered weapons dealers.
These kinds of mash-ups of genre create new styles of stories, far more than tonal shifting, which will carry superhero movies into the next stage. Eventually, as movies farther away into other styles of super-powered storytelling, things will return back to four-color superheroes. The fans will long for it, and someone will make a great four-color movie that resurrects the genre, for a time, just like the damned shark movie revival we’re undergoing right now.