The superhero film has come to dominate the box office over the last decade, with many of each year’s most anticipated releases being in the genre.
Last year is a perfect example, with The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers coming out to incredible hype and subsequently doing record-breaking business. As much as the popularity and interest in them has risen (from both Hollywood and the public), the films themselves have relied on largely the same basic formula for decades now. This involves stripping the most fundamental and iconic elements of a character, combining it with well-told origin story, glossy and colourful visuals, lashings of action and special effects, and then a blitz of publicity and marketing aimed mostly and kids and teens.
To date, very few attempts have been made to explore any real depth of the heroes (and villains), or the wider themes that could exist within the story. Hollywood does not yet seem convinced that people will watch movies which use the genre to tackle complex themes and issues. You can understand why to an extent; efforts such as Unbreakable and Watchmen were met with mixed reactions and middling box office returns. But with the current formula essentially having reached its apex with The Avengers, how long can the genre continue to hold people’s interest and prove successful without evolving?
With that in mind, here are four superhero comics that – made well – could help send the genre in a more intelligent, adult and daring direction.
Created in 1999 by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, The Authority are a team of ‘heroes’ who not only save the world but are determined to help make it a better place, and by absolutely any means necessary.
Highly controversial upon original release due to its extreme graphic violence and the homosexual relationship between Superman and Batman analogies Apollo and Midnighter, these elements overshadowed its attempt to deconstruct the genre; it showed flawed super-powered people actively trying to change the world for the better through a sense of genuine responsibility (rather than just fight ‘villains of the week’), using sometime questionable methods, and the effects it would have on ‘real world’ societies and politics.
Who should direct?
Neil Blomkamp showed in District 9 his ability to create a believable sci-fi world and inject it with socio-political themes and jet black humour, both of which are threaded throughout The Authority – making him a perfect choice to helm this fantasy project.
With a raft of epic stories to create an engaging script from, it could be the genuinely intelligent blockbuster genre fans have been craving.
How does someone go from the world’s greatest and most beloved superhero, to the world’s most powerful and terrifying super-villain? This is the question posed by Mark Waid’s acclaimed serial Irredeemable; it explores Superman-satire The Plutonian as he takes this journey and the rest of the world’s heroes try and stop him.
Unlike unimpeachable moral guardian Superman, The Plutonian has spent more of his life being feared for his immense powers than loved, and insecurity, envy and bitterness break him psychologically, leading to all hell breaking loose. This in turn poses another question rarely explored in movies; how do you stop a nigh-invincible superhuman on a rampage?
Although the comic is huge in scale and has a multitude of plot strands, a film version would benefit from trimming a few heroes and the more unnecessary outlandish elements (aliens, demons), and focusing on the emotional conflicts that arise in the situation.
Who should direct?
Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive) has mixed stylised action violence with complex resonant characters multiple times, and could well be the ideal candidate to bring it to the big screen; if current rumours that he is in talks to direct a version of 2000AD story Button Man are true, we would get a much clearer idea of how he would handle comic book material.
Although they have appeared in various forms in the Marvel Universe for years, Squadron Supreme’s most memorable outing was Mark Gruenwald’s 1986 miniseries where the group (who are thinly veiled parodies/tributes to the Justice League of America heroes) decide the best way to bring peace to their world is to rule over it.
To that end they announce to Earth their Utopia Program, which involves the forced disarmament of all personal and government weapons, creating behaviour modification tech that brainwashes criminals into being good, and inventing a means to keep the terminally ill in suspended animation until more cures can be discovered. One of the group, the Batman-esque Nighthawk, quits in disgust, feeling the heroes should serve and not rule, and starts building a resistance to bring the fascist supers down.
One of the earliest attempts to deconstruct the comic book genre and its tropes, its themes of the misuse of power, and peace and stability at the cost of free will remain as relevant as ever. Unlike the other titles here, the colour palette and presentation are much more in line with mainstream Marvel books/movies such as Iron Man, and the lack of dark humour and explicit violence make it probably the most appropriate and accessible property for both the family audience and those looking for a bit more depth.
Who should direct?
Joss Whedon has shown he can do the bright, enrapturing visuals and interesting characters; now give him an intricate plot and some meaty themes to sink his teeth into and see what he can really do.
In the near future, superheroes are commonplace (thanks to genetic engineering) and completely adored by the public. Behind closed doors (and sometimes in front) they are also often vain, prejudiced, psychotic or plain incompetent. Watching their every move is government sanctioned ‘superhero hunter’ Marshal Law, a dispassionate, uncharismatic lawman with a hatred of said heroes and penchant for ultra-violence. Together they attempt to coexist in the earthquake ravaged ruins of San Francisco, with the results often being horrifically gory and grimly hilarious.
Taking a satirical look at super-people and the public’s love of them, as well as a few swipes at Regan-era politics, Marshal Law is dark and nasty but made palatable by its biting humour.
Who should direct?
It would be perfect fodder for a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez; both of whom could bring the necessary stylistic flair and are capable of mixing strong action violence with black comedy. This year’s Judge Dredd adaptation provoked the audience appetite for the no-nonsense, fascistic law-bringers of yesteryear, and the surreal sci-fi setting and the satirical laughs of Marshal Law could make it that much more appealing. It is a cult classic waiting to happen.