I was flipping through the channels earlier, when I came across the 2005 Fantastic Four film (also known as “The one with Jessica Alba”). Now, I think we can all agree that that movie was a disappointment, with its quality ranging somewhere between “pretty average” and “pretty fucking bad.” Personally, I find myself leaning towards the latter, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to discuss, is how this film illustrates one of my greatest pet peeves with many superhero film adaptations, which is that many times the heroes in these films are not actually heroic at all.
Consider this a warning for those that actually care: I will be spoiling plot details of this movie, as well those of several others.
Fantastic Four concerns the titular foursome’s (plus Dr. Doom’s) exposure to cosmic radiation, and the consequences thereof: the development of superpowers, their unexpected rise to celebrity, and Reed’s attempts to cure Ben, all culminating in a big slam-bang battle with Dr. Doom in the middle of Manhattan. This is all well and good, but think back and try to remember, why is it exactly that they have this fight with Doom, which results in so much property damage, and risked civilian casualties? Not because Doom posed any threat to the city or anything like that, but mostly, because he really, really wanted to kill the Fantastic Four. Did he want to kill them because they’ve thwarted his numerous villainous schemes in the past? Nope. They just sort of cost him a lot of money, and now he hates them so much. So to sum up: why do the Fantastic Four have a gigantic, blockbuster battle in the middle of New York City, where any number of bystanders could have been accidentally killed needlessly, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage was done to public and private property? To prevent themselves from getting murdered. That’s not heroic, that’s self-preservation.
Now, am I saying that it’s a bad thing to defend yourself? No, not at all. By all means, if some psychopath with metal skin tries to blow you up with a heat seeking missile, do all that you can to stop that from happening. That’s not cool, and if you succeed, I’ll laud you for your resourcefulness—but I won’t call you a hero. Superheroes are supposed to be, at the end of the day, noble examples of humanity, people who rise above their own personal failings, and use their gifts, skills, and knowledge to help others. If all they do with those things is save themselves, then there is nothing particularly heroic about them.
You see this symptom crop up in a lot of the crumbier superhero adaptations. Look at Spider-Man 3, for example. The entire reason Peter is so determined to catch the Sandman, is that Sandman may have been partially responsible for Uncle Ben’s death; not only an element of the character that was invented for the film, but a retcon to the events of the first film as well. It easily would have been enough to show that the Sandman is a dangerous guy, and that his crimes, no matter their motive, endanger the lives of everyone present. For Spider-Man to go after that guy, for no personal gain whatsoever, and at great risk to his own personal safety, would have been admirable, even heroic. Instead, however, the filmmakers decided to make it a matter of revenge, a much more petty and self-serving motivation.
The better superhero films take an opposite approach, perhaps integrating a bit of a personal motivation for the hero, but ultimately make it about risking their own safety to help others. In Batman Begins, Batman fights Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul, not because he has a sour relationship with the latter, but because they plan to drive all of Gotham City insane, and tear it apart from the inside. Bruce Wayne lives outside the city, the dude could totally sit this one out. Instead, at great risk, and without the promise of any recognition or benefit to himself whatsoever, he stops them. Sure, there is an element of personal involvement to keep the viewer engaged, but ultimately Batman is working heroically to save the lives of an entire city.
Iron Man does things correctly as well. Initially, Tony Stark’s motivation for creating the armor is simply to escape from incarceration, but, over the course of the film, he realizes the danger his weapons are posing to people all over the world, and makes himself personally responsible to ensure that no one else was killed by his products. This example is a little more complicated, as it is about a man working to halt a wrong he himself is responsible for, but it still holds water. At the end of the day, the easiest thing for Tony to do, would have been to sit at home and continue business as usual, but that’s not what he does. He accepts responsibility, and endangers himself to prevent a threat to others.
The sort of stories I’m complaining about here, where the villains only motivation is to kill the hero, and the hero’s only motivation is to not get killed by the villain, are not exclusive to the film adaptations of these characters, and have in fact been used for years in the comics themselves. However, due to their nature as a long-form narrative, comics already have years of examples of the hero acting heroically. We don’t need to see in one particular story that this person is a hero, we have hundreds of others that have already shown us this. In this case an excursion is acceptable, and even welcome. The reader has already been shown that this character is a hero, and now other stories are possible.
The film adaptations are little worlds unto themselves, however. Most of these franchises will only last one, two, maybe three films, and the stories presented in these films are, as far as the viewer is concerned, the only real events of note in the hero’s life. If all of these events depict our protagonist only fighting to help themselves, then how can they actually be considered heroes?
Maybe I’m a little idealistic, but I feel that the only time superheroes really work is when, ultimately, despite whatever personal failings they may have (Tony Stark’s ego, Peter Parker’s crippling social ineptitude, Bruce Wayne’s fucking straight-up psychotic obsessiveness), the protagonist rises above all that, above all fears, and in some way does something with no benefit, and maybe even serious damage, to themselves, to help others. That’s the purpose of your classic superhero, to spotlight the good in people. If all they’re doing is self-preservation, like the Fantastic Four fighting Dr. Doom in the middle of Manhattan in that god awful movie, then all they’re doing is endangering those around them—and that’s not actually heroic at all.