Superhero Movie Pet Peeves

This post contains massive spoilers for Iron Man, and pretty much every other superhero movie of the last two decades.

Reverse-Flash
Harnessing the power of dumb

As I mentioned in my review, I thought the new Iron Man movie was fantastic … except for the parts that involved Iron Man, which lacked a certain je ne sais quoi (French for “Robert Downey Jr.”).

I was particularly unimpressed with the Big Climatic Fight Scene, and a little irritated that the film not only epitomized one of my Superhero Movie Pet Peeves, but flirted with a second as well. To wit:

Pet Peeve #1: The bad guy has exactly the same powers and abilities as the good guy Honestly, this drives me nuts. Who thinks this is a good idea?

Lots of comic book writers apparently. Back in the day when I routinely read comic books (late 80’s), it seemed that every hero had his evil twin as his archnemesis. Flash fought Reverse-Flash, who was as fast as The Flash but bad!. (I previously ranted about Reverse-Flash here). Green Lantern fought Sinestro, an ex-Corps member who also possessed a Power Ring. Wolverine fought Sabertooth, Spider-Man fought Venom, Superman fought Bizarro, and so forth.

Of course when the two people fighting are of exactly equal power and ability, it kind of doesn’t matter how “super” they are–Captain Marvel scraping with Black Adam is really no different from two five year-olds trading blows over a package of Necco wafers, two grandmasters playing chess for 17 hours before ending the game in a draw, or a couple of pissed off roosters in a cockpit.

Much more interesting, to my mind, are the asymmetrical rivalries. Batman is in peak physical form; The Joker is frail (in the hands of most writers), but utterly unpredictable, even to a master strategist such as Bruce Wayne. Superman v. Luthor is another good one, with the discrepancy between their (physical) power and adherence to morality even wider. Perhaps the greatest asymmetrical skirmish in literature is also one of the most engrossing: J. R. R. Tolken managed to squeeze over a thousand pages out of the Frodo vs. Sauron cagematch.

But in Iron Man, the movie (this is where the spoilers start), Stark winds up battling: another Iron Man. A bigger one, sure, but the whole thing pretty much degenerates into Robot Slugfest ’08. People, if I’d wanted to watch Transformers, I woulda downloaded it from Mininova like everyone else.

And it looks as if the upcoming Hulk film is going to follow exactly the same pattern. From what I can glean from the trailer (which appears to be: everything), the climactic battle in that film is Hulk Vs. Reverse-Hul- I mean “Abomination”. I know Marvel Studios also has “Captain America” and “Thor” films slated for next year–are we just going to see the same formula played out four times in a row, followed by “Avengers Vs. Vengers” in 2010?

Pet Peeve #2: The whole story is self-contained This is when the hero causes the very problem he is fighting to solve, or is just struggling to save his own miserable skin. In Iron Man, the power source and armor that Tony Stark creates while in captivity fall into the hands of his bad-guy business partner, and his heroics revolve around his attempts to destroy them. Fortunately there’s a bigger issue at stake (Stark’s desire to turn his company around), because, without it, the audience might think, “well, hell: if Stark had just been killed in the first 10 minutes of the film, there’d be no need for an Iron Man, as his own designs wouldn’t have become a threat to world peace.”

I understand the point of making the final battle personal for the protagonist, but these circular plots often seem like the hero is more motivated by a desire to undo his mistakes or avenge his dead parents (see 1989’s Batman) than do anything, you know, heroic. I get enough frantic ass coverage and settlement of petty grudges at the office, thanks.

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25 comments.

  1. Does Reverse-Flash go really slow? Or just really fast, but in reverse?

    I thought Ben Stein harnessed the power of dumb for Expelled?

    I prefer my equally matched super-villains to sport rockin’ goatees. The goatee-wearing Evil Michael Knight on Knight Rider was way rad. (As opposed to the evil goatee wearin’ motherfuckers at Knight Ridder.)

  2. I cant agree more with your pet peeve #1! The movie were I was dissapointed the most because of this phenomenan was “Leage of extraordinary gentleman” (which of course had other flaws as well) – They have this great setup of interesting characters and they dont know what to do with them other to fight bassicly themselves (invisible man vs. an invisible man, Mr. Hide against Mr. Hide…). Thats just a wasted chance!

  3. I agree with you about the self-contained/super heroes correcting their own mistakes issue. That’s one reason I really liked Spiderman–he didn’t constantly create villains he then had to defeat.

    In Iron Man’s case, Stark basically creates Iron Man to correct Stark’s years and years of mistakes, which was pretty cool. Of course, in trying to get rid of his weapons, he has to accidentally create an even worse weapon–guess they should have called him Irony Man.

    (My biggest disappointment in the movie was that Iron Monger survived the icing problem. That would have been a perfect way for him to go down: Stark had months of testing and injuries and mistakes to learn from–that should have been enough to make the difference.)

  4. @Dorothy: Ah, but Iron Man survived his first brush with icing as well. Sure it was a close call, but he survived it.

    I bet people who haven’t seen the film are now picturing two robots having a cake fight.

  5. @Dorothy: Ah, but Iron Man survived his first brush with icing as well. Sure it was a close call, but he survived it.

    I bet people who haven’t seen the film are now picturing two robots having a cake fight.

  6. In the final battle, I thought they were heading for a subversion of your first peeve. Tony takes off one of his gauntlets, thinking he’s won, and gets jumped. Iron Monger’s [thanks for the name, Dorothy] chest reactor wasn’t covered with a lens like Iron Man’s; they used a lot of film showing the reactors going into the respective armors. When the big guy had the little guy in a crushing grip, I thought Tony was going to reach in there with his bare hand and unscrew it, making some sort of metaphor for his humanity being the unbalancing advantage that allowed him to win.

    Too high brow? I guess “punching him in the back of the neck” is good too.

  7. My biggest problem with Iron Man is that the second act had Iron Man defeating an entire terrorist organization AND THEN outsmarting the United States military. The final act? Fisticuffs with The Dude.

  8. [NOTE: Re-reading this makes me realize it sounds like I’m part of some grad seminar like Archetypes of Americana: Superheroes and Villians in 20th Century Comic Literature, rather than just commenting on a blog post, but … well … aw, heck, let’s admit it: I’d totally sign up for that course. So here goes.]

    I’m in agreement with your broad points, though I have to disagree with your final example. I’ve always thought the great thing about Batman was precisely the fact that his whole super-hero-ness comes not from Boy Scout goodness (Superman) or a realization of the trappings of power (Spider-Man), but from a darker need for revenge. 1989’s Batman (which obviously missed this point) notwithstanding, it always seemed to me that battling the inner demons was really the point of Batman, so I’m willing to forgive him the self-created enemy cliche.

  9. I would buy ALL the tickets for the Great Iron Man Cake-Off.

  10. No, no, no. You’re right on with Reverse Flash and the Abomination (both boring match-ups).

    But with Iron Man, the whole premise of the series is (mostly) normal men fighting each other with technology, usually armor. But the thing is, that the different armors have different superpowers. Complaining that Iron Man vs. Iron Monger is just armor vs. armor is like complaining that Superman vs. Luthor is just dude vs. dude.

    Iron Monger (here) is a “tank” character – big, strong, lots of guns and missiles, not so agile, driven by a guy who is not very techno-savy.

    Iron Man (here) is more of an agile scrapper. He’s got repulsor rays and flares, but no real guns. He dodges, evades, and hides rather than going toe-to-toe. The guy inside is tech-savy and uses his knowledge to critically disable Iron Monger.

    So yes, it’s two guys in armor. But the actual fight doesn’t come across like Hulk vs. Abomination. It plays out like the asymmetrical face-off you were asking for.

    (I’m with you on the icing thing. I’ll bet the original script ended the fight that way, then the script doctors came in and said, “Amateurs. That might be a good enough ending for a book or something, but this is a Hollywood Blockbuster. Ya gotta make the audience jump by having the villain suddenly pop back up again, and ya gotta end it with a Really Big Explosion.)

  11. Normally I wouldn’t bother correcting you, but because the idea of a Big Climatic Fight Scene is making me giggle, I thought I might point out that you probably mean to say that you were unimpressed with the Big Climactic Fight Scene. Although, the idea of a weather-related throwdown (especially a disappointing one) is mighty amusing!

  12. I must say that my favorite part of the movie was Jeff Bridges in the big suit. This is mainly because not only did he get a BIGGER SUIT, his VOICE GOT DEEPER! And he started ROARING when he fought Iron Man.
    Awesome!
    I also agree with Hal that I thought Iron Man would win by snagging Iron Mongers power source (but in an even more dramatic twist, when they’re BOTH falling out of the sky and only one of them can survive!).

  13. I thought his robo-pets were very cute, but why didn’t he have any REAL pe – oh! Never mind!

  14. This isn’t over yet, “Bald One!” When I perfect my Use-Other-People’s Oscar Pool and my Holiday Gift Guide for Motivated Go-Getters, we’ll see who has the last laugh! HA HA HA HA HA!

  15. OMG. That’s just BRILLIANT, Reverse-Baldwin. Frickin’-A brilliant.

  16. I have to say, I loved the movie, and I want to see it in the theater another 8 times. I don’t know why. I’m assuming this is what fanboys felt like when Empire Strikes Back rolled into town (we lived overseas so yeah, I didn’t get to watch it in the theater unless I felt like listening to Luke whine in German), which is maybe sad, but there you go. I think the appeal is largely because of RDJ, but sadly, I also think a lot of it has to do with Gwyneth Paltrow’s purse. Which is so pretty and expensive and perfect for stealing important infos from scary bald dudes. I want to be Pepper Potts so that I can afford Laboutins and run on grating in open-toed 4 inch heels. I’m getting giddy.

    And also, I want a cake shaped like a Robot Fight – I bet that Ace of Cakes guy would totally make one, complete with pyrotechnics.

  17. When it comes to superhero movies, I have a pet peeve that I see repeated over and over (particularly in the Spider-Man movies). Why can’t they just make the bad guys, well… BAD GUYS? It always seems like something happens to them that turns them bad against their will (like Green Goblin and the green crap he ingested making him crazy, or Doc Ock’s implant malfunctioning and making him evil) or they are misunderstood (“Awww, the Sandman isn’t bad, he has a little girl” – bleh, or Goblin junior just wanting to avenge his dad)… Then there is always that “moment of clarity” the villian has right after the “big fight” and right before they have to sacrifice themselves to save whatever… Why can’t they just have a villian who is a greedy mean sonuvabitch? I know it’s a formula to add depth of character, but they do it over and over – I don’t want to sympathize with the bad guy, I want to dislike him and see him get what’s coming to him.

  18. I’m nominating this as the greatest post in the history of the Internet.

    Thank you. My time here is done.

  19. The story is supposed to be self contained. How else would propose taking a weapons with virtually no soul and give him a jolt to get him to actually want to do something besides make really cool and new ways to blow things up. Your pet peeves are short sighted and do not encompass the overall big picture. Nice try though.

  20. A little late to respond as I’ve been waiting to actually see Iron Man before reading your spoilers ;)

    But I’m with the future Comic Literature student above; I really liked that it was about correcting his mistakes (including the much larger merchant-of-death thing), and it suited the sardonic playboy thing to have him suddenly wondering about the consequences of what he’d been making his money from. And at the same time he’s struggling with the idea of being “heroic”.

    Oh and I _love_ that he just comes out and announces that he’s Iron Man rather than hiding it like every other super hero.

    -p

  21. I have a superhero title for a guy in our office – I call him “Captain Obvious”. He’s the mouth breather that arrives at any given conclusion 10 minutes after the rest of the group is already there, and proceeds to announce “his” idea with great pride.

    Unfortunately, it’s one of my bosses…

  22. The big climatic fight scene? You mean, like, with El Nino, high pressure areas and warming trends?

  23. Reverse-Flash really makes everything else really slow.

  24. My pet peeve is superheroes whose origin is insufficiently explained. Tim Burton is the worst. When Michelle Pfeiffer turned into Catwoman by falling out a window and being licked by kitties, I thought I was going to hurl.

  25. thanks..

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