It’s the greatest smackdown since The Hulk vs. Iron Man! EW’s James Hibberd and Natalie Abrams fight to the death (or at least to mild exhaustion) about whether there are too many superhero movies and TV shows. With 15 superhero movies coming in the next two years and 10 superhero shows on TV, is Hollywood’s obsession with leagues of extraordinary gentleman (and women!) creatively burning out like the Human Torch in a hot tub? Or are we, like Gotham City, getting the heroes we need and deserve? Below is the super-sized online version of the debate from Entertainment Weekly’s Best & Worst issue, on stands now:
JAMES: I recently realized I’m perfectly okay with not seeing another cape and cowl for a few months. Or a year. Or a few years. Watching adult actors straining to be taken seriously while wearing skin-tight primary-color body-stockings waving at green-screen creatures is a trend that feels like it’s peaked — creatively, if not financially.
NATALIE: I understand that’s frustrating to you, but I never knew you could be so cynical about unique storytelling. Let’s be honest, no one wants to sit around and watch a straight drama anymore. Do you think Gilmore Girls or Felicity would’ve been successful in this era of TV? No, because viewers need a hook! We’re interested in watching relatable stories with a heightened twist through the lens of someone unlike ourselves, like a superhero. When we see Supergirl or The Flash dealing with an everyday issue while in the same episode tackling a super-powered villain, it makes us feel like we can take on the world.
JAMES: True, nobody wants to watch The Walking Dead, Homeland or Fargo … oh wait, people totally want to watch those terrific non-superhero shows.
NATALIE: Zombies, spies, and the mob. Those all have hooks!
JAMES: And you have me all wrong — I actually love fantasy storytelling. And if you look at Walking Dead, or The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars … each of these awesome sagas is arguably superior to entries from Marvel and DC, and I can prove it: The problem with most comic-verse stories is their corporate behemoths Marvel and D.C. insist major heroes never die, grow, or change, and they endlessly reset their story lines to resell the same goods over and over again — just like in the comics. So there can be no true hero’s journey, and narratives are creatively strangled. Nearly every recent Marvel film includes a tragic death scene (Groot, Pepper Potts, Bucky Barnes, Nick Fury, Loki, all the X-Men, etc.) followed by a heartwarming resurrection. That’s because none of these heroes are actually characters in a story. They’re larger-than-life personality products whose purpose is to sell comic books, toys, the next movie and TV show. So we have this universe of immortal gods, with awesome powers, who are never in true jeopardy and can magically escape any crisis. It doesn’t make superhero stories bad, it certainly doesn’t make loving them bad. Love what you want — I have a deep affection for VH1’s Dating Naked that I can’t defend at all. And of course there are exceptions where the sheer artistry of a production is able to transcend its genre — Christopher’s Nolan’s The Dark Knight is one of my all-time favorite films. But deep down you know most of these superhero titles are children’s cartoons with lavish effects budgets.
NATALIE: There are stakes! Take Marvel for example: In the run-up to The Avengers: Age of Ultron, we all thought we were meeting soon-to-be new members of the team in the Maximoff twins, but — twist! — Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) died a hero in the last act. With that said, Marvel and D.C. — at least on the television side for the latter — have masterfully created entire interconnected universes across projects, chock-full of Easter eggs that basically turn every viewer into a detective as they search to find the meaning behind the simplest of mentions to the greatest of set pieces. There are literally layers of storytelling to be had! Marvel also deftly kicked off with the most relatable hero in Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) before introducing fare like Guardians of the Galaxy, basically building out their empire so they could add and subject players at will. Case in point: Thor: Ragnarok is — spoiler alert! — rumored to be where one of the titular heroes will likely fall … if Captain America: Civil War doesn’t do it first.
JAMES: Congrats on winning the coveted Nerdiest Paragraph of 2015 Award. I’m a fan of complexity too, but you shouldn’t need your living room wall covered in photos, news clippings, and diagram lines like Carrie Mathison off her lithium to figure out what’s going on in a summer movie. Quicksilver? He was a guest star at best! And I’m sure that character will be respawned in another part of Marvel’s empire faster than you can say “Agent Coulson.” Take the upcoming Captain America: Civil War you mentioned. The trailer looks cool, yeah, but what are we really seeing here? Invincible heroes fighting invincible heroes, with a lot of quips amid dramatic beat-downs that result in everybody getting perturbed and dusty, and you know all the main heroes will almost certainly come together again for Avengers: Infinity War. It’s like watching pro-wrestling with CGI, complete with the outsized personas, insults and wild costumes. I half expect Black Widow to throw a chair at Captain America.
NATALIE: Are you not entertained? Over the past several decades of movies and TV shows, things have only gotten bigger and better. Why? Because America is bored. A beat down in a regular flick is nothing but a scuffle, but do the same in a superhero film and it reaches levels of epic proportions, showing us battles unlike anything we’ve ever seen before — a building was quite literally leveled when Hulk faced off with Iron Man’s Hulkbuster in Age of Ultron.
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JAMES: Eh, they’re like the Super Big Gulps of action scenes. I’d rather watch Mad Max: Fury Road again, where every stunt was done for real with practical effects and then directed and scored to perfection. And again, the superhero fights very rarely have real stakes. Take this example of tragic plot points: Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker and Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister both had a hand cut off, and each loss meant something very significant to the story and to these repsective characters moving forward. But when Loki cut off Thor’s hand in The Dark World, there’s quick convenient lazy-screenwriting superhero magic and his hand’s back — yay! — an incident never to be mentioned again, like it never happened.
NATALIE: Oh, sweet James. Loki never actually cut off Thor’s hand! The master illusionist only made it appear he’d axed the appendage to trick the Dark Elves, though fans believed it was real because it hailed from a comic book story. It was, quite literally, a sleight of hand.
JAMES: Who can keep track of all the ways that Loki is magic? What I’m pointing out is that action in superhero-land is as meaningless as Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff and the writers are constantly forced to resort to cheap reversal tactics to drum up emotion because they’re prohibited from writing a real narrative of consequence. There are roughly 27 Spider-Man movies in the last decade and none have a story beyond “Spider-Man loses foster parents, woos girl, and vanquishes CGI lizard.” But ask somebody the plot of LOTR, Harry Potter, or another non-disposable fantasy title, and they can tell you a real story with a beginning, middle and end, not just “and then these characters fight, and then these characters fight, and then these characters fight,” as if watching movies made by kids playing with action figures.
NATALIE: That’s a wild generalization. I’ll admit there are some superhero stories that just don’t work — looking at you, Green Lantern — but there are many that have heart and tell a coming-of-age story about loss, love, the attempts at finding oneself or finding redemption. Especially on the small screen right now, the stories of tortured heroes (or anti-heroes) find a way to touch upon sexism, race and other hot-button issues by wrapping them in a metaphor so they don’t become a very special episode. With that said, these superheroes become our role models, both standing for truth and justice, but also desperate to find their place in the world. They may not always make the right decision, but that’s what makes them so relatable.
JAMES: Role models? You know who needs role models in entertainment? Children! Boom, your point’s been Hulk Smashed. But I agree such noble and optimistic role models are a positive thing in our cynical world where childhoods seem to get shorter and shorter (and our adolescence gets longer and longer). But then you must admit there comes a time when there are just too many such superhero titles; squeezing out opportunities for more original storytelling. Scarlet Witch, really? Surprised we don’t have movies based on Hindsight Lad, Barista Girl and Arm Fall Off Boy in the works (by the way, only one of those isn’t a real comic book character).
NATALIE: I say the more the merrier. When one superhero show succeeds, it bodes well for everyone else, especially the likelihood of having strong female role models getting more screen time. On TV, Arrow begat The Flash, which begat Supergirl, and in turn has led us to DC’s Legends of Tomorrow — all of which have kickass ladies, but the latter two find them in leading roles. The same goes for Marvel with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. leading to Agent Carter, while Daredevil dovetailed into Jessica Jones. It is absolutely vital to see these women succeed because it proves to the fandom at large that female superheroes are just as exciting, bankable and badass as any of the males. This will, in turn, help boost the box office when films like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel finally hit theaters. In short, all hail lady heroes!
JAMES: Okay, I’ll grant you Jessica Jones is terrific. Its grown-up subject matter (depicting rape survival, adultery, and Jones’ own hookup desires) makes you realize how most superhero stories steer fearfully clear — once again stuck in childhood — from any story line that even touches on sex-related subject matter. (Bruce Wayne waking up next to a model is the closest we usually get.) Along with Daredevil, which I also really liked, we might be starting to get away from the safe superhero clichés. Maybe Natalie, that’s where the great venn diagram of our opposing comic show feelings overlap.
NATALIE: And you know what we wouldn’t have if TV and film studios didn’t take a chance on superhero projects? Jessica Jones. It’s all about taking risks. Will every project resonate the way this one has? It’s the same as asking whether Superman will always defeat Lex Luthor, or if The Flash will best Zoom, or if Captain America can ever truly take down Hydra. You’ll never know until you try.