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Are We Running Out Of Heroes?

James Forsdyke dons his cape to ask whether the superhero topos is just too worn.

It’s hard to know exactly when the concept of the action-cum-superhero movie started spinning out of control. I’m not sure if I’d place it in 2015 with the release of Ant-Man, or perhaps the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp in 2018, but it certainly seems to have happened before the premiere of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in 2023. I’d say it was probably sometime between the release of the first and the eleventh of the Fast and Furious films, but definitely not recently enough to warrant consideration of the hair-brained Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

Maybe it’s a me-problem. Maybe I just don’t care for big-budget action films, about things that don’t exist and powers which defy the laws of physics. I realise that for many, growing up watching Disney films (other franchises are available) was a right of passage, but for me, it was primarily Top Gear (the May-Clarkson-Hammond era, obviously) and secondly, like most PPE students, The Thick of It. I always enjoy a sense of realism. There’s something wondrous about seeing three relatively normal blokes – antiheroes perhaps – messing about and achieving amazing goals, seeing some incredible places along the way. But often, that sense of realism leads one to ask the inevitable question: ‘I can imagine there’s some truth to this, I wonder how much?’ I suppose that many great ideas have escapist elements to them. But some seem too over-the-top, unrealistic and formulaic to the point where we come to the end having learned nothing. 

It could be cynicism, but it feels like a running trend. How do you churn out so many films based around the same premises? It’s easy to understand why. If it makes a net profit then it’s a win. Perhaps the first one was popular, and the time has come to ride that wave of success into a sequel, and then a prequel, all the way into Fishman 14: Playing Cod – A Battering from Trouter Space. 

So, why can’t people come up with an idea, see it through, and then know when to stop? The ending of the original Italian Job in 1969 was so brilliant, a classic, to a large extent because: that was it! No more. Finished. Done. (Spoiler alert:) The literal cliffhanger invites viewers to speculate, to ask to no avail ‘But what happened next?!’. Making a follow-up to that, a true follow-on sequel would have fundamentally changed it. To know exactly when to stop and to leave the story as it is – I think that’s part of what makes a great work. 

Often sequels, particularly those which are made to fit post-production of the first or ‘added on’ to the existing work, can leave people asking the question: ‘Why?’. If it was never part of the plan to make one, and it wasn’t necessary for any reason to do with the value of the work, then it begins to look like the purpose is solely to generate revenue, and the knowledge of this surely has to count against the creative value of the project. When people other than those who originally generated the idea add to a work, I regard the project as fan fiction. There is something valuable about the intentions of the original creator even if they don’t absolutely and solely define the work. 

In 1926, Buster Keaton’s The General was released. He later said of it in 1963: “I was more proud of that picture than any I ever made.” He believed that he’d put so much effort into it, taking pride in telling the story in detail with a rich historical understanding that brought it into, perhaps, the same domain of realism I spoke of earlier. The protagonist is certainly another unconventional, imperfect hero. The story wasn’t so simple or straightforward. The film wasn’t successful, either monetarily or in terms of its acclaim, but is now widely regarded as a classic, and it’s still famous for containing the most expensive single scene in silent film history: a train wreck over a wooden bridge above the Row River, Cottage Grove which, at the time, set the production back $42,000, or today around $600,000. In a way, this demonstrates two points. Firstly, money won’t necessarily bring immediate success with it, but more importantly, when risks are taken, looking back in the long run we might eventually find ourselves appreciating them all the more. In this case, the risk was to a large extent financial, but it doesn’t have to be, it could rather be woven into the narrative. 

History, I think, rewards those who choose to throw everything at their creative endeavours, to do it their way rather than to replicate what is popular from a sort of metaphorical ‘formula-book’. It fascinates me when people create, not for the acclaim or the gain now, but to know that what has been achieved is exactly what it was intended to be, regardless of whether it becomes popular or not. 

Why aren’t there more people who are willing to create something that they genuinely care about for the sake of their enjoyment? I suspect it’s a combination of factors. Money, for one. Why take risks when you can copy something else, but make it slightly different, such that it draws a crowd and gives people what they appear to want? Secondly, a lot of people already invested in the industry depend on it for their livelihoods, so it’s perhaps understandable that those involved would want to follow a risk-averse strategy. But finally, and here’s the big one, I blame the cult of celebrity. 

There are two obvious ways to send a message via the medium of film, subtly and overtly. We’re forgetting the benefits of bringing ideas to people, not by lecturing them, but by creating the grounds by which an intellectual journey may start. It’s the difference between telling people what to think and giving them some ideas to ponder over. I got this latter sense, for instance, when I watched Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, which tells the story of a doctor who, during a journey by car on his way to an honours ceremony being held in recognition of his services to medicine, finds himself having immersive dreams about his past. 

There’s nothing subtle about ‘celebrity’. From court cases devouring public attention through the medium of newspapers and clickbait, to insider interviews and gossip about A-listers, celebrity pays, big time, and because of that, the media coverage doesn’t have to be about anything positive, in fact, negative stories seem to arise all of the time precisely because they grab public attention. So getting good coverage doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing anything right, it just means you’re pulling the ropes to redirect the spotlight onto your own career. As long as celebrities fit a certain sort of expectation, as long as they say the right things and pay the right lip service to the press, they can often afford to cultivate a certain sort of narcissism which makes them liable to believe that they can transcend, in some cases, even the law. 

While big names proclaim that the public must educate themselves about their privileges, while sitting back on white velvet sofas sipping red wine and furiously flicking through social media, they’re also the same people with a huge amount of influence when it comes to television, culture and entertainment. It’s no wonder then that modern film and media seem to perpetuate the same sorts of messages, in similar sorts of ways. It usually requires a massive budget to make a film, and that seriously serves to limit a diverse array of people from entering the market and having an influence on our culture, not to mention that sometimes prevailing narratives can engender a conservatism which might serve to limit diversity of thought and a more truly inclusive forum, an inward looking habit perhaps occasionally punctuated by events such as the speech Ricky Gervais gave at the Golden Globes in 2020 which subsequently went viral. 

So I’ll return to where I began, to think about what a proper hero might look like. Readers might have noticed that I listed a variety of different superheroes at the start, so how can we be running out of heroes? Indeed it seems like the creation of a hero may be as easy as pulling different words out of various hats. “The…Pangolin…Man…Eureka!” That isn’t what I meant by the title. A hero or heroine requires some bravery, and to do what he or she thinks is right. I think that we have a tendency to admire that. Where then are the antiheroes of cinema? Why don’t we admire the small-budget student movie? Why don’t we afford more respect to the film born of an independent writer’s passion? Why not give some time to those who create something original or at least to those who know when the time has come to move on, to do something new? I think we can learn from one another through the medium of film, and it’s definitely a concern that at the moment it seems, we’re only learning about a limited part of a collective story. Our heroes aren’t always wearing a cape.

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