Why half of Superhero movies are boring

Read time: 5 mins

I’ve loved superhero movies ever since I had my first kiss during a showing of Tim Burton’s Batman. She was Mandy, 16, super fly in her shell suit and hoop earrings, and I was Marty (truncated from Martyn after becoming obsessed with Back To The Future), 12, chubby and with NHS glasses. But I digress.

Superhero movies. Most people love them, which is why The Avengers made so much super money, why Iron Man 3 raked it in, and why Hollywood’s love affair with the super human has endured for so long. But seriously… they are getting boring. Specifically one aspect of them is getting boring; that of how the villain is often a variant of the hero.

Enter The Villain

Just under half of all major US superhero movies – based on DC, Marvel or Dark Horse comics – feature a villain whose powers are a variant or of same origin as one of the main heroes. And it is a bit tiresome.

Captain Data

44% of villains are boringHow do I know this? Well, I had an opinion. But I do UX design for a living, and I know better than anyone that an opinion does not a truth make. Maybe 100 of the same opinion, but even then, where the hell is the data?

Well, it’s here. I had a surgical procedure and I got bored whilst recovering, so a geeky spreadsheet happened. And after some review and some fuzzy ‘yeah, it more or less is’, I determined 19 of 43 superhero movies feature this kind of ‘just a remix of the hero’ bore-villains. That’s 44%.

Spreadsheet is embedded here, but proceed with caution; 1) it is boring, 2) it contains spoilers to many hero movies. And also note that the degree to which a villain is a redux or remix of the hero varies from movie to movie, but I’ve noted where it is noticeable and fits.


The Fight Fire With Fire Argument

I talked this through with some people I woke up next to in a pub once. The consensus was that to effectively match a hero’s power, you had to be of equal strength to that power, but, you know, use it for evil. Otherwise you didn’t stand a chance in a battle. I’m not convinced, and the best evidence I have for this are exhibits A and B.

Exhibit A: Burly Man Scene

Ok, I realise The Matrix trilogy was a cat shit sundae in terms of more parts cat shit than ice cream, but put that aside for a minute. Remember that scene in The Matrix Re…loaded? Visited? (the second one, anyway) where Neo is fighting Agent Smith x 100 in a city playground? It was entirely devoid of emotion.

Why? Because they were all of equal footing and power, which was set at the level of ‘invincible’ (which was why it was so boring). Remember the end battle of the first Iron Man movie? That. It was like watching your friends play a video game you’ve already finished.

Exhibit B: Heroes

Heroes, the biggest tragedy on TV surpassed only by how Fringe went weird and then died. Apart from ridiculous plots that belonged on Days Of Their Lives, Heroes suffered from ‘power matching’. The villain had the same gear as the heroes in many cases. Got boring. Fast. Just like the end of The Incredible Hulk. Or Superman against his fellow Kryptonians. The twist? There are 3 of them. That’s just boring x 3.

The ‘Power Off’ Switch Isn’t A Fix

One alternative Hollywood dabbles with is disabling our superhero’s powers, or something similar. Batman gets his back broken. Tony Stark ends up sans suit in a kid’s garage. Wolverine has the surveillance spider out of Minority Report recycled as a power-stopping heart clamp. Superman gives up his powers to live a simple life. Well, all of this is total bullshit. I’m all for a bit of kryptonite or Batman taking a bullet, but for the love of Stan Lee.

I go to the movies to see the superhero be super and be a hero. I don’t go to see Batman: The Dark Knight Has Physiotherapy or Daredevil 2: Cornea Transplant Success. I mean, yeah, do this if you have to, for a bit, to up the stakes (and avoid that Burly Man invincible crap), but as a means to compensate for a crap villain? This is like dreaming up the ultimate opponent for a boxer by tying her hands behind her back.

Tygra and Bengali: not related. Apparently.

Thundercats Tygra and Bengali: not related. Apparently.

The Redeco Soldier

Ever heard the term redeco? Redeco is when toy manufacturers take an existing toy model and change the colours (redecorate) and churn out a ‘brand new’ model for kids to gnaw at their parents’ wallets about. Oh wow, Ultra Magnus looks a bit like Optimus Prime. Shit – you know what? Bengali really looks like Tygra. I can’t help feel that superhero villains are often spray painted naughty colours but are essentially the same toy to the game that is the plot. Lazy. If Marvel put Red Hulk in the next movie, I am going to go back in time and genetically engineer my mother’s child to have colour blindness so I can be entirely indifferent to either character.

A Plea For Poetic Polar Opposites

Mr erm.. Unbreakable and Mr Glass.

Poetic polar opposites. Yes please.

M. Night Shylamalamlmananan’s Unbreakable takes a lot of stick, but I’m a big fan of it. Great blog post here all about what makes Unbreakable underrated. That rooted-in-reality, gritty lead-salad style hero movie happened way before Nolan gave Batman a beard or Snyder gave Superman a beard. Or Mangold gave Wolverine more… beard. The hero is more or less unbreakable (clue in title), his weakness is water. The villain is very much breakable, suffering from Osteogenesis imperfecta, and resentful to the world because of that. Although quite why that kindly old gent from Amelie who paints and video tapes the street clock didn’t turn mental is the best movie case of nature vs nurture so far (he has the same problem).

The hero and villain are polar opposites to each other, much as good and evil are. This concept is kind of epic and gives us more of a poetic feel to the conflict, I think, he says, stroking his beard. #beards.

X-Men: The Last Stand

Ice Man and Pyro fight fire with ice instead of fire with fire, and it works.

Iron Man 3 had some of this with the Extremis plot line. We got to see an organic explosive energy that was a match for the technological force of Stark. I’m not a big fan of Iron Man 3, but it was nice to see a non-boring villan after Iron Monger and those drones and Whiplash. I’m for anything that means less of the redeco bad guys.

The perfect image of this, for me, is Ice Man versus Pyro in X-Men 3. It needn’t even be as obvious as this, just please, no more villains based on the hero. The poetic polar opposite is just a good neat thing to explore. Hell, if that fails, pit sand against spider or something.

Same = Lame

Entirely separate characters.

Entirely separate characters.

If the villain to your superhero is the same as the superhero but evil… try harder.
Got any feedback or comments? Would love to hear them, the comments thing should be here somewhere.

And Mandy, if you’re out there, I’m sorry I was more interested in the Batmobile than you.


Same is Lame

One Comment

  • Good post Martyn. I do agree that Superhero movie fatigue is setting in, and part of that is the fact that they have predictable villains and thus predictable story lines. But I think that Movies in their current form are to blame.

    For a writer (and some extent the audience) it’s much simpler to explain a hero’s genesis and simply apply that to the villain (you essentially create a omniscience audience who already know the villains weakness). That way you only have to do one origin story that cover both characters. This, in theory, makes it easier for the audience to understand the threat and the strengths/weaknesses of both. Score one for Hollywood dumbing down, eh?

    Now with unbreakable, you’re absolutely right that the starkness between the characters is what’s most interesting, but I don’t think that Hollywood are willing to waste time explaining two different origins (or as they did with Unbreakable create an almost invisible/accidental threat) – at least not for the current crop of heroes in spandex.

    However, we’re currently seeing a bit of a shift to episodic film making and more importantly an increased interest in moving to TV. This (at least to me) means that more time and effort can be put into explaining the origin of a “big bad” whilst keeping the pace and action we’re used to in blockbusters: If TV as a medium is utilised properly we’ll hopefully start seeing far more intelligent superhero story lines. Fingers crossed!


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