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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu - Why the Third Superhero Movie Always Sucks

A couple of weeks ago, Bruce sent the following to me as part of a discussion about superhero movies:

Why do superhero movies, no matter how good, rarely spawn more than three-movie series? Generally the pattern seems to be:

1. Origin story.
2. Further development of the hero's abilities.
3. Series jumps the shark and collapses into self-parody.

Is it that the original audience ages out of being interested in the story? That Hollywood can't stand to see a hero story played straight, so they have to camp it up? Or is it a larger question of the origin being interesting, but after you've got the hero on-hand, he starts to become a nuisance?
I offered a response and was further challenged by Bruce to apply that response both to superhero movies and the original Star Wars trilogy. Here is my response:

First movie theme - The hero discovered
Second movie theme - The hero defined
Third movie theme - The hero challenged

Superhero movies generally do okay with the first theme, several have done well with the second theme, but they lose it with the third theme - the hero challenged. Consider:

The hero's discovery involves the hero learning about himself while also being opposed by a villain. The hero's journey of discovery results in the defeat of the villain.

The hero's definition involves doubts and a struggle reconcile his life as a hero with his earlier life. At the same time he is opposed by a different villain. The hero eventually conquers his doubts and emerges triumphant again.

In the third movie, the hero has completed his journey of discovery and definition. With no inner struggle to face, the hero simply faces more villains, usually in greater numbers. The hero's struggles against himself and society are replaced by just another villain. No matter how evil or how powerful the villain is, he cannot replace the human struggle of discovery and definition. The movie has nothing left to offer but fight scenes with special effects taking the place of characterization.

The original Star Wars trilogy fits the three themes listed above. We have the rise of Luke Skywalker as he discovers his powers and meets his allies. Next Luke defines himself as a leader, learns to control his powers, and discovers who he really is. Finally, Luke is challenged to defeat his father and his father's master while also being challenged to uphold the code of the Jedi. I know I've ignored Han and Leia, who also face similar trials, but I don't want to be typing examples all night. Star Wars works through three movies because Lucas always has the heroes struggling against their doubts, their family, and their enemies before emerging triumphant. The human struggle is never replaced by mere special effects.

Superheroes are somewhat different. First, traditional superheroes fight to maintain the established order and against the forces of disorder. In Star Wars, the rebels are the forces of disorder fighting against the established order. Superheroes are thwarted in their attempts to defeat the villain by the necessity to defend innocent civilians. The Empire has vast hordes of minions who extend the villains' power far and wide while also proving to be an almost overwhelming force in themselves. The heroes of the Rebel Alliance are in danger any time they walk on a planet or fly near one because the forces arrayed against them are so vast. This provides the same level of tension superhero movies create when the hero is attempting the live his private life, always afraid he'll be called into public action at the most inopportune time.

Star Wars thrived because the story required the heroes strive against powerful foes and inner demons. Superhero movies fail by the third installment because the writers have used up the inner demons and are left only with more and more powerful foes. The third movie in a superhero series may never have a line anywhere near as powerful as Luke saying, "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." But I bet it will have a really huge CGI fight scene as its climax.

Am I way off base here? What did I miss? Or do you simply stand in slack-jawed amazement at my awesome powers of observation?

Let the arguments begin!
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