This is my second post about the superhero genre. The first is here.
You’ve probably noticed that we’ve been flooded with superheroes the last decade. Not only “magic” superheroes but also superheroes like Sherlock and Walter White. (See first blog post.) I love the genre, but I always feel that the first movie in a series is the strongest and most interesting.
Character arc in superhero stories
The first installment of a superhero story is the tale about an ordinary character discovering special powers. It’s a classic hero’s journey buildup about having the courage to take a step into a magical world where the new powers and worldviews are different. And no one likes change! Along comes the other side of the coin. The dangers of the new world and powers. Loved ones in danger, the villain approaches, and the hero is filled with self-doubt and struggles with internal – as well as external – conflict.
One of the most satisfying examples of “finding the powers” I’ve seen in the last decade was the first Iron Man movie. That’s also one of the most powerful character arcs I’ve seen in a superhero movie. Many superheroes are good at heart – even in the beginning of the tale – but Tony Stark is a weapons dealing, arrogant asshole making money off human misery and is completely okay with it. He finds himself, and his powers, when facing his wrong-doings and when he has no other choice. All in the first act! Unfortunately the writer chose (or was told to) focus on external conflict in the climax. I would have loved to see Tony Stark fight his own demons as well as the villain in the third act.
A sequel rarely tells the same type of story. It can’t. The scene was already set in the first installment. Our hero doesn’t need to find his powers. This is why the first story is more interesting, and more dramatically sound. It’s clear, crisp character change. The sequel often does one thing only: Introduce one or more villains stronger that the ones our hero faced in the first story. That rarely satisfies us.
The biggest mistake – in my opinion – about sequels in general is that everything needs to be bigger. It doesn’t. Period!
Apart from the obvious financial reasons, sequels exist because the audience wants to experience the first story again – for the first time. We want the same only different! Not bigger.
The superhero sequel fix
The writer can create a kick-ass sequel in many ways. One is to create an interesting villain and make him more interesting than the protagonist (Batman: Dark Knight, Spiderman 2 (2004) ) or let the hero lose powers in the second act and regain them. (Ironman 3, Superman II). This has also been done with fatal consequences in Spiderman 3 (2007)
What rarely works – in my opinion – is when the writer focuses on loved ones in the sequel, trying to create a strong secondary story (B story) to cover up the loss of the protagonists’ change. It rarely works simply because loved ones just aren’t as interesting as villains and heroes.
Some writers of superhero stories try to overcome the lack of the protagonist’s arc by letting the hero lose powers and then regain them. Richard Donner’s Superman II does so very nicely. Christopher Nolan’s Batman: Dark Knight Returns has an element of this as well in the first act. Batman has been out of the game for several years and wants back. I would have loved more focus on his problems with that and less on his psychical climb out of the well – even though it’s the manifestation of his demons.
What’s it all about
in the end our hero prevails and lets go of a human core within and becomes the superhero. In other words: The protagonist sacrifices some humanity in order to change and become the superhero.
Or at least that’s my take on the matter. Do you agree?