Superhero Movies Are Getting Real

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Recently, we stumbled on a clip from the 1966 film Batman known mostly for its use of shark repellant. Yes, shark repellant, as well as barracuda repellant, whale repellant, and manta ray repellant – all part of Batman’s Oceanic Repellant Bat Sprays, conveniently located in his helicopter. Did we mention during this clip that Batman is hanging off a rope ladder from said helicopter as a shark chews on his leg? Yes, that’s happening, too. With Robin’s help, he manages to get the shark to drop off his leg (with the use of the shark repellant, of course) and somehow escapes without even a rip in his costume. It is silly and unbelievable – a startling contrast to realism and plausibility in a growing number of recent superhero films.

A Mandate of Realism

We have heard it time and time again. Screenwriters, producers, and production teams talk about the logic and rules of the worlds they create, the plausibility of the worlds the characters live in – and for some reason, this mandate of realism is finding its way into superhero films. Think of Batman Begins (2005) compared to the Batman films released in the 1990s; it is a shift to realism, orchestrated by David Goyer, the screenwriter behind Batman Begins. “The world of Batman is that of grounded reality,” he said in an interview with Variety in 2004. “Our [film] will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.”

Other superhero films followed in similar footsteps of Goyer’s Batman Begins. Green Lantern director Martin Campbell challenged his production team to adhere to a set of logics and rules in the Green Lantern world. Thor enlisted the help of physicist Sean Carroll to ensure the Thor universe fit in with Marvel’s plans for other films (like 2012’s The Avengers), and the same can be said for Iron Man 2. Even The Amazing Spider-Man is getting in on the act, swapping out the organic web shooters from 2002’s Spider-Man for mechanical web shooters in the new film, which might be a little easier for the audience to swallow.

What’s the Point?

Superhero films thrived on the silver screen prior to this new push for realism, so why is Hollywood bothering with grounding caped heroes in reality? Man of Steel actor Michael Shannon noted in a recent interview, “There’s no promise anybody’s going to automatically love the movie just because it’s Superman. There still has to be quality in all aspects of it.” Bringing quality to a film might include the logic and realism of the world of Superman, Green Lantern, Iron Man, or whatever superhero’s story is being told. 

David Goyer also pointed out that audiences were tired of how the Batman films were progressing, becoming “increasingly more cartoonish and more like the campy TV show” that was “at odds with the way Batman is depicted in the comic books over the last decade.” The older films seemed to have forgotten the tragedy and humanity of Batman’s story, so turning to a more realistic portrayal of the character and Gotham could open the audiences to care more about Batman as a character. The same could also be said for The Amazing Spider-Man, which returns to its comic book roots with the mechanical web shooters, but also takes a deeper look at Peter Parker’s character. “With the costume and the web-shooters we wanted to emphasize that these are things that Peter Parker made and that he is special himself even if he feels like he’s an outsider,” explained The Amazing Spider-Man director Marc Webb.

Infusing realism into the superhero genre could also be a simple case of extending “suspension of disbelief,” a point made by Goyer in an interview with The Exchange. “Most superhero films (including the ones I’ve worked on) require an enormous suspension of disbelief. Even with the best of intentions, it is hard to make the science really work for Spider-Man, Superman, etc. But I find that if you can inject a veneer of authenticity in these stories – make them as grounded as possible (given the crazy circumstances) – then the audience is more willing to go along for the ride.”

Audiences, it seems from the commercial success of the films, are willing to go along for the ride, so whatever the reasons are for the shift to realistic superheroes, it is playing out well for Hollywood.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.