Retire This is a column about movie cliches. Now, we’re not here to tell you that a movie should never have any cliches, plenty of great movies have lots of them. Cliches can work wonderfully if you know how to use them. But the first step towards making them work is knowing that they exist.
By the time X-Men: Apocalypse opens Friday, 2016 will have brought us three superhero team-up movies in as many months. The highest domestic gross of 2016 belongs to Deadpool, which opened a month before that. Three of 2016’s five top grossers are superhero movies. All of which is to say: it’s going to be a long time before the big studios aren’t spending the bulk of their money and energy on superhero franchises.
Under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that they stop recycling the same garbage plot points. And hey, don’t do it for me, do it for you! I promise, it’s not the crappy cliches people show up for. Deadpool is the 2016’s current highest-grosser domestically, thanks largely to a few swear words and a basic acknowledgement of its own tropes. Just the acknowledgment was enough — hardly anyone even minded that after pointing them out they mostly just used them unironically anyway. Captain America: Civil War, at 90 percent on RottenTomatoes, is the best reviewed, despite being mostly pretty dull outside of the airport scene. While DC’s gang of chemtrail truthers will tell you that that’s because Disney paid off all the critics, it’s more likely due to the fact that Civil War studiously avoided some of the most obvious third-act tropes. Innovation is your friend! And honestly, it doesn’t take much.
Now then, let’s retire these tropes forever:
The Space Laser Pointed At Earth
Countless superhero movies, especially in the past decade, have ended with the heroes having to thwart a bad guy pointing a giant laser thingy at Earth: to suck its power, to terraform it (Man of Steel), to plunge it into darkness so that it can be ruled by Dark Elves (Thor: The Dark World), etc. I suspect this came about as a consequence of the fallacy that “bigger stakes = bigger drama!” Superhero movies kept trying to top each other, with evil plans that got bigger and bigger, until it wasn’t just the Earth being threatened, but “the very fabric of reality” (The Dark World again, which, actually, works great as parody).
Aside from the fact that any plot point that gets repeated enough eventually becomes a droning sound the audience learns to tune out, the idea that bigger stakes equals bigger drama doesn’t even work. It never has. One of the best explanations of the phenomenon comes in Ace in the Hole, a Billy Wilder movie from 1951 starring Kirk Douglas as unscrupulous news man Chuck Tatum. At one point, trying to explain how to sell papers, Tatum describes the concept of human interest to the junior reporter, Herbie:
TATUM: One man is better than 84. Didn’t they teach you that?
HERBIE: Teach me what?
TATUM: Human interest. You pick up the paper. You see something about 84 men. Or 284 men. Or a million people, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t stay with you. One man is different. That’s human interest. You want to know all about him. Somebody all by himself — like Lindbergh over the Atlantic.
Or, as Lush Life author Richard Price put it (in a quote you can find all over Pinterest):
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.”
Sure, writing superhero movies isn’t exactly the same as writing about atrocities (though the writers of Batman v Superman and Civil War sure seem to want it to be), but getting people to care is the same. We don’t need the heroes to save the whole Earth or the universe or the fabric of reality in order to be invested. It’s actually kind of alienating. What’s a movie from the last few years that everyone loves? How about John Wick? He’s not saving the Earth, he’s just pissed because some guys killed his dog. Truth is, the audience cares more about one dog than the entire Earth. Probably the best thing about Civil War (and a big part of the reason it got so many good reviews) is that they didn’t have to save the world at the end.
The worst part about the saving-the-entire-planet, let’s-make-these-stakes-huge trope is that the superhero movie writers seemed to realize it. Yet instead of changing anything, they just wrote the characters feeling bad about all that collateral damage. Oh joy, mopey superheroes, just what I’ve always wanted. (You know, there’s a reason Stan Lee’s plans for “Introspection Man” never got off the ground). Both Civil War and Batman v Superman had their characters mourn their respective franchises’ past crappy writing. At least Civil War had the decency not to just do it all over again anyway.
Destroying World Landmarks
This one is closely related to the last one, because world landmarks commonly get destroyed by some space laser. In any case, crumbling landmarks are sort of related to the stakes-raising problem, but this one’s caused more by the need to have something “epic” to put in the trailer. I blame Independence Day. That damned trailer where the alien ship blew up the White House was so good people are still trying to recreate it 20 years later. It was so good they’re making a sequel 20 years later. It was so good no one seems to remember that the actual movie wasn’t even very good.
Movie trailers have depicted a crumbling White House, London Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, every bridge in New York City… But once we realized that the ability of CGI to depict massive destruction was more or less infinite, it got a lot less interesting. Mass destruction montages now feel more eye-roll-worthy than awe-inspiring, about as emotionally resonant as Google Maps. X-Men: Apocalypse even has a shot of a disintegrating Sydney Opera House. Ooh, how novel!
Mindless, Zombie-Like Henchmen
Look, I understand why this trope exists. Superhero movies need cannon fodder. Watching mortals get splattered can be fun, but how many times do we have to watch them rush straight to their certain death like lemmings?
No one wants to fight for a lost cause, yet virtually every single superhero movie ever made features scores of commandos in Kevlar carrying submachine guns impotently pew-pewing at superheroes who’ve spent the last 10 minutes of screen time proving that THE BULLETS DON’T WORK ON THEM, OBVIOUSLY. Now if the superheroes were battling, say, ISIS, a fanatical religious sect looking to prove that they don’t fear death and suicide is half the point, then sure, by all means, fire away. But for the most part, these movies just depict paid mercenaries of dubious allegiance firing at super dudes like they’re convinced that 107th bullet is going to be the charm. And then they die looking surprised. Dude, you live in the Marvel Universe. We’re like 15 movies deep. How did you not know superheroes were a thing by now?
I can accept radioactive spider bites and hairless-chested beefcake Vikings from another dimension, but for the love of God, do not make me accept another faceless commando who stands his ground firing after watching 26 of his buddies attempting the same thing get punted into the sun. In all these movies, I can think of exactly one instance, one, in which a henchman actually did the logical thing and, you know, ran the f*ck away (in Iron Man 3).
One time in one movie. How is this possible?
Probably nothing will beat Batman v Superman‘s dream-within-a-dream sequence for sheer stupidity but X-Men: Apocalypse comes close, with a sequence where (slight spoiler alert kind of)
Professor X and Apocalypse do battle inside Xavier’s mind! Now the regular rules really don’t apply!
Superhero movies already exist in fantasy world. The whole thing is like an extended day dream — What if I could fly and shoot lasers with my eyes? If you can’t invent a reason why Batman needs to fight Superman in the desert, or why one of the characters might grow to 30 stories tall and shoot flames or whatever, in the context of a fantasy world where characters regularly already do that, just quit. Let me get this straight, we’re watching a genre of movies in which no one dies and you needed to insert a theoretical framework with even fewer stakes? Ugh. Dream sequences are the worst.
That is all for now. I’m limiting this list to just the most obvious, easily-avoided ones. There are so many superhero movies at this point that I think we’re all okay with them being collections of things we’ve already seen, but at the very least we could rethink the most obnoxious and self-defeating cliches.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.