Business Standard

From caricatures to layered characters, superheroes come of age


Press Trust of India New Delhi
Once costumed and now armoured, superheroes have evolved from unidimensional caricatures out to save the world to fallible men and women with human frailties and flaws, no longer appealing to just teens but offering a slice of real life along with entertainment to discerning audiences.
As superheroes, from Iron Man and Captain America to Thor and Black Panther, soared and strode across screens in "Avengers: Infinity War" beginning today, it was more evidence that the genre is constantly reinventing itself.
"Avatar" filmmaker James Cameron has predicted that audiences will soon tire of superhero films but that does not seem to be happening anytime soon with Hollywood's armoured world saviours continuing their mission unhindered.
Though Cameron has criticised the films for being about "hypogonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process", superheroes are here to stay, warts and all.
The shift from the burlesque to the brooding came when Christopher Nolan reinvented Batman with his trilogy -- "Batman Begins", "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises" -- featuring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader.
The critically-acclaimed director of films such as "Memento" and "The Prestige" said he wanted to create a world that was realistically portrayed.
He stayed true to the essence of the superhero, but explored other dimensions of the character.
Nolan's films were darker in tone, exploring the inner demons of Bruce Wayne and also his relationships with other women.
Joe Russo, who has directed "Avengers: Infinity War" along with his brother Anthony, says he understands a fan's need for a deeper connect.
Having grown up on a staple diet of comic books, Russo says there is a constant attempt to fuse the comic book sensibilities with a layered narrative.
"I like movies with thematics and I like the complicated, rich storytelling. I want to go and see films. And if there is something deeper I could pull out of it, I do it. For us, it is very important to have dimensions in our stories," he told PTI in an interview during the film's promotions in Singapore.
The director duo has earlier worked on films such as "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Captain America: Civil War".
After Nolan's Batman, Iron Man was the next comic superhero to go from caricature to layered character.
The rich, sarcastic and sensitive Tony Stark, essayed by Robert Downey Jr, gave the genre a new face. It was a perfect marriage between a character, who unlike others in his tribe didn't mask his identity, and an actor's personality and the audiences lapped it up when the film released in 2008.
Then came Superman. "300" helmer Zack Snyder directed "Man of Steel" with Henry Cavill in the lead, making the oldest God-like superhero more humane.
It was a departure from the earlier versions, with the red underwear-over-blue leotard hero donning a sophisticated armour and battling identity crises.
Director Taika Waititi, known for indie titles "What We do in the Shadows", "Hunt for the Wilder People" and "Boy", breathed fresh air into the lackadaisical Thor franchise by introducing humour and edge to the Asgardian's personality.
He also introduced the first female villain with Cate Blanchett as Hela.
The string of blockbuster films, based on characters like Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Wonder Woman and Black Panther among others, have considerably enriched both DC and Marvel, the two comic book giants that own the rights for the superhero pantheon.
Fans not just want entertainment but a more cerebral treatment of the story. The ever evolving superhero genre has tailored itself to the need, and also given a new lease of life to a host of actors such as Downey Jr and Christ Pratt.
It has, at the same time, provided a launch pad for actors like Chadwick Boseman ("Black Panther") and Tom Holland ("Spider-Man: The Homecoming").
The Russo brothers can be credited for bringing together the largest assembly of superheroes and other characters -- more than 35 -- in "Infinity War".
The success of superhero films has triggered debate on whether they are affecting the cinema viewing sensibilities of the audience -- notwithstanding the fact that they have stood the test of time and now tackle global, contemporary issue such as global warming and racism.
The films are also walking the talk on inclusivity and diversity (a major debate in Hollywood this year) with Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman", Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther" and the upcoming "Captain Marvel" bringing women and black superheroes into the mainstream.
"Black Panther", the first ever superhero film featuring an all-black cast, was praised for its sensitive approach and powerful portrayals of black culture, making it something of a pop culture phenomenon when it released.
"I don't understand why some people look down upon superhero films. So many of us are so invested in it and I think this is one of the reasons why Marvel is doing so well. The films are not taken that seriously for some weird reasons," Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Doctor Strange, told PTI.
It's an alternative world out there, fantastical and fictional but mirroring the struggles of everyday life.
Our superheroes are not going anywhere anytime soon -- not as long as the box office continues to spin money.

Disclaimer: No Business Standard Journalist was involved in creation of this content

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First Published: Apr 27 2018 | 4:21 PM IST

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