As a birthday present for my brother, I agreed to see the recent superhero film The Green Hornet. I can say, without doubt, I did not like it. The characters, save for Cameron Diaz's Lenore Case, were unlikable. There was no major character development, only artificial and arbitrary last act shifts in character to finally have the superheroes do something--anything--worthwhile. It's not even a likability or believability issue with the film. The superheroes literally spend most of the running time committing horrible crimes. I don't care if it was against drug labs and street gangs; arson, murder, and attacks against the police are not heroic actions. I often find myself disappointed with superhero films. Do I have a particular loyalty to any of the sources for the films? Rarely. I've picked up Iron Man and X-Men on occasion throughout my life and have read some of the one-off/limited run series and alternate universe versions. I grew up watching the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman animated TV series, and even some of the live action Batman TV series when Nick-at-Night picked them up briefly in the early '90s. The fact remains that my brother has been my biggest connection to the genre. He is the one who knows the comics better than I do and can point out where they lose accuracy or screw everything up.
There are a few superhero films I think are very well done in the last twenty or so years (it's been too long since I've seen the Christopher Reeve SuperMan films, so I'm excluding them from the discussion). The 1989 Tim Burton-helmed Batman struck just the right dark and gritty, almost noir, tones to sell the Caped Crusader's vigilante quest for justice. It was certainly helped by an excellent villain performance from Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Batman Returns is similarly successful for great performances. It also features really strong character development that defines the three major players--The Bat, the Cat, and the Penguin--and their motivations without sacrificing plot. The Crow features the same strengths as Batman Returns, only it leans a bit more towards action and spectacle at the cost of a more consistent mood. While Marvel was displeased with Ed Norton's behavior related to his version of The Hulk, it is notable for actually putting the stakes of his quest for a cure--his love interest--in a believable framework without sacrificing plot or abandoning everything that made The Incredible Hulk such a strong franchise.
The other strong approach seemed to rely on funnier comic book heroes. Hellboy and its sequel were funny and stylized films about the demon on Earth fighting paranormal and cult-related crime. The first Spider-Man features all the trademark wit of the web-slinger and just the right balance between origin story and action. The first Iron-Man does a little tinkering with the character to produce a hilarious, narcissistic playboy version of Tony Stark that nicely balances out the weapons-fueled world of crime in the story. Hyper-violent Kick-Ass allows camp to take over the entire story, but sells it as meta-commentary on superhero films to gain wider appeal.
So what makes these nine examples so strong that anyone could enjoy them? I believe I've narrowed it down to a few key subjects.
1: Believable Characters
A major sticking point in creating a superhero is defining her abilities. Is she completely invulnerable to every possible weapon or attack? That's boring. Does she crumple over and die at the slightest touch, only to be constantly resurrected because she can't die? Not interesting. Superheroes need to be believable for the world they inhabit. If demons and other monsters roam the earth, then a stone-like demon with super strength makes sense. If the streets are filled with crazy crime gangs and the police can never stop them, a masked vigilante makes sense.
Believability goes beyond abilities. We need to believe the hero and the villains are complete characters. Many of these modern superhero films failed for all but the purists because the average audience member did not know who the characters were and why they were acting that way. If the motivations are unclear, and the character poorly defined beyond "good guy/bad guy," the film is going to suffer.
2: Narrative, not Exposition
This is not to say that every superhero movie needs a lengthy back-story. That choice has ruined many films of this genre. You need to give the audience enough information to latch onto before throwing them into the action. If there are details you need to explain, make it a believable part of the scene.
This means, the first film in the franchise doesn't need to be the origin story. If you saw Clark Kent find out about a crime, slip into a phone booth, and come out as Superman, you would know he was a superhero. If you saw him fight goons that shot him but didn't kill or injure him, you would assume he was impervious to bullets. And if you saw him fly, you would know there's something more going on. This is much better than two-thirds of the film showing Superman discover and develop his abilities and constantly talk about what little he knows of Krypton and his crash-landing on Earth. By assuming the audience can actually sit there and understand a film, a superhero movie can focus on a narrative--a story--that is more engaging and watchable than the umpteenth introduction to a character.
3: Narrative, not Blind Action
Superhero films that fail do one or both of the following: they focus so heavily on back-story and unessential exposition that the film does nothing beyond the printed comic, or they sacrifice any story to throw big action sequences on the screen. That's almost worst, somehow, than too much exposition. If you think people just want a thousand superheroes and supervillains on screen fighting it out with no recognition that there might be characters in the film, it will be a disaster.
Superhero films need action sequences. It is the bread and butter of the genre. The good guy fights the bad guy in spectacular fashion. However, these fights need to serve the narrative, not replace the narrative. If there is no story, there is no investment in the audience. You might please some of the audience with flash and style, but you'll never please a wide audience without a compelling story.
4: Justifiable Running Time
I'm not saying all superhero films need to be short. I'm saying if your screenplay only has ninety minutes of story, don't pad it out to two hours. Do not go back for reshoots to add in an origin reel to break the two hour mark. Do not add scenes of the character dancing in a nightclub and shooting finger guns to pad the running time.
Directors need to sit back and think, especially on a superhero film. Does every shot in the film service the story? If not, why? What can be cut out to make the emphasis on story clear? If there really isn't enough story to justify a theatrical running time, there need to be some major reshoots to fix the problem.
This was all a rather long and elaborate way to say this: superhero films need believable characters and interesting stories. They need to be driven by what best serves the narrative, which is rarely the origin story or redundant action scenes.
Some of you are surely wondering where the Christopher Nolan Batman films are in this discussion. I will tell you: I enjoyed them both, but they transcended the superhero genre in such innovative and unexpected ways that I just consider them crime dramas. That's a good thing. If more superhero films took such an appropriate approach for the source material, we might not need to discuss superhero films as some Hollywood "other" in need of help.