What Can Superhero Movies Learn From Whiplash and the Other Best Picture Nominees?

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Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Warner Bros

In every Oscar season since 2009 or so (that being the year The Dark Knight nabbed a posthumous win for Heath Ledger), there have been geek pundits who demand the Academy Awards recognize a superhero movie or two. There’s a degree of sound logic behind such cries: After all, with every passing year, there are more caped-crusader flicks, and they increasingly rise above mere action-adventure dreck. But this year, with the superhero wave swelling to unprecedented heights, it isn’t the Academy that needs to pay attention to superheroes — it’s superheroes who need to pay attention to the Academy. Maybe I’m just wearing spandex-covered glasses, but I see a lot of very specific lessons that superhero movies can learn from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees (and not just because Birdman is largely about superhero movies). If the superhero genre is going to improve, here are some ideas they should pluck from some of 2014’s most acclaimed movies.

1. Show the internal consequences of violence. (American Sniper)
Superhero movies have occasionally made halfhearted gestures toward giving their characters some kind of PTSD, to little effect. For example: Iron Man 3 was theoretically about Tony Stark grappling with how he almost died in The Avengers, but the movie treated shell shock as something about as challenging as erectile dysfunction — and just as easily shaken off. What an insanely wasted opportunity! American Sniper treats Chris Kyle as something of a superhero, racking up more kills than any other sniper in American history, but it also shows how completely it messes him up. What’s more, his damage doesn’t lead to long brooding sessions — indeed, it leads to him going about his life and acting as though nothing’s wrong, while simultaneously scaring everyone around him with how detached he’s getting from reality. Superhero movies are, ultimately, about power and its consequences, so why aren’t there more of them that show how awful it must be to use an extraordinarily violent talent — and, even worse, to be constantly praised for how violent you are?

2. Show the negotiating. (Selma)
In Ava DuVernay’s historical epic, the characters around Martin Luther King Jr. treat him as something of a superhuman: From the ghettos to the Oval Office, people know that his oratory and organization will be able to move people. But one thing that makes the movie great is how the primary struggle isn’t against the bad guy (and wasn’t George Wallace just about as close as America ever got to a super villain?) — it’s within the good guys’ camp over how to deploy MLK’s superpowers. Should he back existing local initiatives or pave new ground? Should he compromise with the president or go rogue? These are the kinds of debates that need to pop up in superhero movies. I mean, look, we already know Superman’s going to win any battle he enters, so why not have a story where those around him grapple over whether he should go into battle? Why not talk about the drawbacks of letting Batman solve problems, versus using conventional law enforcement (à la Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s fantastic Gotham Central comics series)? Why do we take it for granted that Superman should lead, and why don’t we hear about the people who don’t want him to get involved in the first place? If we’re going to build a better superhero flick, there should be moments where the good guys have to negotiate the best use of their champion.

3. Give weight to secret identities. (The Imitation Game)
All too often, a movie superhero’s secret identity is treated as a mere annoyance: Bruce Wayne needs to exert power as a wealthy socialite and a vigilante! Peter Parker can’t get to his date and the big battle all in the same night! The reasoning is always a bit flimsy, and Marvel’s movie heroes have largely given up on the notion (the end of the first Iron Man features Tony Stark literally saying, “I am Iron Man”). But secret identities can add a tremendous amount of dramatic tension, if deployed well. Yes, The Imitation Game was about Alan Turing beating the Nazis, but it was more about his struggle with keeping his secret identity secret. Imagine a movie where Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker really had to sweat over the idea that someone might recognize them in their off-hours, and that there would be horrible consequences if they dropped the façade. You wouldn’t need to milk all the drama out of explosion-heavy battles — you could get us just as gripped with scenes of them walking in broad daylight.

4. Shake up the visuals. (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Superhero movies (and blockbusters in general) all look alike these days. Bright colors, computer-generated shaky-cam shots, motion-capture monsters — it’s all become very rote. That’s an enormously disappointing development for a genre that started in comics, where superheroes have been drawn with such mad creativity for 75 years. The Grand Budapest Hotel gave a vision of how you might harness some visual experimentation in order to create a delightful action sequence: In its masterful ski-escape sequence, the film uses miniatures and stop-motion animation to thrilling effect. Why not use such mixed-media approaches in a cape-and-cowl flick? I’m reminded of the art of Dave McKean in such alt-superhero comics stories as Black Orchid and Sandman (which is really a superhero-fantasy blend, but you know what I mean): He’d combine pencils, watercolors, and even photographed objects like twigs and string. You might not want Wes Anderson going full-on twee with, say, the Avengers, but you could certainly craft a more interesting superhero landscape if you adopted his all-of-the-above approach to picking a visual style.

5. Embrace the narcissism. (Birdman)
Birdman
was a meta hit piece on superhero movies, but it makes you wonder: How many other superheroes are, like Riggan Thomson, narcissistic crazy people under the latex? So far, superhero movies have halfheartedly tried to make their protagonists unlikably self-obsessed — most notably in the case of Tony Stark. But c’mon, at the end of every Iron Man movie, you still want to be him or hop into bed with him. Let’s explore just how bonkers you’d have to be in order to actually embrace superheroism! Much like the presidency, you’d only really want to become an Avenger if you were something of an egomaniac — and if you weren’t one already, you’d quickly become one. Sure, superhero movies aren’t supposed to be realistic depictions of sanity, but why can’t we have a story where we see a superhero who is truly, supremely a prick, even though he or she still ultimately makes the world a better place? It’d certainly be a refreshing break from the genre’s current default setting: varying shades of admirable role model.

6. Learn how to make truly scary villains. (Whiplash)
When was the last time you were on the edge of your seat with horror about what a super villain might do or say next? With the possible exception of Heath Ledger’s Joker, it basically never happens. Our super baddies tend to be either tortured (like Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen as Magneto), enjoyably ridiculous (e.g., literally every villain in the Iron Man trilogy), or blandly blusterful (can we retroactively give Michael Shannon a Loudest Yelling in a Motion Picture award for Man of Steel?). But in 2014, we got a super villain who was truly terrifying: J.K. Simmons’s sadistic jazz teacher in Whiplash. Sure, we get a sense that he has understandable motivations (he wants to build great musicians, goddammit), but mostly, he’s just a blood-curdling motherfucker. The audience, like Miles Teller’s character, sits in total fear of what he might do or say next, and it’s not because he’s physically violent — indeed, he only uses physical force a couple of times, just enough to make us fear that he might do it again but not so much that it becomes rote. It’s because he knows exactly what he can say to undermine everything a person believes in. The teaser trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron features the titular bad robot saying he’ll “tear you apart from the inside” … but I’m pretty sure that just means he’ll make the heroes fight each other or something. If you really want to make us believe someone can psychologically destroy a hero, try to harness Simmons’s (and screenwriter Damien Chazelle’s) power to make us feel like we’re worthless.