The believable superhero

From Superman to Mary Jane to Joker we love our super hero characters. What makes them so endearing?

Director Mahesh Bhatt often says that it takes an equal amount of effort to make a good film or a bad film. This especially true of the superhero film Green Lantern, which had the film makers wading through over 1,300 visual shots and was finally completed at the cost of $300 million.

While the superhero film has existed since the 1960s, Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) was the first significant film in this genre that had both commercial and critical success. It was also this film that introduced audiences to Christopher Reeve – their most loved Superman avatar for years to follow. Since then, the likes of Supergirl, Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man have joined the legion of superheroes on the silver screen, with varying degrees of success.

So what are the qualities that make Christopher Reeve and Tobey Maguire believable superheroes, while Ryan Reynolds falls by the wayside as Green Lantern?

Creating a believable superhero: 10 commandments   
1. A fistful of soul: Whether it’s Superman, Spiderman or Batman – nothing inspires the audience more than a purpose that is larger than life. But, as has been done in the successful Superman and Spiderman franchises, one must engage the soul and not just the mind.

2. Technology complements story telling: Today, if the mind can imagine an idea, technology can translate it onto the silver screen. Conversely, the power of technology rips the cover off a weak storyline as well. Here’s where a superhero film like Green Lantern fails, and Iron Man succeeds. In the later  film, technology supports the building of the plot. 

3. A likeable superhero, the guy next door: Think Christopher Reeve as Superman and Tobey Maguire as Spiderman. They become the boy-next-door, and yet remain extremely likeable. When they hurt, it pulls at your heartstrings as well.

4. Evil needs to be really evil: The Batman franchise is especially good at this. The Joker, as played at different times by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger remains our most enduring memories of the Batman films.

5. Action sequences at the edge, a love story that makes you cry: Superhero films are action films. But they are sometimes helped along by a great love story. Remember Peter Parker and Mary Jane? Yet when doing this, the director needs to walk the tightrope of not letting the love story overpower the action, as in Superman Returns.

6. Believable conflict: Whether it’s the insanity of the rivalry between Lex Luther and Superman or the sadness of friendship gone wrong in Spiderman, great superhero rivalries involve the audience. This is another where Green Lantern fails – it does not create believable gut wrenching rivalry, even when it has the universe as its landscape.

7. Strong actors: The Superman, Spiderman and Batman franchises have all understood this. For instance, the first Superman film had a cast that included Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando. The Batman franchise has at different times had powerful actors such as Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Val Kilmer, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Christian Bale, Katie Holmes and Heath Ledger.

8. A life of its own: It’s true that the wonder of a superhero film sometimes lies in cinema’s ability to replicate the character first created in the comic book. Christopher Reeve for instance combined Clark Kent with the Superman persona really well. Helen Slater also made a very real Supergirl. But it’s the Batman and Spiderman franchises that have done something different. Their superheroes replicate the book, but also have a life of their own.   

9. Punch lines: As Peter Parker discovers in Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility." 

10. Room for a sequel: Most superhero films do this, In fact, this is one element that Green Lantern gets right too as the film ends with  Green Corps leader Sinestro bowing to the darker forces within himself.

So did I leave something out? Tell me what you think.

(If you missed Green Lantern in cinema halls last week, watch out for the DVD release.)

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