Yes, this blog is dedicated to “an ongoing exploration of the dark and gritty reboot.” But, as written about in the previous post on this blog, The World Needs Bad Men, it’s time to admit that the dark-n-gritty reboot has run its course. The anti-heroes have ascended to the White House. It’s time for a new superhero narrative.
The last week has given us two new incarnations of the superhero show: Legion, a television show on FX, and The Lego Batman Movie, a family-friendly animated feature.
The Lego Batman Movie is as meta as any superhero film has been, and that includes 2016’s Deadpool and 2015’s Ant-Man. The jokes are more family-friendly than those of Deadpool, but TLBM is arguably the more mature of the two films. TLBM, coming on the heels of The Lego Movie and followed soon by The Ninjago Movie, is the sign of much more to come.
Legion, meanwhile, is a serious and frightening television series about a man in a mental hospital who is either mentally ill, a mutant with superpowers, or both. It’s from Noah Hawley, the creator of the Fargo television series, and unravels in a non-linear manner.
But I’ve come here not to review these two works. Enough people are already reviewing these two works. The reviews are both positive and, in my opinion, accurate. What I’m here to say is that these works are two complementing examples of what we should start demanding from our screen adaptations of superhero tales.
The superhero is tired; these narratives give him hope. Let’s look at why they work, and how other narratives can learn from them.
Legion and The Lego Batman Movie don’t force tie-ins with other superhero works
These two works come from very different places. Batman is one of the most iconic characters in the American zeitgeist. You need more than two hands to count the theatrical releases this character and his cadre of allies and villains have seen in the last several decades.
Then there is Legion, a D-list superhero at best, a little-known newcomer in a world crowded with mutants, nemeses, and supermen.
The trouble with most contemporary superhero films and shows is that they can’t be watched as standalone pieces. There are a few exceptions, but most of them, like their comic book source material, feel less like independent narratives and more like installment of a long, tired, confused story.
Legion and TLBM buck this trend, choosing instead to draw upon their source material to create new and energetic stories. The Lego Batman Movie does this in much the same way as Deadpool and Ant-Man, two of the other recent superhero films that opt for meta-fictional explorations of the genre. TLMB and Deadpool both use self-referential humor and an audience-aware protagonist to draw the audience closer. It could be easy for a Lego movie to feel like a bland, consumerist ad for toys. Instead, the audience is in on the joke and treated like adults. This is also where Ant-Man ultimately falls short. Paul Rudd’s superhero quips and winks, but is trapped in the same Marvel universe as Captain America and Iron Man. Deadpool and the Lego Batman know they aren’t real, and the story uses this to make them ever realer.
Legion reaches a similar end point, through very different means. There is no meta-humor or lampooning of superhero tropes, at least not yet. There are a few jokes but the bulk of of the first episode is a cascading, dreamlike exploration that makes some serious demands of its audience. Unlike The Lego Batman Movie or really any superhero work since The Dark Knight Rises, Hawley’s Legion expects its audience to be mature, patient, intelligent, and literate. You aren’t watching for cameos and nods to your favorite cinematic superheroes. We aren’t going to see Michael Fassbender’s Magneto or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine saunter into this vision.
These works take inspiration from and pay homage to non-superhero works
There are already those cataloguing exhaustively all the references in Legion, as seen in this thread in its already growing subreddit. Admittedly, some of these are stretches, including the suggestion that David Haller’s appreciation of waffles is a nod to Netflix’s Stranger Things. Others are on more solid ground, including (as described in this review) “Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Darren Aronofsky, William Wyler and a few more with notable tendencies for unexplained perfectionism.”
The Lego Batman Movie also has an extraordinary number of references and allusions. Some are obvious, some are subtle, and only about 50% are to Batman-related entities.
What is notable about both of these is that the easter eggs, homages, and allusions aren’t limited to the fictional comic book universes. The Lego Batman Movie, sure, is crammed with the history of Gotham City, but also rewards audiences familiar with Jerry Maguire and J. K. Rowling and Quentin Tarantino. One of Legion‘s biggest influence may be classic rock, in particular Pink Floyd, including a character named after Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett and a plot that could arguably be considered an adaptation of The Wall and Wish You Were Here and the rest of their catalogue.
As discussed on this blog previously, Noah Hawley’s Fargo felt like a new kind of adaptation. It pays tribute to the Coen Brothers, William Shakespeare, and Samuel Beckett equally. Legion and The Lego Batman Movie continue this legacy. One plays for laughs, while the other goes for intellect and intrigue, but both succeed.
Both works also take classic stories and tether them to today’s issues. The lonely Lego Batman, in his saddest and most deluded moments, reminds one of a certain sitting president. Legion riffs on The Wall, an album and film that could have been written about 2017 (“Mother, should I build the wall?/Mother, should I run for president?”)
The origin story is tired. The solution is not to go darker and grittier.
The Lego Batman Movie does something unprecedented by dropping us into a universe we already know, populated with characters we already know. Legion, meanwhile, tells a story which may be the beginning of a superhero’s career but which is so much more than an origin story.
Watching an origin story – whether Doctor Strange or any of the Spidermans or Man of Steel or, really, any of them – often feels like watching a really good tribute band. Sure, it’s fun seeing another riff on the destruction of Krypton, but what does it give us that we haven’t gotten before?
For some time, there has been a simple solution to this: let’s make the origin story “realistic.” Darker. Grittier. More violent. And while that worked with Batman Begins, it has become exhausted after over a decade of the same thing.
The Lego Batman Movie solves this through its humor and complete glossing over of Batman’s origins. If you want to watch an origin story, go watch one of those. Legion does this by making the endgame unclear. We do not know what will become of David Haller. His journey and his universe can unfold as the creators of this show see fit. We are not promised that he will end up donning spandex or punching Magneto or joining a crew of fellow heroic mutants out to save humanity. We are watching his origins unfold, but for once the origin feels original.
The superhero is not enough
X-Men is a superhero movie. Every Spiderman is a superhero movie. Batman v. Superman is a superhero movie. The increasingly bloated entries in the Avengers universe have very funny moments, but one would never classify them as something beyond superhero tales.
The Lego Batman Movie and Legion turn this on its head by refusing to be superhero movies. TLBM is a comedy, a family movie, a Batman tribute, and an animated feature, but not necessarily in that order. Legion is horror, science-fiction, a thriller, and a narrative about mental illness. If it’s a superhero story, that descriptor is far lower on the list.
Superhero films do not have to be bland, universally-appealing narratives. And they should not be simply superhero films. The upcoming Logan looks promising by being something far more than just another Wolverine movie. Consider some of the greatest Westerns ever made: they don’t settle for being merely Westerns.
A superhero film, like a Western or a fantasy or a noir, is at its worst when it has no story beyond its setting and the kinds of action scenes it contains.
Is it a story worth telling?
There are various tests these days that a writer can use to determine if they are writing good stories. There is the Bechdel test, used to determine if gender is being handled fairly, and its alternative, the Mako Mori Test. There is Red Letter Media’s Plinkett test, used to determine if you are dealing with characters or caricatures. There is even the little-known Stringer Bell Paradox Test.
Legion and The Lego Batman Movie pass another, a simple one that riffs on similar themes: if you strip away the costumes and the special effects, the familiar names and faces, is this a story worth telling?
If so, continue to tell it. If not, perhaps it’s time for a different story.