I have a problem with invulnerable heroes. And I prefer Batman to Superman. Let’s go ahead and get that out of the way.
My reason, on the surface, is a simple one. But when we lay it out on the table, it’s much more existentially complex. The knowledge that a character can be harmed bears a direct relationship to how compelling their battles are. And even though we know, like in the case of Batman, that the hero likely will not die during the proceedings of the story, the foundation of their heroics can be measured by the quality of their risks. Put another way, we know they won’t die but we never question whether they can die, or whether they can be harmed in the process of not dying.
On the other hand, a hero that does not risk much, let alone his or her mortality, to do what she does will fall short in the departments of dramatic heft and empathy.
Let’s look at some of the film offerings of recent years and at what they have to say on the topic. On what they have to say about heroic archetypes in general. We’ll allow the definition of “hero” to extend to protagonist, or, in some, the human foil to the stories’ central characters. Take Transformers: Age of Extinction on the latter distinction, wherein we’re given a new set of human characters through which to experience the battle between the honorable Autobots and the duplicitous Decepticons. Where the Transformers themselves are concerned (since most of them, anyway, are treated as little more than busy sentient props), we’ve become intimately accustomed to their physical limitations and vulnerabilities. We see them die left and right in ways that would make even the most carnage-weary of human war veterans blush. But what about their human counterparts? Tour Lebouf in the first three films made a culture of ridiculous survivals, but while the soft reboot might have indeed kept its promise to up the robot drama, it evolved its handling of the human characters in stark contrast. Make no mistake; a guy gets incinerated in the film. But for the most part, the world of Transformers 4 can’t decide whether the human body is made of flesh and bone or Nerf foam and rubber.
Just take a gander at the scene where Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg)’s daughter, Tessa (Nicola Peltz), is fleeing from Galvatron with Optimus Prime. Not only does she go flying from a semi moving at breakneck speed, she also goes on a roll race with Prime on concrete as a wrestling match between two giant robots unfolds directly on top of her. Cade himself moments later drops onto his ass from a fall no less than 60 feet without even pulling a hamstring. (Full disclosure: I might have forgiven the scene if he’d at least pulled a goddamn hamstring.)
So at this point we have the problem of credibility in risk. We’re confused over whether we can really fear for the lives of the human protagonist set. When we see the autobots Globetrotting the humans around like basketballs during the fight scenes, the element of risk becomes….problematic. The same problem was presented, albeit to a lesser extent, in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live action reboot. At one point the intrepid reporter April O’Neal magically becomes Spider-Man when the script needs her to survive a fall off of a skyscraper, and in another she and her colleague survive their own bout with a semi that, if he saw it, would presumably make Optimus Prime spill his energon. These scenes didn’t ruin the film, but they did dilute the impact of the characters’ survival. And the empathy felt for them.
Even though the robot physics are off, the human characters in 2013’s Pacific Rim are presented in believable danger. Also, none of them inexplicably float during hand to hand fights –so that’s a plus. (More on that later.)
Riddle me this. What’s the difference between the heroics on display in a great superhero film and an excellent martial arts actioner? In terms of the risk factor, not much. The Raid 2, sequel to Gareth Evans’ 2011 martial arts extravaganza, The Raid: Redemption, gave us a display of martial arts fighters skilled with abilities that, while essentially grounded in realism, pushed the boundaries of fighting prowess to near superhuman dimensions. However, the characters all experienced worlds of hurt that set the audience dancing in cringes. We felt every cut, punch, kick, body slam, and fall. We felt the characters’ mortality. And even though we were quite sure that the main protagonist would survive the movie, the experience of watching him get there was wrought with the adrenaline rush of vicarious risk.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we take the journey with Steve Rodgers, a super soldier that is armed with abilities that make his fight prowess strong in comic book proportions and his body freakishly durable, and yet the heroics remain tempered by compatible augments in the risk factors he is surrounded by. We know he can still die, can get stabbed, shot –killed. And more importantly, he knows this as well and shows it.
John Wick, another action film from 2014, starred Keanu Reeves as the titular character, a retired elite assassin brought out of hibernation to exact righteous revenge on a crew of thugs. He is just a man, to be sure. But as the protagonist in an action film, his fight prowess and handgun marksmanship make him a character that could believably exist in the same universe as Captain America, and yet what he does in the film, or the world in which he does it, never traipses over into comic book movie conventions. We know that he can die (if he does, he will stay dead!), and at the beginning of the film it is even hinted that he just might. He gets stabbed, shot, beaten to a pulp. All credible and compelling, never sacrificing the empathy quotient.
Compare that to Tom Cruise in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2, where we’re essentially back on Cybertron: Land of Pliable Humans. The fights are cartoonish, the physics would piss off Thanos in the Marvel Universe, and Tom Cruise barely even messes his hair.
In Lucy (2014), the humans only use 10% of their brains trope is exploited as Scarlett Johansson grows into what can adequately be described as a living deity. Her powers include the awkward need of a gun toting human companion despite being able to freeze her enemies in time and make them float with her thoughts.
There’s that mention of floating again. Who remembers Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li? A show of hands. Well, that film is not unlike its ugly cousin, Dragonball: Evolution, in that it seemed to have been actively engaged in a grudge war with the martial arts genre. Neither of these count as wushu films, so there’s no excuse for the ridiculous floating. But both films give us cartoonish martial arts so silly looking that they bleed the scenes of their dramatic punch. The only danger the fighters are in is embarrassing themselves, so there is nothing to be gained from watching them survive and ultimately win. The further the element of realism is stretched, I think, the more important it is that a foundation of danger for the characters be stressed. If your villain can shoot energy blasts, you’d better have a hero that can be hurt by them.
I had a similar problem with 2003’s Daredevil. Admittedly, many of the fight and action scenes were sharp. And yes, the titular character is a superhero, one that exists in a universe with a guy that can kill a man by tossing a toothpick at him from across a room. But at no point are we ever provided evidence that a highly acrobatic blind man can feasibly throw himself into freefall from over a hundred feet and land down softly in a pounce like a cartoon cat without breaking some bones. Can’t we, like, get a cracked fibula?
There is a place for invulnerable heroes, however. Indeed, a story about one can provide for some interesting explorations in emotional conflict. But if we are to truly appreciate the physical dilemma of the archetype or experience explored, we need for there to be more at risk for him or her than a bad hair day and some dirty clothes.
Khalil Barnett is a martial arts practioner living in Florida, and is also a filmmaker, writer, producer and actor starring in the independent action drama series, The Way, still active in production. Visit the official Facebook page for more info.
Lead Photo: Hugh Jackman as Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine) in X2: X-Men United (2003) from 20th Century Fox
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Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.