(The following contains Spoilers for: Man of Steel, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness)
I’m about to say something that should be obvious to everyone. Now, when you read it I want you to keep in mind that there are plenty of obvious things in this world that people seem to forget all of the time. Things like “play fair” and “try your best” and “treat people the way you want to be treated” are pretty obvious to most of us, but how quickly we can forget them when the moment comes to put them into practice. I make this point, in all honesty, to validate the very simple statement I’m about to make. That statement is this: relatable characters matter more than anything when telling a story. Perhaps you disagree with that statement or have come up with a quick one or two exceptions to the rule (something artsy and abstract), but know that the stories I’m referring to are the ones that the general public will potentially invest themselves in. I’m talking about the stories that impact our culture and capture the hearts and minds of millions (billions).
Every summer we are exposed to a fresh batch of films. The biggest ones get to be called blockbusters. Yes, summer is open season for the movie lovers, and our game of choice is original spectacle. We want to see something new and awesome. Show me something that will fill me with awe, and give it a massive budget. I’m thinking of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Terminator 2 (1991), Independence Day (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Avengers (2012), just to name a few. These movies were loved by the people who couldn’t help but throw millions of dollars back at them. But what makes these, and many other blockbuster movies so influential in our popular culture is not their massive budgets. Big budgets can make a good movie look better, but they are powerless to transform a bad movie into a good one. It’s similar to the way technology can improve a good business, but it can’t make up for the shortcomings of a bad one. Summer blockbusters can be as loud and big as they want to be, but if the characters don’t come alive or impact us within the story, we’ll be zoning out halfway through the first explosion.
So far, in the summer 2013 blockbuster season, I’ve been largely disappointed by a lack of relatable characters. Iron Man: 3 was really the only exception, with Robert Downey Jr. playing the well-developed and deeply flawed character of Tony Stark. Director Shane Black seemed to understand the importance of character, as seen most clearly in Tony’s interactions with a scientifically gifted kid who shares the same dark and sarcastic sense of humor. In the middle of this super hero blockbuster film we watched Tony Stark talk and joke with a kid in the middle of a small town, and it was one of the more memorable parts. They were characters acting like people, and I cared because I could relate.
After Iron Man came Star Trek: Into Darkness, which was a just fine movie, but I couldn’t seem to invest in the characters beyond what I’ve already invested as a fan of the Star Trek universe. The Wrath of Kahn will remain a more significant film within our pop- culture consciousness because we enjoy the characters more. Ricardo Montalban has a certain charm to him that was lacking in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. And Kirk was just another non-hero with a lot of issues that made him more irritating than charming. Worst of all, when many people are killed in the end, none of the characters seem moved by the tragedy. That apparent lack of compassion makes already unappealing characters into heartless monsters, which is unfortunately a perfect transition into Man of Steel.
I’m a big fan of the character of Superman. One of my favorite films is Superman:The Movie (1978) starring Christopher Reeve. In that film we see a Superman/Clark Kent who genuinely wants to help people. He does some big things to help, like stop California from falling into the ocean, but he also does some small things. I believe it is the small things that make Reeve’s Superman so relatable. He certainly has a genuine nice guy quality to him, but beyond that he portrays a level of compassion and societal awareness in every scene. This Superman talks to authority figures with respect, and goes out of his way to help them out. He is an inspiration to people, and isn’t too important to rescue a cat out of a tree. You just feel glad to watch him be so good to people. You want to be that good. I feel good just writing about it! Anyway, I came into Man of Steel with the hope that Henry Cavill’s portrayal of the character would reflect the same heart for service and compassion for humanity. You can imagine my horror when I watched him carelessly punch villains into skyscrapers full of people and destroy property like a child knocking over his Lincoln Logs. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to make a more realistic and gritty Superman, but they sacrificed his heart to do so. Even a tiny indication that he cared about the hundreds of thousands that were dying all around him would have gone a long way for me. Instead, it’s all about him finding his identity while punching bad guys through skyscrapers, and the little people in paper houses are objects to be used as fodder for explosions. Heck, all of these people are dead or trapped in rubble, and Superman’s more concerned with making out with Lois Lane (while making some random comment about being better than humans when it comes to romance) and finding new creative ways to punch down buildings. Even with that ending where he makes a huge sacrifice to save a few people, it was too little too late. He saves people when it doesn’t interfere with punching villains into crowded areas. Every life should matter to Superman, and because this Superman showed a disregard for the sanctity of life and property, I cannot embrace him. I can’t let this character matter to me, because he doesn’t care about what matters. He’s a false Superman, in direct conflict with the character I’ve been relating to for years.
So that was my overview of what has been a mostly disappointing summer blockbuster season. I’m sure many will disagree with my analysis, but I am confident that time will reveal these films to be insignificant within our popular culture because the characters in them weren’t relatable or particularly enjoyable. It is important to mention that all of these characters that I’ve mentioned have already existed for decades, and I’m confident that plays a role in reducing their cultural impact. Superman and Captain Kirk are especially troublesome, as they are associated with specific actors who no longer play them. But hey, I don’t want to end on a negative note…
There’s still hope for this summer. Pacific Rim comes out July 12, and from what I’ve seen, this thing has the potential for some original and relatable characters with heart. If all we get are big monsters and big mechs fighting each other amidst a sea of destruction, the movie will fall flat and lose any chance for cultural resonance. But if the characters controlling the big mechs are interesting and we can find a little of ourselves in them, this summer blockbuster could become a part of the larger conversation for years.
It’s all about characters we can relate to.