Do Superhero Movies Need Emotions?

Slate’s Dan Kois has an article up today arguing that Guardians of the Galaxy has too many feelings for a superhero movie. This is a problematic stance and the argument he uses in his article actually doesn’t back up his headline. It’s a bit of a messy piece in general, so responding to it requires breaking up the headline from the argument.

Kois seems to have come of age when heroes were portrayed fairly flatly on-screen. Great action flicks featuring traditional Hollywood royalty, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, didn’t need to delve deeply into the emotions of their heroes (though they did in some films). There were plenty of movies these men starred in in which selling tickets required little more than filming a scene, including some fights, and throwing in some explosions.

Spiderman Tobey Maguire
Tobey Macguire’s portrayal of Spiderman is still iconic.

The superhero genre dating back to the original Sam Raimi Spiderman film, however, has never shunned emotions as a way of enriching a narrative. That original Spiderman was loaded with emotionally heavy material ranging from the death of Peter Parker’s uncle (spoilers?) to his ongoing, unrequited love for Mary Jane. Batman Begins upped the ante in terms of emotional depth and spent the entire first half of the film focused on the character of Bruce Wayne and not the Batman, choosing to explore why he was doing what he was doing, how he was going about becoming a hero, and how through all of it he remained tormented about the death of his parents.

Plenty of the greatest Marvel films have indulged their emotional sides. The first Iron Man explored Tony Stark’s playboy wild side, alcoholism, and regret over producing weapons of war. The second Captain America (still my favorite Marvel film ever) went in-depth with Steve Rogers’ guilt and regret over the death of Bucky – a trend that continued into the third Captain America, which explored the themes of friendship even further.

Great movies involve emotional investment in the characters, otherwise every character becomes interchangeable and replaceable. Kois’ headline and some of his thoughts on emotion ignore how these movies were heightened because they invested into the feelings of the characters involved.

Captain America Bucky
Would the Captain America franchise be as good without Bucky as a character?

Unfortunately, Kois apparently wanted to make two separate arguments and seemed to muddle them up into one single article, because he does make a valid point on showing and not telling. On this point, Kois actually has a valid stance. The strength of film media is in the fact that it’s a visual medium. Games have the strength of being interactive. Books have the strength of being able to address multiple views over a longer narrative. Movies rely on visual presentation to invoke emotion and create attachment between the audience and characters.

The loss of a loved one doesn’t need to be told from one character to another, for example. In the film, Roger Rabbit, protagonist Eddie Valiant is shown waking up at his desk from a drunk stupor. Strewn across his desk are clippings of old cases he used to solve with his brother while a bottle of whisky sits on the table. Yes, characters later reference Eddie’s brother and his brother’s unfortunate death. However, we’re primarily introduced to that reality through a visual presentation that explains why Eddie is so committed to working alone rather than with a partner.

Eddie Valiant Drinking
Eddie Valiant’s constant drinking both illustrated a plot point and help characterize Eddie himself.

It’s a great example of a film choosing to set aside a discussion of a topic in favor of presenting it visually. Here, Kois has a great argument to make, and one that most film makers would agree with. Showing, rather than telling, is a powerful means of communicating a plot point and generating emotional attachment. It’s unfortunate that Kois decided to entertain a much less convincing point – that emotion weakens a film. In fact, the contrary is true. By making the audience care more about the characters, we are given more reason to want to see them succeed. This doesn’t even address that Kois’ point-that emotions are a bad thing-is a potentially toxic approach to what it means to be a man or woman.

Heroes are humans, and giving audiences role models that are emotionless, or simply violence fueled machines, isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s always a role for straight forward action films that don’t require emotional depth and can be appreciated for their flair. However, these are superhero films. Like it or not, the characters in them are symbols of greater things. Emotional depth can’t be sacrificed with such characters.

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Jason Luthor is the author of the science fiction and dystopian horror, FLOOR 21.

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