The Misguided Inertia Propelling Superhero Crossovers
Familiar characters make dramatic entrances, while other familiar characters look startled by said dramatic entrances.
Eventually, they fight one another, as some gravelly-voiced elder provides a convenient four-word summary of each character’s brand: “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. The smart-ass detective. The righteous ex-con. And the kid with the glowing fist.”
30 seconds later, someone else provides another, slightly-different four-word summary of each character’s brand (“bulletproof!” “blind ninja!” “whatever it is you are!”).
We get a glimpse of a narrow, enclosed fight scene, reminiscent of the narrow, enclosed fight scenes popularized by Daredevil#, Luke Cage#, and, to a lesser extent, Iron Fist#:
The trailer Netflix released last month for its upcoming series Defenders was so by-the-numbers it’s almost self-parody. One barely got a sense of plot (beyond “fight ninjas”), and even the relatively worthwhile goal, from an entertainment standpoint anyway, of dignifying those ninja fights with a little exposition went mulishly unsought. Instead, the exercise was simply about getting these formerly-disparate corporate properties together in one place so that they might #Marvel at one another’s powers.
While the Jessica Jones series dealt with thorny issues like sexism and abuse, and Luke Cage dared to explore modern-day racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, The Defenders doesn’t appear to be about anything besides getting four fandoms together in one room…
Crossovers, the bleak distillations of the prevailing logic guiding the current nerd ascendance, have blighted the world of superhero comics ever since the industry realized they could be utilized to squeeze a few more dollars out of their ever-shrinking, rapidly-aging readership (by forcing, say, Ms. Marvel enthusiasts to also buy The Avengers or risk not knowing what’s going on with their favorite in her own title). But superhero films and TV shows enjoy a big enough footprint you wouldn’t think they’d need to resort to this kind of marketing boondoggle.
However, the early, blockbuster-level success of the Tolstoy-esque Marvel Cinematic Universe ended up making the siren song of the crossover-based structure effectively irresistible to a tepid DC, who was then, in turn, forced to perpetuate the concept as gospel despite the fact it was doing just fine before mucking about in shared worlds (the 1978 Superman and the 1966 Batman series were huge hits, while the Nolan Batman films won the box office relying on just one cowled guy and his rogues gallery). Over on FX, Legion has been able to garner rave reviews without jamming in a special guest appearances by Galactus, which proves it can be done, but it’s like there’s some kind of genre inertia affecting the industry as a whole. Apparently, once you point Superman at the cineplex, he’s going to keep flying until he runs into Captain Carrot and the Amazing Zoo Crew.
You can’t stop it. You can only close your eyes until there is rabbit blood all over the walls.
This phenomenon is also how we ended up with Captain America: Civil War, which was supposedly about liberty vs. responsibility and the complex logic of interventionism, but instead was mostly a excuse to provide unmotivated cameos and gin up teasers for upcoming films.
It even cheekily winks to the fact that most of the characters on screen don’t need to be there, with one scene well into the film seeing a confused and not especially interested Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) actually ask the imprisoned Ant Man (Paul Rudd) who he even is. And it’s funny because there is no conceivable reason for Iron Man to know who this guy is, and indeed no reason for this guy to be there.
In theory, Bucky (Sebastian Stans), a brainwashed ex-soldier and spy on the run, is the emotional center of Civil War. And one could imagine a compelling film centered around his PTSD, his guilt, and his strained relationship with both Captain America and himself. But poor ole Buck hardly gets any lines, let alone character development, because the script had to spend so much time setting up the relationship between Vision and Scarlet Witch#, and launching Spider-Man for his own film #, and giving War Machine a spinal injury#, and so on and so forth.
Much like how Batman vs. Superman slogged through its run-time, gears grinding audibly as it worked to get Superman and Batman to want to hit each other#, and give Wonder Woman something to do#, and introduce future franchise characters like The Flash# and Cyborg, and Aquaman# through flashback clips, it’s simple arithmetic that when you’ve got so many characters to introduce, the introductions are about all you get to do.
All that being said, crossovers can be fun — if they’re tailored for a clear purpose.
The Incredible Hulk cameo in the new Thor trailer, for example, is a definitive hoot#, mostly because Thor himself seems so delighted by it. “We work together!” Chris Hemsworth bellows, like he’s just another member of the audience. It’s infectious silly fun, which seems like a fine reason for a crossover.
Luke Cage had a good, developed role in the Jessica Jones Netflix series, as well. They had chemistry, resulting in an inevitable fight scene that was actually traumatic rather than rote:
Robert Downey, Jr. and Tom Holland make for a good comedic duo in the new Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer, too.
When you keep the special guest stars down to one, a familiar face can add pizzazz, entertainment, even depth. Superhero films have historically never been great about moderation, though, and while that might be okay when you’re putting the giant antlers on Cate Blanchett#, it can also lead to a propagation of the misguided assumption that the properties are the things that matter: put them there, and people will come.
So there they are in the Defenders trailer, standing shoulder to shoulder, nodding to each other…
“Yep, we’re properties. Here we are.”
We’re not doing much, but there sure are a lot of us.
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