Turbulence by Samit Basu, Titan Books, 7th July, £7.99.
Pissed Off Geek are very happy to present a blog by the author of Turbulence a new super hero novel Samit Basu where he discusses his favourite superhero films, enjoy.
To start off, I’m writing this a few days before Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises swings into theatres worldwide. Place it wherever you like on this list – given Nolan’s track record, it should make it into the top half, no question. Also, I haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man yet, but that’s largely because there’s only so many times I can watch the same story being told.
This is a list of my favourite superhero films, ranked for no particular reason other than to possibly promote argument. These films stand out above all the others I’ve seen not just because of the wonderful scripts, actors or special effects, but also because they push the genre forward, embracing the power of the superhero tale and all its modern myth-making possibilities.
Since I’ve been doing some superhero storytelling myself over the last few years, these films have been useful on several levels: I’ve learnt things, been thoroughly intimidated by their visual magnificence, and tried to use what I’ve learnt in my own novel, Turbulence. And when I tell you what I think you ‘should’ learn from them, it’s certainly not to claim that I have, or used that knowledge effectively – though hopefully you’ll think I have, if you read Turbulence! This list is more about what each of these films made me aspire to achieve in my own work.
While each of these films has given me around two hours of undiluted joy, there’s no denying that the real frontier-pushing work as far as the superhero field is concerned has been in comics – making a combined film/comics/TV list would be a very daunting challenge, and I think only the top three films in this list would have a shot at making it through. But to give credit where it’s due, these films have helped the genre immensely by turning it mainstream, bringing fresh readers to the world of comics and giving publishers the confidence to try out superhero stories in different media, including novels like mine.
All right, enough origin-storying, here’s the list:
I was torn while watching the Watchmen – on the one hand, I was impressed at how eerily similar to the book Zach Snyder’s film was. On the other, I was disappointed that the whole objective of the film seemed to be replicating the comic’s art, and the few places where it went beyond the book didn’t work at all – for example, the implied violence of Rorschach beating people up is so much scarier than actual visuals of bones cracking and blood flying. One important thing to take out of Watchmen the film, for superhero creators, is that you can lose yourself in trying to please everyone. And that each medium has its own challenges and opportunities, and it’s perfectly all right for an adaptation to be completely different, as long as it exploits the strengths of the medium it uses to tell the story. If you’re writing a superhero novel, you’re depriving yourself of what’s easily the most impressive part of most superhero stories in other media – the visuals. Your book can’t sound like a running commentary of a superhero film – it has to use the strength and power of the written word.
The two key things to take out of Kick-Ass (I actually liked the film even more than the comic) are, first, that powers are the least important thing in a superhero story – it’s really all about the people in the suits, as Batman has shown us for decades. Second, superhero culture is both strong and funny, and as a genre fan, I love genre references – one of the high points in the Avengers, for me, was Iron Man calling Hawkeye Legolas. – though it’s important to remember not to let the references get in the way of the story. Did I say two things? Three: Little girls with weapons can be utterly terrifying, as I’ve tried to show in Turbulence.
8. X-Men 2
Apart from the excellent script and VFX, what I enjoyed most about X2 was that it didn’t keep the playing field small; the film played out on a global scale, and in between the crackling fights was plenty of actual thought on what it meant to have superpowers, both for humans and mutants. Plenty of internal conflict, individual viewpoints, real-world political themes. X2 managed to do this without infodumping, which is really challenging: of course, it helped that this was the second film in the franchise, so a lot of the what-is-a-mutant speech-making had already been dealt with.
7. Batman Begins
Most superhero stories – well, conventional superhero stories – essentially star the villain as protagonist, with the hero striving to bring things back to status quo, and essentially protect his city/world. Batman Begins wasn’t just an important superhero film because of Christopher Nolan’s beautifully real interpretation of the Bruce Wayne story – it was a film about change, and evolution, and trying to fix the world one bashed-in face at a time. Until Nolan’s own Dark Knight, Batman Begins stood out as the first attempt at a really serious, non-campy superhero film without over-stylized action sequences that actually worked. What I admire most about it, though, is the complete break away from genre conventions while staying quite faithful to the story.
6. Spider-man 2
This one is such a superhero classic. It hits all the points a timeless superhero story should, and has in Doc Ock one of the most charismatic villains an all-ages film has ever featured. The lesson for superhero creators in Spider-man 2 is simply this: there are plenty of things about the classic superhero story that work, and while I’m always by revisionist work, updates, displacements and so forth, sometimes old-school storytelling and staying true to genre conventions works just as well, if not better, than reinterpretation. Where to strike the balance is, of course, up to you. The other thing to take away from this film is, as with all the best Spidey stories, that the hero’s life, daily routine and real-world troubles can be as interesting as the more high-drama villain/world-involving conflict.
5. Iron Man
Iron Man works so well on many of the fronts I’ve already discussed – the sharp script mixing humour, real-world politics and big hero moments, the brilliant action bits and all that, but what should strike both joy and fear in the heart of the superhero creator is what Iron Man reveals – you can take a thoroughly reprehensible, arrogant, morally grey, self-centred character and build a superhero out of him, making him not just a powerful, charismatic figure – as Stark is in most of his comics, despite being distressingly emo – but also a genuinely loveable one. A lot of this is due to RDJr’s sheer presence and charm, but you have to remember that a well-written character can have the worst of origins, or ideologies, but end up being a fantastic hero. Or villain, it really doesn’t matter which. Goodness of heart or the lack of it have nothing to do with it.
4. X-Men: First Class
Everything from here on is worth of the No. 1 slot. X-Men first class had everything working in its favour – fantastic cast, a lot of characters who hadn’t been overused, a plot that was about so much more than the heroes, that covered a whole world full of old-school conflict that’s still relevant today – but apart from the things we’ve already covered, what stood out in X-Men First Class was the attention to detail, the fantastic reconstruction of the exact time and place in which the story was set. I don’t think we’ve seen such splendid period-piece work in any superhero movie before; most superhero films tend to gloss over these details and save their money for the big CGI sequences. The more real the world the superhero story is set in, the greater the impact of the fantasy sequences; I’ve tried very hard to stay true to this in Turbulence, and hope it works.
3. The Incredibles
This is the perfect gateway drug for non-superhero fans. The Incredibles has everything a superhero film should have; fantastic characters, strong themes, a clever, twisty plot, and for all its lightness, humour and wit, it’s a startlingly deep, multi-layered examination of the whole superhero myth, set in a richly detailed, timeless world. For sheer depth and range of ideas, this is the best superhero film made yet. Every writer of superhero stories should study it closely, and specifically for its treatment of younger characters and women. Women in superhero stories tend to be helpless victims, sidekicks and oversexed femme fatales. But Elastigirl is easily the finest film superheroine created yet; not bad for a stay-at-home mother of three.
2. The Dark Knight
I watched The Dark Knight in a multiplex in Delhi notorious for its loud cell-phone users, brain-dead hall-conversationalist and weak-bladdered toilet addicts. No one moved or spoke for the entire length of the film. If a film’s potential for repeat viewing were the deciding factor for this ranking, TDK would be number one, without question, and not just for Heath Ledger’s brilliant Joker. Too often, superhero movies are tailored for weak-stomached, casual film-goers; The Dark Knight is, well, dark, relentless, almost punishing in its seriousness, and is a fascinating exercise in dramatic storytelling. No other film can make you forget the innate ridiculousness of superhero convention this effectively. It should have won the Best Film Oscar.
1. The Avengers
I was a huge Joss Whedon fan before I saw the Avengers, but now I regard him with sheer awe. The key lesson for superhero creators from The Avengers is balance: how to take a huge, talented cast, have them play iconic characters, and somehow manage to create a film where each hero in a large, complex team is the star. The Avengers transcends its medium at times: it produces several moments of jaw-dropping visual bliss on a scale that I thought could be achieved only by double-page spreads in comics. It’s a magnificent exercise in character writing, in making each hero’s voice so distinct that it stands out in the crowd. And what a crowd. The film in its entirety doesn’t hold up to repeat viewing as well as Dark Knight or Incredibles, but I could watch that gigantic third act on repeat for days on end.
Turbulence by Samit Basu will be available to buy 7th July £7.99 courtesy of Titan Books.