The Indistinguishable X-Men: the narrowing range of superhero emotions
There’s more to hero life than ‘scared’ and ‘angry’
Critics agree that X-Men: Apocalypse is a troubled film. They just don’t entirely agree on the core issue. The Week says it has a villain problem. Indiewire says it has an apocalypse problem. The Hollywood Reporter says it has “severe traffic control problems.” All these things are true — it’s overcrowded, the villain is generic and forgettable, and his plan to Destroy Everything Because Reasons has turned up in far too many recent superhero films.
But none of this would entirely matter if Apocalypse’s heroes were personable, believable people who made the film’s stakes feel meaningful and specific. They certainly should be: They’re X-Men, some of the most pointedly diverse, backstory-rich heroes in the comic-book landscape. They come from different countries, cultures, and circumstances. They cover a wide variety of ages, interests, and educational levels. They should be a fractious group of distinctive individuals, struggling to come together to face a common threat.
Instead, in Apocalypse, the X-Men and the villains they face are all cut from the exact same emotional cloth. They deliver dead-eyed, monotonal speeches about their traumas and their plans for the future. They stand around in poster-ready formation, glowering with their best catwalk-fierce supermodel expressions. And even when some of them are blue and one is bald and one is black and one is blindfolded, they all end up looking pretty much the same.
Lack of emotional range has been a problem in superhero movies for the past decade, and 2016 seems like a watershed year. It started with the grimmest and grittiest comic-book movie of the decade (Batman v Superman) facing off against the silliest one (Deadpool), and then Captain America: Civil War took the normally emotionally rich Marvel Cinematic Universe to a particularly dark and deadened place. Even the MCU’s most complicated heroes, developed over the course of half a dozen films, become raging, silent punch-bots by the end of Civil War. That’s a meaningful emotional tragedy within the isolated context of the film itself. But watching all these movies together, it’s easy to wonder: don’t heroes ever get to feel joy anymore?
If Batman Begins really is ground zero for our heroes being replaced by grimaces, it’s possible to lay some of the blame there. Batman is defined by his barely varying rage — there’s a funny little fan-art concept about that floating around the internet in a wide variety of iterations — and Batman Begins established a particularly grave, ponderous tone. But even before that film, there was Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in the X-movies, setting a standard for superheroes in 2000’s X-Men with his peacetime glower and his wartime snarl. Superman Returns emphasized Superman’s alienness and his remove from human feeling. Ang Lee’s Hulk marinated in the big green guy’s angst and anger without finding any of the childish glee in Hulk smashing things. Or maybe it all goes back even further, to 1994’s The Crow, and the way it turned superheroism into one long session of goth seething and brooding. Part of the appeal of MCU films like Iron Man and Guardians Of The Galaxy was that they felt like a corrective to years of hero movies that took all the fun out of heroing. They let their protagonists escape the long national funk that’s become as standard-issue for heroes as leather costumes and big explosions.
It’s certainly understandable that our cultural mandate has gravitated toward gravity. Endless thinkpieces have been written about how the current superhero-movie boom comes from America’s attempt to process the September 11th, 2001 attacks, visually and emotionally, and to simplify them into something that can be punched in the face. It took a while for movies to catch up with the grim-n-gritty trend that took over superhero comics in the 1980s, but now they seem to be trying to out-dark the comics that spawned them. So many comics-movie protagonists have taken on an edge of weary desperation, as if they’re trying to reflect the way the viewers feel about living in an age of government surveillance, endless foreign conflict, and seemingly insoluble problems.
“Don’t heroes get to feel joy anymore?”
But taking a subject seriously isn’t the same thing as taking it without a hint of emotion. The problem isn’t characters defined by anger or frustration, the problem is when they don’t seem to feel anything else. In X-Men: Apocalypse, virtually everyone in the cast is emotionally shattered by traumas on-screen and off, from deaths in the family to the overall state of mutant rights. Nightcrawler, Mystique, Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Magneto all walk through the movie in various states of terror and leaden despair, carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Other characters,like Angel, Storm, and especially Psylocke, are so busy scowling that they barely get to talk.
This is a problem for the fans. The entire point of a character like Angel / Archangel is the arc between who he was at the beginning and what he became, and when he’s a gloomy, almost wordless thug throughout the entire process, he becomes an empty special effect, without any narrative power. The homogeneity is also a problem for the storytelling: characters who start a story at an emotional dead end, already furious or numb with shock, have nowhere to go as the filmmakers attempt to ramp up the dramatic stakes. And it’s a problem for the audience. If superheroes are meant to represent our best selves, our most brave and altruistic impulses, what does it say about us if we expect our best selves to be grimly emotionless robots?
There’s a clear feeling in modern superhero films that showing too much “soft” emotion somehow weakens a character. The Batman of DC Comics is sometimes capable of laughter — remember the final page of The Killing Joke? — but the recent on-screen versions can barely crack a sardonic smirk, even in Bruce Wayne mode. Henry Cavill’s version of Superman looks perpetually pinched with some sort of deep inner strain. The X-movies have almost universally been dour, sometimes to operatic ends, and sometimes just to depressing ones. Even quip-happy, smart-ass Tony Stark loses his ability to banter by the end of Civil War, and openly sets out to kill two men in a wave of blank-faced hatred.
“Characters who start at an emotional dead end have nowhere to go”
There are so many signs that the “bigger, meaner, darker, angrier” trend isn’t actually what audiences want. Every big superhero-movie-defining callout moment from the past several years has come when the script set aside emotional deadness for a moment. Audiences seem to celebrate any hint that their heroes are human. Quicksilver glorying in his powers in his high-speed action scene in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Star-Lord’s swaggering little dance to “Come And Get Your Love” at the beginning of Guardians Of The Galaxy, Wade and Vanessa’s lusty sex montage in Deadpool, Ant-Man thrilling to his own sudden power as a giant in Civil War, Spider-Man’s entire Civil War character — these are the moments that become fan memes and critical reference points, because they show the cracks in the heroes’ dull armor.
And that’s because heroes aren’t just escapist, and aren’t just exciting. They’re aspirational. We’re meant to identify with them, and to root for them, and to care about them. We’re meant to want to be them. But it’s hard to identify with a mirthless, expressionless chunk of granite. So many grimdark modern superheroes offer a fantasy of being tough enough to survive any trauma, not just physically, but emotionally. To people who feel battered by the world, for whatever reason, that Wolverine glare that says “I can beat whatever you can throw at me” can be inspiring and relieving. It’s a fantasy not just of competence, but of indestructibility. As we collectively continue trying to process the constant political, social, and technological changes in the world, and the feelings of frustration and helplessness that sometimes comes with them, it’s comforting to retreat to a fantasy of being able to deal with whatever comes.
But it’s also comforting to imagine being indestructible, and still getting to share in the full range of human experience — lust and love, delight and wonder, joy and amusement, and all the other things lacking in Apocalypse and so many other superhero movies. Our collective fantasies define superheroes, and we collectively fantasize about more than one thing. By shutting out so much of the range of human life, hero movies are making superhumans considerably less than human. It makes their characters duller. It turns their movies into unvarying slogs. It limits the ways in which these films can speak to us, and engage us. It’s true that too many superhero films are setting out to crowd in more action, and bigger stakes, at the expense of any kind of variety or creativity. But the small emotional apocalypse feels more disastrous than the big CGI ones. It’s important that our heroes come along to save the day. It’s just as important that they preserve their humanity in the process.