Screenwriter Todd Alcott examines the genre:

First, let me make something clear: there is nothing wrong, shameful or second-rate about adolescent fantasies. Adolescent fantasies drive the entire movie business and have for more than a generation. “Grown-up” drama was once where all the money was spent in Hollywood, now it’s the opposite: all the money is spent on adolescent fantasies, while adult drama must squeeze itself in where it can. Adolescent fantasies thus call the shots in this world of professionals — movies based on superhero comics, fantasy novels, children’s books and pop-culture flotsam attract the biggest names, the highest salaries and our brightest talents. No offense to the wonderful movies nominated for Best Picture this year, but the three movies I went to see more than once in the theaters, Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda and The Dark Knight, are not on the list. The question here is not “are superhero movies any good?” but “can superhero movies ever be anything but adolescent fantasies?”


  1. I haven’t seen IRON MAN or DARK KNIGHT, and don’t intend to. The plot for IRON MAN merely rehashed his origin and tossed in a classic opponent. DARK KNIGHT had Batman facing the Joker. Again. So much for that.

    I understand that Ledger’s performance was excellent, perhaps even brilliant, but he was portraying a villainous psychopath. Thriller novels are loaded with villainous psychopaths; a serial killer is one practically by definition. The Joker just happens to be in comics.

    So, there was nothing in either movie’s story content that interested me. Yet, the movies delighted so many people. Is that because the movies portrayed the heroes and other characters more vividly and strikingly than the comics could, or ever could?

    I’d guess that the first idea many people wanting to do a superhero movie would have would be to do his origin story, since that avoids problems with background material and might involve a dramatic incident. Doing origin story after origin story would be undesirable, though.

    Alcott mentions Don Quixote and hopes that WATCHMEN will be closer to portraying heroes as literary characters than previous action-adventure genre movies have been. That would be nice. Yet, it would have been nicer if Alcott could have given an example of superhero as literary character from the printed comics, or generated one himself. Waiting for something that he can’t describe himself — he’ll know it when he sees it — isn’t encouraging.


  2. I don’t know who Todd Alcott is (I hope he has a nice career though) but I do think his comments are incredibly generalist. It is WAY too easy to say “adolescent fantasies” and walk away. Superhero comics began as adolescent fantasy, but in case anyone doesn’t know, adolescent fantasies are extremely complicated and interesting and crazy and weird and indeed helped form what we know as the study of psychology. Just as some people say we are all trying to re-live or at least re-interpret our past, comics might be the great medium for doing so — is that why they’re “catching on” beyond their first. obvious audience?

    I also wouldn’t lump any of the recent films into pure adolescent fantasy: Iron Man is mid-life career-change fantasy and DK is a bipolar one. Even Superman Returns which was not nearly as successful tried to mess with the standard fantasy by having Superman be the deadbeat dad — since when is that an adolescent fantasy? I’m semi-being a jerk here but only to prove the point — because I do think he’s right, Hollywood won’t stray too far. I agree that none of these was Godfather II (I think Heidi said that so I don’t want to steal her line) but they have more shades of complexity than we at might first think.

    I don’t think Watchmen is the answer though since it’s really just a translation — I think maybe the great super-hero movie will be with no true ties to any comics, like Unbreakable.


  3. The problem with adolescent fantasies is that adolescents have them. One can see all sorts of potential plot material and symbolism in such fantasies, and in stories written for teens, but he’s converting the material into a form that he thinks adults would enjoy, or he’s assuming that people would share his enthusiasm for stories (and movies) written for teens, when adults should want material written for adults. Alcott might be thinking of stories in which the heroes and villains are largely symbolic, playing roles in statements about morality, rather than an SF-type treatment in which rationales are devised for powers. After all, in a Marvel Universe-type setting, practically any power can be duplicated by advanced technology.

    It’s not that difficult to come up with situations that raise unsolvable dilemmas. For example, suppose a woman mysteriously acquires the power to cure infections instantly, but only infections caused by certain types of bacteria or viruses. Given the population of the world, she could use her power to save lives globally, but people would die, regardless, and she’d lose control over her life. So, does she use her power to save lives, or does she preserve her independence and keep her power hidden? Moral and ethical dilemmas that can only be tackled by adult minds are more interesting than power fantasies.


  4. Superheroes are, by nature, fantasies, but does that really make them unfit for non-adolescents?

    Adults have fantasies too, and I would argue that The Dark Knight and Iron Man movies were as much or more fantasies for and about *adults*, and adult fears and desires, as they were for adolescents.

  5. This debate is ignoring the fact that movie studios are merely following the largest demographics of ticket buyers. When the Godfather was made Boomers were packing the seats of movie theatres. After flirting with GenX for a short period sparked but “surprise hits” like Terminator, the studios have run after the boomlet starting with the runaway success of Little Mermaid and Toy Story (and the additional profits afforded by the shift to DVD’s as home entertainment/babysitters) making more and more movies PG, then PG-13, and as we speak crosssing back into R… TV and Cable are catering to the adult market with everything from Homicide to 6 feet under, to The Wire and CSI, the multiple Law & Orders to Burn Notice, The Shield, and Nip/Tuck. Comics/Graphic Novels need to cater to ALL of these demographics because we can afford to. It cost much less to make a graphic novel than a movie, so the movie industry has no choice but to go for the biggest bang for the buck. Lets not drive the comics industry by what the movie industry decides to pull from it. We have flexibility they don’t have.

  6. Some situations involving moral and/or ethical issues:

    Several superheroes were crippled in a war against a group of villains, losing limbs and having organs damaged. A mutant’s healing and regeneration abilities stem from immortal stem cells in his thymus and bone marrow. Researchers have determined that if he were to donate tissue to the crippled heroes, they might be able to regenerate their missing limbs and repair the damaged organs over several months, but the mutant would deplete his own abilities. Is he obligated to donate the tissue?

    The powers of Earth’s superheroes are based on the conversion of psionic energy. They’ve made good use of the energy, but researchers have discovered that their use of it has depleted the Earth’s stores of the energy faster than the human population generates it. At the current usage rate, the energy will no longer exist in useful amounts in two years. The production of psionic energy can be boosted in individuals by accelerating the metabolic rate of brain cells, but the lives of those individuals would be shortened. In the absence of psionic energy, though, Earth will be helpless against villainous use of advanced technology. Do the heroes seek volunteers to produce psionic energy to be harvested? Do they force people serving life terms or sentenced to death to produce energy? Or do they deplete the Earth’s energy in the form of a spell that would prohibit the existence of advanced technology?

    The world’s most powerful woman is married and wants to have children, but her powers stem from retrovirus-like genetic sequences that were suddenly activated when she was a child. How those sequences might manifest themselves in a child is unknown. The outcomes potentially range from a child who never has any powers to a monster who kills the would-be mother prior to birth. What do doctors advise the heroine to do?

    Researchers who were playing “God” by detecting and taking control of micro-universes as soon as they formed inadvertently created a being who crossed over into their universe and proceeded to destroy it, along with all the alternate timelines stemming from it, and the spell that was used to create it. So, nothing is left, except the remnants of the spell. Heroes who were in another dimension at the time of destruction survived — but what do they do? They can reside in the dimension of a friendly deity indefinitely and spend the equivalent of several lifetimes learning how to create or recreate the universe — but is that goal worth the effort? Or should they live out their natural lives in a hospitable dimension instead? And if they do recreate the universe, should they be that universe’s gods?

    A cosmic being captured a group of heroes and changed their sexes for its own amusement. Other cosmic beings eventually intervened and freed them. The three transformed heroines readily changed back to women; but the four transformed heroes, who had their personalities altered beyond the effects of the sex change, don’t want to change back. And two of the heroes, alpha males through and through, were considered rude, overly egotistical and aggressive, and generally dislikable by the heroines. Should they let the transformed men remain women? Or should they do what the men would want?


  7. Great point Steven,
    and you know cartoons like bugs bunny and Flintstones were made with adults in mind -and the same goes for news paper strips then and now.
    As for “situations involving moral and/or ethical issues” the very foundation of superhero comics: why does Lois Lane like Superman but not Clark Kent?

  8. Well to be fair I know people who have gone to “Dark Knight” only once and “Kung-Fu Panda” not at all, but have been to watch Academy Nominee “Milk” several times. I’m not sure how his assertion that he personally watched certain films more than one time proves his argument.

    As for Academy nominee “Slumdog Millionaire”, is it not in it’s own way an adolescent fantasy? Take away some of the horrific bits with police torture, religious strife and kerosene, and at it’s core it’s an old fashioned wish fullfillment story: rags-to-riches, gets the girl, and excels excessively at his chosen task (Jamal is not only a winner on the quiz show-he’s the bestest of the best and most knowledgable contestant they’ve ever had EVER!)

  9. My main point is that writing an adult story about superheroes and villains is simply a matter of providing the structure that practically any adult fantasy or SF novel would have. Provide reasons for their powers, motivations for what they do, a semblance of the concerns that normal adults have, and story ideas about adult issues won’t be difficult to generate. “Adolescent fantasy” and “escapist fantasy” don’t generally refer to the same thing, but if the writer’s emphasis is on visual effects and he only raises questions that a ten-year-old could confidently answer (“Killing is bad; Good triumphs over evil”), they are the same thing.


  10. I would respectfully disagree, Steven, that the contents of the two movies under discussion are as simplistic and adolescent as you are assuming. I actually think they fit the model you recommend. Yes, they do include the messages “killing innocent people is bad” and “sometimes good triumphs over evil”, but that is hardly the sum of their contents.

    What, in my mind, makes them *adult* fantasies, is that they *aren’t* stories of the powerless gaining power. They’re about the very adult concerns of people who have power when confronted with the question of the consequences of their actions, and must consider whether or not they have used it well.

    The Dark Knight is not simply the story of “The Joker Is Bad”. Well, that too. But also it’s the story of Batman considering the bad people who have been inspired by his fear tactics, trying to figure out whether or not Batman has actually been good for Gotham in the long term, and how to fight a ruthlessly amoral enemy morally.

    Iron Man *is* the Iron Man origin story, but in the telling of it, other issues are being raised beside “Yay! I escaped my captors! Go ingenuity!”. Tony Stark is a creative and in his own way idealistic man who is confronted by the fact that his own creations and power are being horribly misused due to his own complacency. It isn’t that he, like a ten year old, does a 180 and decides out of nowhere that all killing is evil, he just never figured that out before. That would be problematic in the extreme, given that Iron Man racks up quite a death count. It’s that he realises that *having* power and *intending* good aren’t enough to guarentee a good outcome, that a person must be vigilant for the unfortunate side effects of their decisions and be ready to take responsibility and action if they occur.

    Both of these movies are a great deal more complex than “Killing bad, Evil loses” plus special effects – though, hey. They have that too.

  11. Aaaand I accidentally used the Brit spelling on “realize”.

    All I can say in my defense is that I had been reading a book printed in British usage earlier today. My mistake.

  12. Those are important points. But this idea that moral and ethical adult situations is more “interesting” than superhero fantasy is a value judgment. It really sounds like you are arguing for science fiction, which is all ethical/technological dilemmas, right?

    What I should have added is that a comic book movie can be absolutely rancid in terms of entertainment and narrative content but it is still interesting because it is an adolescent fantasy — which can be analyzed again and again.

    And great points that everything is a fantasy anyway — that is film. Slumdog is a fantasy for us Americans (and Brits) that the caste system can be semi-beaten by a kid who can get on a gameshow so we can sleep okay at night. Don’t get me started on Law and Order: The News is Fake. I think even Revolutionary Road is a fantasy, for many adults. But I digress GO GO BIZARRO GOODBYE


  13. Ms. Fitzsimons, you and others might have inferred that I was dismissing DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN as adolescent fantasies, but Alcott did that. I stated that I wasn’t interested in the movies’ story content.

    I have seen enough of the Joker. A psychopath is a psychopath is a psychopath. In practically any story, it’s a given that the psycho will eventually be caught; the only interest lies in just how he’ll be caught and what he’ll do before that — and whether what he does is so sensational that he ends up as the actual star of the story. If that happens, then the story is trash, regardless of the writer’s original intent.

    I’ll note that taking a systematic approach toward defining powers and how heroes acquired them isn’t customary, but doing so is practically essential if one wants to write stories that make them the causes of conflicts or dilemmas. They don’t have to be so rigorously defined as to make them theoretically possible; just assign the power’s origin to a particular genetic sequence, organ, or external source, and treat the subject systematically. Marvel’s failure to do that, even with the mutants, is a major reason why so many of the stories are escapist fantasies.


  14. Well, but Marvel did assign mutantcy to a specific genetic sequence, albeit the nebulous, non-Nature-publishable “X-gene.” A systematic approach to an origin is pure Golden Age (Superman’s powers are scientifically explained by ants). But would such an approach now reduce any sort of imaginative investment by readers? Isn’t that how Wolverine went from a nothing character to an 80s sensation (like Milli Vanilli?)

    And on your Joker comments, I respectfully disagree. For one, do see the movie. Without indulging in the over-romanticizing of the film that has become almost de rigeur, though you are right on in the very general formula meant to move Joker through the narrative, it is the performance and yes stroy (with NO specific origin!) that gives the character and story and film-goer a new weight. For me, Batman/Joker has always been bipolar: Bruce running around on no sleep with a to-do list and Joker laughing at his own lack of social boundaries. But while I understood that through the comics, I never saw it until Dark Knight. Movies are very hard to make, so they are never really trash — but I would really disagree that DK is any part of this heap.

  15. yes stroy = yes story

    I did forget to say that I do agree with you SRS on the same old psychopath narrative thing. No that I’m on a moral high horse but because it is criminal that these SAW guys (I’m assuming they are) can be millionaires now. Life is scary enough without My Bloody Box Office Receipts 3-D. That’s a whole other fantasy I don’t want to understand.

    Batman does have such moments as well, but I’m not going to try and sell it to you.

  16. “I haven’t seen IRON MAN or DARK KNIGHT, and don’t intend to. The plot for IRON MAN merely rehashed his origin and tossed in a classic opponent. DARK KNIGHT had Batman facing the Joker. Again. So much for that.”

    You haven’t seen them, yet you seem to know the plots?

  17. Yes, Marvel has an X-gene, but that’s as far as the company’s gone, from an editorial standpoint. Warren Ellis took it upon himself, in ASTONISHING X-MEN, to place the X-gene on the 23rd chromosome — but doing that doesn’t connect the gene to any particular power. Marvel made a mess of things in any case, by claiming that Wanda caused the X-gene to vanish from affected mutants and that it couldn’t be replaced. Apparently nobody at Marvel Editorial understands that real-world researchers have created artificial genes and chromosomes. The M-Day concept was obsolete science from the start.

    Re rationalizing powers: Marvel went in the direction of basing powers on psionic energy in the AVENGERS “Kree-Skrull War” storyline when Rick Jones demonstrated a power, and it was implied that other humans could potentially have the same ability. Using that as a basis for powers is pretty simple.

    Super speed: Self-directed telekinesis
    Magneto’s control over metals: Self-limited telekinesis
    Heat vision: Increases vibration rate of molecules along a line of sight
    Temperature manipulation: Increases or decreases the vibration rate of atoms in a given amount of space.
    Force field projection: Psionic/kinetic energy conversion along the borders of a three-dimensional shape.
    Super strength: Conversion of psionic energy to kinetic energy at the points of contact.
    Bodily transformation (e.g., the Hulk) Either actual transformation, with the user referring to species consciousness for a model, or transformation of one’s (Kirlian?) aura into a simulated body while the physical body is immaterial. Tremendous changes in physical size (Giant-Man, shrinkage to sub-atomic sizes), though, would seem to require simulated or virtual bodies.

    I’m guessing that practically any power in the Marvel universe can be explained by invoking psionic energy and, if needed, creation of a simulated (thought-form?) body while the host body is immaterial.

    As for mutants specifically, the activation of any given power is tied to the activation of a retrovirus-like sequence, integrated into a human gene (the X-gene) in the human genome that affects brain functions (awareness of the power) and specifies the power. A secondary mutation is a latent power which surfaces when the copy number of the corresponding gene reaches a threshold. Variation in the X-gene copy number determines when the power activates and the strength of the power. So, while the X-gene itself is stable, polymorphism in the integrated retrovirus changes the specific power.

    Non-mutants (somatic mutants) don’t have active X-genes, but they do have the power-specifying retrovirus-like sequence, which can be activated accidentally by radiation, etc.

    These rationales can be refined by describing, say, an “intelligent power,” which resides in a person’s subconscious and can act independently. One possibility would be the Ultraverse’s Lady Killer, who had perfect aim. The Scarlet Witch’s expression of Chthonic magic could become an intelligent power.