I have to put my hands up at the start of this post and declare that my credentials to talk about comics stand at approximately zero (the credentials for existential angst I feel I can claim to be somewhat higher). Of the superhero film franchises, I’ve seen a few but by no means all, but I’ve never got into comics as a visual medium. Of what I have seen, I think it’s fair to say that both tights and angst feature strongly. There’s an aesthetic in these stories which is appealing – the masks, the paraphernalia, the exclusive powers, the generally cool stuff. And then there’s what makes those characters tick, which for me personally is the more interesting bit.
If there’s one book that should be mentioned in reference to comics, it has to be The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. It’s a few years since I read it and my memory isn’t good enough to talk about it in detail, but quite apart from the (quite epic) journeys of its two brilliantly realized central protagonists, Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, Kavalier & Clay is a wonderful exercise in both the history of comics and what, at a particular point in history, they strove to achieve. Sammy and Joe, in discussing the hero of their own new comic book superhero (will he be a hawk? A lion? A tiger? They can’t decide), pinpoint the issue of what drives a superhero thus:
“How? Is not the question. What? Is not the question,” Sammy said.
“The question is why.”
“The question is why.”
“Why,” Joe repeated.
“Why is he doing it?”
“Dressing up like a monkey or an ice cube or a can of fucking corn.”
The why – the motivating angst – is what propels the narrative. In this particular scene, Sammy and Joe agree that the desire to avenge the murder of his parents is what makes Batman interesting. This is the fuel they need to find for their own protagonist (who will eventually develop into Nazi-fighting superhero The Escapist). Sammy and Joe use Batman as their baseline for character development. They might have enjoyed the latest Nolan-directed franchise, especially Batman Begins which took time to explore the origins of the eponymous hero’s angst.
Other films play on the expected tropes of comic culture. Take Pixar’s The Incredibles: always an excellent pick-me-up when feeling low. The reason that it works so very well is because it takes both the emotional and the aesthetic concepts and blends them with all the usual panache you expect of a Pixar script. Tights feature, as do other superhero paraphernalia such as masks, and a memorable riff on the perils of capes by show-stealing costume designer Edna. But there is also plenty of angst on offer which, unlike some of the big issues of many superhero films, anyone can identify with – frustration with the day job; being too shy to talk to people at school; having to disguise your natural abilities on a daily basis.
I loved Kick-Ass for similar reasons (I can only comment on the film as I haven’t read Millar’s original comic). I like the way it twists the expectations of a superhero story, through a protagonist who wishes to become something that is essentially a fabrication, and then discovers that there are people out there who are the real thing. I like the way it parodies the act of dressing up superhero-style and the whole secret identity trope: Dave buying his original ‘Kick-Ass’ wetsuit online and his nemesis-in-waiting later taking on the persona of ‘Red Mist’, complete with costume.
Whether playful or serious, in all of these cases angst is the driving force behind the narrative. A story isn’t going to go anywhere without the character experiencing some manner of crisis – something that will change them, take them on a journey and test their morals and challenge their emotions. But it doesn’t always have to be about saving the world. It doesn’t have to stem from revenge for the murder of your parents. Sometimes, it’s the tiniest of things that precipitate the greatest of changes.