In turn, the film explicitly reconfigures the book’s vision of an insane society and turns President Snow into the authority-figure villain; it also adds in images of Katniss inspiring rebellion, making it clear that she has the support of the masses. And, like the book, the film stacks the deck unfairly in Katniss’ favor: In a contest that requires kids to kill kids, she manages to succeed by only murdering one person, an essentially faceless Tribute who kills Rue. It’s a justified killing, we can all agree, unless we want to actually have a conversation about whether killing is ever justified.
You could argue that The Hunger Games is purposefully playing into the superhero myth. After all, Katniss is explicitly sold to the public in superhero terms. Her parade dress is a superhero costume; she becomes “The Girl on Fire,” a codename; she wears a mockingjay pin, an emblem. In the book, this played like complicated satire: Katniss is just a normal girl who wants to survive, but the media turns her into hero. The movie buys into this transformation wholesale. It’s propaganda for The Hunger Games franchise, a dark comedy transformed into an advertisement.
Skyfall (#4) has no such ideological confusion. In hindsight, James Bond was always a superhero. The latest film in the franchise just literalizes that realization. It’s established early and often that Bond’s greatest enemy is himself: If we’re to believe the doctors at MI6, he’s an alcoholic drug-addicted wreck with the lung capacity of a dying chainsmoker. Of course, this never affects Bond’s ability to run faster, shoot straighter, and hold his breath longer than any of his enemies – and as if that weren’t enough, we can clearly see that Daniel Craig looks like a cut-from-granite art-school model, his body replete with ambient gym-rat muscles. But Skyfall exemplifies the modern superhero myth in other ways: It gives James Bond the Uncle Ben we never knew he had, and in the process, reveals itself as a stealth origin story.
Skyfall also features one of the loopier showstopping scenes in recent movie history. One of the film’s plot threads has M brought up in front of a panel, where a gaggle of smug politicians (possible on the World Security Council) smugly tell M that her methods aren’t needed anymore. In response, M gives a big speech where she quotes Tennyson and assures the committee that there are still evil men lurking in the shadows, and the only way to get those evil men is to give people James Bond an unlimited budget to do whatever they want to for the cause of justice, basically. The speech ends with a terrorist attacking the room, lest we be concerned that M is not completely right about anything. Of course, Silva’s whole motivation is to kill M. And the whole film only happens because M made a list of every undercover agent and let it fall into the wrong hands. But whatever. Tennyson and 007 both win, and Smug Politicians Who Would Like Some Oversight On Espionage Agents lose.
(ASIDE: More than a few people have noted that Skyfall resembles The Dark Knight in many ways. (Like the Joker, Javier Bardem’s Silva is an anarchist — with facial scars! — who has insanely elaborate plans that involve insanely well-placed explosives.) But in truth, it’s probably more accurate to look at Skyfall as an accidental sibling of The Dark Knight Rises. Both movies send their heroes on a death-resurrection cycle; both feature a hero-villain pair who were trained by the same person, Batman/Bane/Ra’s Al Ghul, Bond/Silva/M. The fact that Skyfall manages to be at once more ridiculous, more coherent, more fun, and ultimately more cynical than Dark Knight Rises is perhaps further proof that John Logan should co-write every film made in Hollywood. END OF ASIDE)
Maybe you’re unwilling to roll with this reinterpretation of the meaning of “superhero.” Maybe you don’t think that Katniss’ incredible crossbow ability or Bond’s incredible ability to survive a simultaneous gunshot/fall/drowning aren’t just superpowers by any other name. Fair enough. But everyone can clearly see that The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 (#5) is overrun with characters blessed with unique super-abilities. It’s an X-Men movie, albeit without the Civil Rights subtext — a misfit movie where the misfits are all rich, immortal, and mostly white.
I already know the obvious counter-argument: Breaking Dawn can’t be a superhero movie, because the characters don’t actually do anything heroic. And that’s fair. But the movie strives hard to make them seem heroic. Bella Swan has her own self-sacrifice Messiah narrative – she gives her life away to her unborn child, and is rewarded with eternal life and the ability to run like really really fast. She has her own Authority Figure Who Doesn’t Understand — her Dad. There is a brief moment at the start of Breaking Dawn that hints at the true damage a vampire can do – Bella almost sucks the blood out of a random hiker — but that potentially intriguing note of moral complexity goes out the window almost immediately. (They’re vegetarian vampires, we’re told over and over again.)
Breaking Dawn draws upon all these tropes to make Bella and her friends seem heroic. The truth is, they’re not. They’re selfish and self-interested elitists; they might not be Lannisters, but they sure aren’t Starks.
(ASIDE: The most off-key — and therefore interesting — scene in the movie comes when Lee Pace is introduced as a caddish Han Solo-ish vampire, and part of his introduction is his nonchalant murder of a random drunken English guy. Said murder earns a wry smile from the Cullen siblings, as if Lee Pace is a funny drunk uncle. END OF ASIDE)
And then there’s The Hobbit. In the process of adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s relatively slim, episodic fantasy novel into the first act of a two-or-maybe-three-part epic saga, Peter Jackson & co. didn’t just have to add in plot points. They also felt the need to turn the films into a legitimate emotional journey for their characters. In the process, they took two relatively simple characters – the canny hobbit Bilbo and the arrogant dwarf-lord Thorin — and turned them into superheroes-by-any-other-name.