So when I wrote my Justice League review last week, I mentioned that there was no real story to the movie. I said that it was more or less just an instantiation of what I decided to call “Comic Book Movie Plot #3.” I also mentioned that there were roughly five standard comic book movie plots that I was thinking of off the top of my head that are often repeated ad infinitum in superhero movies especially and that I would write them up next week if I got around to it. It’s now next week, I guess. So I figured I’d give it a shot.
Before I get into it, I guess I should make a few things clear. First of all, I’m not saying that a stock plot is bad. In fact it can be quite good. I’ve been spending the last week or so analyzing in deep analysis of Joseph Campbell‘s monomyth and the ways that the framework that he set up in The Hero With a Thousand Faces applies to the superhero narrative overall. It’s a fundamental concept that ties deeply into my dissertation. Campbell would argue that all epic hero stories are exactly the same, and so there’s really only one (one myth… or a monomyth, if you will… see, we academics are like real thoughtful and shit like that). Stock plots can be good. Movies with original plots can be bad. It’s more about the execution. The failures of Justice League were mostly about sloppiness in the usage of the stock plot and the movie (and in fact the franchise so far) not really giving us any reason to care about the characters or the storyline at all. And for that matter, the successes of the film were in no small part from the fact that the stock plot was familiar enough without really bad and ridiculous deviations (MARTHAAAAA!!!!) to where, if nothing else, it was at least comfortable.
So, off the top of my head, here are the common stock plots of superhero movies:
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: The prototypical origin story. Once upon a time there’s a a guy that is kind of a fucknuts. He’s either a real loser or he’s a real asshole. Or maybe he’s even both. Then something unlikely happens that in the real world totally should have killed him like super dead. But since this is the comic book world, instead he just ends up with super powers. Because, like… that’s how movies work… and if he had ended up dead this would be one really short ass movie. So now Fucknuts has powers, what does he do? Well, basically he continues to go on and be a fucknuts. Because really, why wouldn’t he? The forces of fucknuttery are strong. And really, now that he has powers this is actually probably the opportunity to be even more of a fucknuts than before… Captain Fucknuts, if you will! Except sooner or later “something bad” will happen that totally could have been prevented if maybe he’d been less of a fucknuts. In fact, its entirely possible that fucknuttery on the part of Captain Fucknuts is what caused the something bad to happen in the first place. In any case, it is now up to Captain Fucknuts to buckledown and get serious. He has to go and save the day. And with this he and the audience learn a valuable life lesson!
This is, of course, often used as the first film since it’s pretty much by definition an origin story. In fact, it’s Spider-man’s origin story, lifted more or less directly from the comics and transposed onto the screen for the first Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield films, and to a lesser extent (the origin stuff is yanked out, but the basic fucknuts learning a lesson plot remains) in Spider-man: Homecoming. But it’s also kind of the origin story for a bunch of other superheroes in movies, particularly the MCU ones. This is exactly the first film in the Iron Man, Captain America, Dr. Strange, and Thor franchises. It’s also more or less half the plot of Man of Steel and even the first Christopher Reeves Superman movie.
I’m Starting With the Man in the Mirror: Movies are short. Even long movies are short. And they’re limited by a lot of film conventions. So if you’re focusing all of your attention on trying to make a superhero appealing… which you totally want to do because ultimately, he’s the one you’re looking to kick off a whole franchise around, then sometimes you don’t have as much time to really develop the villains. After all, Captain Fucknuts has to be in a bunch of movies to get this franchise rolling. The villain only has to be in one. At the same time you also need to make sure that the villain is a believable match for Captain Fucknuts. I mean, if this movie is all building to a big slobberknocker at the end, you’re going to want that slobberknocker to last… you know… so that you can knock more slobbers and stuff. You know what an easy way to accomplish this is? Just go through all of the superhero’s comic books and find someone EXACTLY LIKE HIM… but evil. Like Dr. Boinkberries. That’ll do it! It doesn’t really matter if it makes sense. People always fight people exactly like them. It’s like the entire plot to Highlander! There’s this dude, who does what you do. So he totally wants to kill you. Unless you kill him first. There can be only one!
Often this plot is mixed with the Stock Plot #1 origin story. This is totally what happens in Iron Man and in Man of Steel in fact. And sometimes if you can’t find a villain with exactly the same powers, you can also just take a villain that might even be different, but shoe horn his origin story so that it’s mixed with the hero’s. That way you don’t have to explain how both Captain Fucknuts and Dr. Boinkberries came to be. They’re too sides of the same coin, man. A shade! That’s literary and deep, right? Or something…
Crossing the Streams to Close the Giant Hole in the Sky: Sometimes there is a danger too big for Captain Fucknuts to handle alone. This is when he has to form a team. It goes like this… there is a horde that is an infinite army of faceless humanoid (but not human so we can totally kill them) creatures that are invading from another realm(planet, dimension, the underworld) and spilling out onto Earth through a giant hole in the sky. The horde is led by a SFX/CGI heavy villain who has ALL THE POWER and is set on remaking reality in his image and ruling the world… for reasons. Bonus points if the CGI villain is actually inhabiting the body of a loved one or someone you thought was a friend. No one hero, not even Captain Fucknuts, can beat the horde by himself, so he must assemble a team! Personalities clash because everyone on the team is used to their own personal style of fucknuttery, but when it counts the team sets aside their bullshit, knuckles down and punches the horde to death while they work together to find the McGuffin Device and “Do the Thing” to it. Doing the Thing to the McGuffin Device will close the hole in the sky, and suck the horde out of our reality. Lots of punch and killing happens until the team can get their hands on the McGuffin and using The Power of Teamwork™ they work together to do the thing and close the hole. The world lives happily ever after. Except of course for maybe the one member of the team that had to sacrifice his life in order to Do the Thing… because, you know… that provides pathos and stuff. Of course if he’s popular enough we can sign the actor to a new contract and bring him back in a sequel!
This is a common way to do a team movie. Sometimes you may mix in another stock plot line, but really there are so many moving parts that you probably don’t need to. If it’s boring just fill up the screen with cameos from whatever actors from the independent franchises you can get. It doesn’t matter if it really makes sense or not. Justice League is all about this. As was the Avengers. And Suicide Squad. And several of the X-Men movies. it doesn’t even have to be a team up of superheroes from other properties. This is literally EVERY Ghostbusters movie.
Hero v. Hero: The problem with having a team of fucknuts is that, as we saw in Stock Plot #3 sometimes fucknuts have ideological clashes of fucknuttery with other fucknuts. This is of course the problem with Captain Fucknuts and his teammate Dickman. See, in the comics of course, they have a long and complex relationship that goes back decades with a lot of nuance about subtle ideological differences. And sometimes there are huge battle between them that take months or even years to set up and they sell really well. So lets bring that to the big screen. Only that’s hard because it’s a lot harder to make a movie than a comic book, and way more expensive. And the film versions of Captain Fucknuts and Dickman have only been on screen together in like two other movies tops. And it’s maybe not even that clear what the subtle ideological differences in their own brands of fucknuttery are. So what we do here is we kind of steal the title and/or some basic visuals from a big event crossover in the comics and promote the film as being an adaptation of that. Only since that story really doesn’t make sense outside of the longer and more complex story, really you only get about a trailer’s worth of fight here, and you have to use all of that footage to sell the movie in the commercials. But it doesn’t really matter because at this point, hopefully enough fans are already wrapped up in the franchise that just seeing Captain Fucknuts and Dickman punching each other is enough to sell some tickets. And if you need to fill some time with other stuff… well, you can always throw in one of the other stock plots to burn some screen time. In fact, since you have multiple heroes in here anyway, its fairly easy to just assume transition into pretending this was Stock Plot #3 all along and tossing in a CGI villain for the third act for heroes to team up and stop!
The examples here are pretty obvious. Captain America: Civil War is probably the “good” one. Batman v. Superman is also this, of course, and the flaw there was that since that happened BEFORE a Stock Plot #3 movie, it was really hard to understand what the ideological difference was.
I’m Getting Too Old For This Shit: The nice thing about comics is that they can go forever. Characters are only as old as you draw them. They don’t complain. They just do whatever storyline you put them in. If things get stale or your writer or artist decide they want to do something else, you just hire new ones. The problem with movies is that this doesn’t work. People age. People want to go on to do other things. Sometimes, you can just recast a character, particularly one of the lesser ones, and no one really cares. After all, did you realize that Captain Fucknuts sidekick Doucheboy has been played by three different actors throughout the previous four movies? Yeah, three. I mean everyone knows he was replaced after the first film because that first guy sucked! But the guy who did film two and three wanted too much money for part four, so they just recast him and no one noticed. I know, right? But what do you do when Johnny Franchise, the big name star who portrays Captain Fucknuts, is just tired of playing the role? He’s done enough of these. He wants to do something else. He’s too old and tired of the training that it takes to maintain the body for a spandex costume. That’s when it’s time to do a heroic sacrifice. It doesn’t really matter what exact story is here. Pick any villain. People are going to come to this movie no matter what, because marketing is totally going to pimp the fuck out of the fact that this is Johnny Franchise’s last movie. It’s all about seeing him throw on the tights one last time. So really, all you have to do here is grab another mirror image villain… or his classic one. Because honestly, this is basically exactly the same movie as stock plot #2 anyway. It’s just that at the end, in order to save the day Captain Fucknuts has to sacrifice his life (or at least fake his death) in order to end the threat of Dr. Boinkberries once and for all!
The thing to remember here is that we really don’t want to END the franchise. We just have to let Johnny Franchise go. So it’s important to make sure we introduce a prospective replacement for the role in this movie. A real Joseph Gordon Levitt type… or if you want to shake things up, maybe swap genders and get a cute kid like Dafne Keen… someone you can build a new franchise around for years to come. Of course you probably never will. Because at this point it might just be easier to reboot everything and go back to Stock Plot #1. But it’s nice to have options.
Obviously there are superhero films that don’t fit into these blocks. And really, you can mix and match them in a billion possible variations. And like I said, they’re not even necessarily “bad.” I like several of the films on the list. The trick is in the execution. You have to take the stock plot and actually DO something with it. Something that engages the audience beyond “hey, I just see my favorite character on screen in a plot #3!” Because, how many times do you need to see Captain Fucknuts do that?