I was lucky enough to see the non-3D version of THOR at my local cinema. With THOR being the fourth movie from Marvel Studios, after IRON MAN, HULK and IRON MAN 2, a certain consistence in quality of their movies is starting to emerge. I couldn’t help thinking they’ve all had more or less the same plot: hero has daddy issues, betrayal by trusted friend/family/ally, end with them fighting.
In IRON MAN, Tony Stark lives in the shadow of his late pioneering father, is betrayed by his evil surrogate father, they fight at the end.
In HULK, Bruce Banner is hunted by angry patriarch General Ross, they’re all betrayed by Tim Roth, they fight at the end.
In IRON MAN 2, Tony Stark is still hung up on his late father not telling him he loved him, is attacked by Mickey Rourke, who’s out to avenge the betrayal of his father by Stark’s father, and they fight at the end.
In THOR, the hero is a spoiled brat in the shadow of his father, gets betrayed by his brother Loki, and they fight at the end.
(Come on, I’m not spoiling anything here. You’d have to be brain-dead to not know how a Marvel superhero plot goes.)
All the bits in between those points are merely variations that don’t deviate the plot from the expected outcome: big fight at the end. No Marvel superhero plot has ever been resolved by everyone just sitting down to have a cup of tea and chatting.
Even the Marvel superhero movies not made by Marvel Studios have had their central premises based on daddy issues. In SPIDER-MAN, Peter Parker is driven by the guilt over his responsibility for Uncle Ben’s death and his life thereafter is forever overshadowed by his adopted father’s absence. In FANTASTIC FOUR, Reed Richards faces the pressure of being the Dad of the group. The X-MEN are guided by Good Daddy Charles Xavier and have to either oppose or join Bad Daddy Magneto. DAREDEVIL was spurred to fight crime by his father’s murder. ELEKTRA is a homicidal daddy’s girl who never got over her dad’s murder. GHOST RIDER… has Nicholas Cage.
Yes, I know all those daddy issues go all the way back to the original comics back in the Sixties (only without Nicholas Cage). Marvel’s more angst-y heroes were what set them apart from the supremely competent White Men Who Are Good With Science in DC’s superhero comics. Marvel’s themes were frequently about fathers and sons and the rivalry between brothers, real or surrogate. Those basic themes are what enable writers to keep the core of the characters while updating them from the Cold War to the post-9/11 world.
There’s loads of symbolism involving mirror images and symbolic brothers even in the Marvel movies, like both Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell’s bad guys both being corrupt reflections of Tony Stark, and even James Rhodey becoming a more disciplined reflection of Tony Stark when he puts on the other suit of armour in IRON MAN 2. Jeff Bridges is an evil reflection of Tony Stark’s dad in IRON MAN. Tim Roth becomes an evil reflection of the Hulk when he mutates himself for the power having been encouraged by misguided Bad Daddy General Ross. Charles Xavier and Magneto as reflections. THOR, of course, was all about those daddy and brother issues way back in the original Norse myth, and the movie practically has the most distilled version of all the Marvel movies. It also settles into a conservative “father knows best” message.
I’m not knocking Marvel doing the Daddy Issue thing. What I’m knocking is the way Hollywood makes every story about Daddy Issues nowadays. And that’s seeped into DC’s comics as well. Every hero’s story has to be PERSONAL now, and by PERSONAL it involves some unresolved issue involving their dad when they were kids. Back in the Sixties, Green Lantern, Flash and the Atom didn’t have any issues in their backstories. They were just competent guys who did what they did out of a sense of duty and public service. Now they all have issues – Green Lantern was scarred by the death of his dad, Flash is scarred by the murder of his mother by his dad, and the Atom is scarred by his ex-wife being an evil murderous psycho (it’s odd, but when his marriage first broke down in the 80s, it was that she was cheating. It was only a few decades later that writers turned her into a flaming nutter as if to follow the superhero convention of Fearing Women). The reason for all this retconning would seem to be that it adds drama to the characters and makes them more distinctive, but I just find it increasingly clichéd. I suppose you could argue that only someone with serious trauma issues would want to put on tights and be a vigilante, but this also feels like the imposition of cod-psychology on what had originally been fantasy stories for children where people with superpowers running around in bright costumes made perfect sense in that fantasy world. It’s just that now children aren’t reading those stories but grown men that excessive psychology has to be written into the characters’ motivations. At least Batman’s daddy issues were there from his original creation, which were then used for the plot of BATMAN BEGINS where he mourns his dead dad and is mentored by a Bad Dad in BATMAN BEGINS. Even Ang Lee’s HULK from years ago imposed a Daddy Issue backstory on Bruce Banner by giving him a Really Bad Dad and giving the script a really bizarre confrontation scene that played like it was written by Edward Albee on ketamine. Hell, Daddy Issues has even hit the STAR TREK franchise. The original TV series just had Kirk doing what he did because he was a career military man with smarts and liked the ladies. The recent reboot had to give him Daddy Issues from losing his father as a baby and having to live up to the guy’s reputation as a hero.
You can tell all of this is very much from a male writer’s perspective by the way the stories frequently treat women. They’re either token female team members just as tough as the boys but with less personality, token girlfriends or silent mothers, and there’s an underlying boys’ feeling that “girls are icky”. In THOR, Rene Russo is reduced to standing around wearing a posh frock. The rest of the time the hero’s mother is dead as well and barely mentioned, since the hero is totally fixated on his dad. Or mum is generally long-suffering and staying at home worrying about the hero. In the original Spider-man stories, Aunt May was a symbol for Peter Parker’s guilt, especially every time she had yet another stroke that put her at death’s door.
Writing heroes with Daddy Issues has become a kind of default mode for a lot of Hollywood screenwriters and comics writers these days. This makes me wonder what it all says about American society with its divorce rates and generations of latchkey kids with absent parents, especially fathers. Are there really that many writers airing their own therapy in their blockbuster screenplays and superhero stories now or is it just lazy storytelling? Why can’t we have heroes who are competent and not tortured by their dads not giving them a pat on the head? In other words, an adult, not another wounded man-child. Is that too much to ask of movies that cost hundreds of millions to make?
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