The Superhero Sequel Syndrome

Some superhero movies can be surprisingly good (“The Dark Knight”) while others are astoundingly bad (“Elektra”). When a superhero movies does well, watch out for the sequel though because they tend to pile on the heroes and villains as if more were better when it turns out that more is actually less.

A movie like “Ironman” did surprisingly well even attracting the non-comic book crowd. However, where most sequels go wrong, especially superhero sequels, is that they tend to add more heroes and more villains until there isn’t enough time to develop any of them. The result is a diluted story where multiple characters vie for screen time and nothing comes to a very satisfactory conclusion.

In the first “Ironman,” there was plenty of action and character development in Tony Stark and his assistant Pepper. Plus there were two villains to watch. Given the full two hours, that was plenty of time to get to know all the heroes and villains, and watch them develop and change.

Now look at “Ironman 2.” There are still two villains, Justin Hammer, a rival defense contractor, and a Russian physicist who goes by the name of Whiplash. Unfortunately, Whiplash isn’t developed much as a character. We get a brief background that Whiplash’s father once worked for Tony Stark’s dad and got deported to Russia. Then Whiplash builds a primitive suit similar to Ironman’s but with two energy whips.

After creating this energized whips, Whiplash then proceeds to start chopping up race cars, including one that Tony Stark is driving. While visually interesting, it’s also meaningless. Why is Whiplash randomly chopping up cars? What does he hope to accomplish? He doesn’t even know that Tony Stark is driving in the race, so it’s not like he did this just to kill Tony Stark. As a result, this whole fight scene is dull, meaningless, and empty.

The worse part of “Ironman 2” is the sudden introduction of multiple heroes, none of whom change over the course of the story. When only your hero changes and none of your supporting characters change, that’s a problem because now the supporting characters only seem to pop up to help the hero and then disappear again.

First, there’s Tony Stark’s friend who climbs into one of Tony Stark’s armored suits and takes off with it. Now he’s called War Machine, but we don’t really get to know this character, other than that he’s a friend of Tony Stark. What does he want that’s similar to Tony?

Tony is facing his own mortality and the idea that he’s slowly dying every day. War Machine has no similar crisis, so the screenwriter missed a great opportunity to hammer home the theme a little more. Instead, we’re left with a friend who fights Tony Stark to keep him from embarrassing himself at a party. Even this fight is relatively short and dull with no sense of a goal. War Machine wants to stop Tony Stark and Tony Stark wants to just flail around and fight War Machine. Dull, boring, and another lifeless battle scene.

Where “Ironman 2” really goes too far is with the introduction of Nick Fury (a guy with an eye patch) and Scarlett Johanssen, a woman sent to spy on Tony Star. Neither Nick Fury or Scarlett Johanssen have any goals other than to advance the plot, and they don’t change either. They don’t come across as real people with real problems. Because they don’t change or have any problems, they’re meaningless props to advance the plot.

Of course with so many heroes running around, there’s little time to dig into the main heroes of the film. Tony Stark discovers a new element to save his life, but he gets that revelation by studying an old design created by his father. Of course, his father is long dead and seen only on film, but he’s another hero who only exists to advance the plot and do nothing more. When Tony Stark hears his dad (on film) tell him that Tony was his greatest creation, it somehow misses any emotional impact it was shooting for because we don’t see how much Tony might have fought or hated his father.

Since we don’t have much knowledge of how Tony feels about his father, we don’t feel much elation that his father treasured Tony’s existence.

The final battle scene is a bit dull. The villain programs a bunch of drones to attack Ironman. Being chased and outnumbered by the drones, Ironman has to flee, and to ratchet up the stakes, the villain has reprogrammed War Machine’s armored suit to fight Ironman as well.

This has all the makings of an interesting battle until Scarlett Johanssen breaks into the plant where the villain is hiding and reprograms War Machine’s suit so he can help Ironman. Dull! Boring! Boo!

Besides the fact that Scarlett Johanssen’s character doesn’t change and shows little emotion, her very existence takes away precious screen time from the other heroes. Having a secondary character solve a major problem takes away the spotlight from the hero. At all times, the hero should be the one solving his major problems.

Imagine if near the end of “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis is about to take out a terrorist when an FBI agent drops in, shoots the terrorist, and saves Bruce Willis’s life. That would be unsatisfactory because we want to see the hero fight and solve the problem, not get outside help from somebody else.

Having War Machine forced to battle Ironman is interesting. Having an outsider solve this problem for Ironman deflates the expectations that this confrontation sets up.

Even worse, once War Machine and Ironman are together, the drones surround them. Now that they’re outnumbered, it looks like an exciting battle scene, but no, Ironman spins around and chops all the drones in half. Naturally, we’ve never seen Ironman do this type of attack before so it comes out of nowhere to save them from the drones. Huh? Just as the battle has begun, it’s over. No tension, no suspense, no excitement. Another promising battle scene cut short and made lifeless.

Finally, Whiplash shows up again and battles Ironman and War Machine. Then Ironman and War Machine combine forces and blow Whiplash apart. Once more, a promising battle scene eliminates all tension, suspense, and action in favor of a quick and unsatisfying resolution. Boring!

If you watch these two films, you can see how well “Ironman” creates tension and suspense and how poorly “Ironman 2” does this, which makes “Ironman 2” the weaker movie.

The lesson is clear. When writing your story, don’t pile on the heroes and villains as if more were better. More is less. Focus on your heroes and your villains and rather than add more of them, give us more of what you already have. Let us dig deep into knowing your hero and villain. This depth will go a long way towards creating a more satisfying story in the end than just relentlessly piling on more heroes and villains for us to cheer or boo.

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