For me, summer means two things: absurd heat and superhero movies. Having already fallen in love with X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I’m currently busy counting down the days to Guardians of the Galaxy. During a conversation about our favorite entries in the genre, my roommate said something I’d never stopped to consider before. He claimed he didn’t like the most recent Superman movie because it was trying to be Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, adopting a dark, angsty tone that didn’t suit the character.
I’d never thought about how much a superhero movie’s quality depends on realizing what people love about a particular hero or group of heroes and embracing those traits. Of course there are basic considerations that affect any film: writing, acting, directing, effects—but all these elements require recognizing what makes Superman different from Batman, the X-Men different from the Avengers.
I found this realization especially important because a common assumption about superhero movies is that they’re all the same—a muscled man in a tight suit beats up the bad guys and saves the world. It can be easy for those who work in content marketing to fall into a similar trap: assuming that all the hotels/colleges/businesses you write for are much the same. As soon as you fall into that mindset, however, it becomes impossible to produce content that’s specific, vivid or interesting.
An equally dangerous trap is emphasizing the wrong points—focusing too much on the spa at a hotel that primarily attracts business travelers, or making Superman a dark and troubled anti-hero. You need unique selling points, but you also need to choose the right ones. Both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past were critically and commercially successful because they recognized what people loved about the characters and the franchise and emphasized those aspects.
The idea behind Captain America, as a character, is that he represents the best of America, the ideals we try to believe in but often fail to live up to. Steve Rogers is loyal, honorable, and honest, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t back away from those traits. [SPOILER ALERT] When Steve finds out about a plan that might ensure world security but would require sacrificing human lives, he opposes it. When he has to fight against a friend, he does so until no more lives are in danger. Then, once he is assured everyone else is safe, he refuses to fight back at all, letting himself be pummelled instead. While the movie has dark elements, Steve is clearly a hero, and the movie lets him be one.
Had X-Men done what Captain America did – presented itself as a film about a single noble hero – it would have failed. One of the strengths of the X-Men franchise has always been that it is an ensemble cast – it is not about a person with powers but about a group of people with powers. This puts the characters in a different position in the eyes of the public: Captain America, as an individual, is adored as a symbol of heroism, while mutants as a group are hated and feared. That hatred and fear is part of what sets the X-Men apart, and Days of Future Past emphasizes that aspect. The premise that mutants are on the verge of being wiped out by robots designed specifically to kill them wouldn’t work in any other superhero film.
The movie also takes the ensemble cast concept to new extremes, using not only the already large cast from the original X-Men trilogy but also the younger versions of many of the characters from X-Men: First Class. Since First Class was well-reviewed and generally liked, the film uses (plot-relevant) time travel to incorporate the most popular characters and actors from across the film franchise and let them interact.
When you have multiple significant characters, character relationships naturally become more important, and the film devotes several intense dramatic scenes to the knotty and multi-faceted relationships between Charles, Erik and Raven, which lends the movie emotional resonance but would be utterly out of place in Guardians of the Galaxy, where a violent talking raccoon is a main character.
It’s unlikely I’ll be writing a superhero movie any time soon (Bryan Singer won’t answer my emails), but thinking about how these films function by discovering and emphasizing their differing strengths has inspired me to think about new and creative ways to incorporate unique selling points into what I do write. While time travel may not be the solution, realizing what people are excited about makes for good content as well as good summer blockbusters.
Taylor Davidson – Content Marketing Writer