The classic superhero is polished, brave and morally righteous. Strong and unerring, he is perfection personified — a superhuman ideal.
Not this summer.
Everyday human flaws are the Kryptonite of this year’s movie good guys, who deign to suffer the same foibles as those who pay to see them. They may be reclusive, egotistical or intellectually challenged. They may have anger issues or alcohol issues. Some are alienated and lonely.
While the archetypal superhero always has a “weakness,” this summer’s super problems are more fit for the psychologist’s couch than the villain’s lair. Such shortcomings make heroes more relatable, says Marvel Comics master Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, among sundry others.
“If you can have a good guy who’s got hang-ups and flaws and failings, he’s more interesting because he not only has to defeat the villain, but he has to defeat and conquer his own flaws and inabilities,” Lee says. “It rounds him out and makes the character empathetic.”
A sign of the times
Flawed heroes are also a sign of the times, says “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau.
“Complicated times demand for escapist entertainment,” he says. “These characters are facing the same types of problems we are. They’re a proxy for us.”
After many nods to that effect throughout the film, Downey (as Stark) acknowledges at its conclusion that he’s “not the hero type, with these character defects and all.”
Indiana Jones is another “real guy,” says creator George Lucas. The archaeologist-adventurer played by Harrison Ford returns to theaters May 22 with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
“He makes lots of mistakes. He kind of goofs up. He has the same kind of thinking that we have,” Lucas says. “It’s like he’s not a superhero. He’s just an average Joe that’s always in over his head that somehow seems to get through it.”
June will bring three more unlikely superheroes: Bruce Banner, Maxwell Smart and Zohan.
After a gamma-radiation accident, Banner (Ed Norton) discovers he involuntarily transforms into a monstrous mass in “The Incredible Hulk.” Fearful and emotionally withdrawn, Banner is “blind to his heroic potential,” says Kevin Feige, president of production for Marvel Studios.
“The creature in him, if used properly, could be a hero,” Feige says. “Bruce Banner takes a while to see that. That’s a flaw when you undermine your potential.”
Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is a top government secret agent, minus the intelligence and James-Bond cool. Though Smart is the most bumbling and inept member of his team, he’s the hero in “Get Smart,” the movie version of the 1960s TV series.
“He was a huge hero,” says director Dennis Dugan. “And he basically goes on a journey to leave all the past behind and find something beautiful in himself.”
Will Smith’s “Hancock,” due July 2, presents a “very authentic version of an alcoholic superhero,” the actor says. The character is disheveled, disenfranchised and confused about life.
“He’s feeling very purposeless and looking for answers,” says producer Akiva Goldsman.
Not human enough
Also due in July is “The Dark Knight,” with Christian Bale reprising his role as rich playboy Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman — a character who remains traumatized by the murder of his parents and the vigilantism that turned him to crime-fighting.
“He’s a messed-up individual, as well. He’s got all sorts of issues,” Bale says. “He’s just as twisted and messed-up as the villains he’s fighting, and that’s part of the beauty of the whole story.”
Often the problem with superheroes isn’t that they’re too human, but that they’re not human enough, says Feige of Marvel Studios.
“The risk is presenting your character as being two-dimensional,” he says. “There’s a risk in presenting them simply as an action figure. Presenting their flaws, presenting their humanity, that’s how audiences identify with them and make their own emotional connection with them.”
Goldsman calls the drunken Hancock “an answer to Superman ... an extraordinary person suffering ordinary human emotions.”
“Superman is conventionally and traditionally a Boy Scout, and that’s often what makes him very difficult to relate with,” he says. “We identify more with people who are broken, people who are damaged. Those are the heroes who stick with us, the ones who are imperfect despite all their gifts, because everyone feels imperfect.”
And when real life is so chaotic — with war, a faltering economy, fears of terrorism and a threatened environment — relatable superheroes are even more valuable, Favreau says.
“It’s an abstract version of what our fears are, presented in a safe way, and we can be saved by a superhuman character,” he says. “People want to see that type of thing when times are hard.”
Echoes Goldsman: “The world is often troubling and we often look for heroes to save the day. If only.”