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With great power comes great irresponsibility.
Now that superheroes have reached peak pop-culture saturation, paint-by-numbers crusaders aren’t cutting it anymore. A slew of current shows have opted to shoot bolts of energy into the overcrowded genre by showing its less-than-heroic side.
The latest is “Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K.,” premiering Friday on Hulu. The animated series follows a supervillain (voiced by co-creator Patton Oswalt) who’s facing a midlife crisis after his world domination schemes have floundered.
“The world understands superheroes now. There’s no hand-holding needed to explore the territories,” “M.O.D.O.K.” co-creator Jordan Blum told The Post. “We’ve never seen this story from this perspective of what it’s like to be a supervillain, this egomaniac whose ego is his own downfall — you have to pay your minions and give them health care and deal with HR.”
And plenty of other shows are exploring the characters behind the capes.
Take Amazon’s irreverent hit “The Boys,” which brims with with morally bankrupt, blood-soaked “heroes” who are more than a little deranged. Over the course of its two seasons (Season 3 is filming and a spinoff is in the works), characters such as the twisted Captain America-esque Homelander (Antony Starr) lie, cheat and murder with aplomb.
“The superhero genre has taken over the world,” showrunner Eric Kripke told The Post. “It’s the dominant pop-culture force. It’s become so inflated and omnipresent … that it’s kind of crying out for someone to stick the pin in the balloon and take the piss out of it.”
Disney+ hit “WandaVision” isn’t as gleefully R-rated as “The Boys,” but it’s far from a conventional tale of supers and spandex. It plays with standards of classic sitcoms while following the emotional journeys of central characters Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), a chaotic witch and an android who were tangential characters in the “Avengers” movies. While grieving, Maximoff uses her powers to put an entire town under mind control.
The next Marvel show, “Loki” (June 9 on Disney+), will follow Tom Hiddelston’s titular trickster who’s previously been a colorful antagonist in the “Avengers” and “Thor” films.
Being bad is all the rage these days — even in a genre that’s about saving the world.
According to Blum, there are two reasons that unheroic hero stories are resonating now: the first is simple innovation.
“To survive, you always have to do something different,” he said. “Marvel in particular is good at that. If you look at the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe], ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is a WWII movie and ‘Thor’ is fantasy. You have to look at the genre within the genre.”
The second is that darker themes resonate with today’s viewers.
“On a bigger level, [‘M.O.D.O.K.’] is a story about a guy who loses everything,” he said. “His job, his family. And he has to rethink his goals. Sometimes we get lost in what we determine our life should be. I think that’s relatable. We all just spent a year inside rethinking our lives.”
Kripke agreed that contemporary culture plays a big part in why audiences are embracing these stories.
“‘The Boys’ is really about that intersection of celebrity and authoritarianism,” he said. “The heroes in our show are the world’s biggest celebrities and stars, but instead of trying to acquire Oscars, they’re trying to acquire political power and control over the people. And that seems to be a pretty good metaphor for the moment we find ourselves living in — where politicians use the power of celebrity and disinformation and social media to exert control.”
Then there’s another twist on the superhero story, with several recent shows examining the negative impact that well-intentioned heroes have on their families.
“Jupiter’s Legacy” on Netflix follows the stalwart Sheldon Sampson, aka ‘The Utopia’ (Josh Duhamel), whose actions have left his kids struggling in their father’s shadow. Amazon’s animated series “Invincible” focuses on teen boy Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), whose dad is Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons). But Mark has to come to terms with the fact that his hero father is far from perfect.
“‘Invincible’ as a series tends to subvert what you’d normally expect from the tropes of a superhero story,” creator Robert Kirkman told The Post. “When you’re watching it, you expect it to go a certain way because of your knowledge of superhero stories, and we end up going in different directions.”
HBO’s “Watchmen,” which took the world by storm in 2019 (and swept the Emmys in 2020), also looked at the impact of “heroes” on their progeny.
Creator Damon Lindelof told the Post in 2019 that he was most interested in using the genre to look at “people seeking some sort of relief from generational cycles of pain or trying to grant some form of redemption.”
Even the biggest Boy-Scout hero, Superman, is getting a moody makeover. The CW’s “Superman & Lois,” which premiered its first season in February with Tyler Hoechlin in the title role, still positions Clark Kent as the ultimate do-gooder. However, the series spends time showing how he doesn’t always seem so super to his kids
“Dad is always embarrassing,” Hoechlin told The Post. “It’s fun to play with that and see who [superheroes] really are in those more intimate moments, when they’re not playing this character for the world.”
Both Kirkman and Kripke agreed that now is the right moment to subvert expectations, because audiences have all become expert in the genre’s underpinnings.
“If you look at the history of comic books, for a long time there was only very straightforward superhero stuff,” Kripke said. “And then this new generation of comic book authors — guys like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and Garth Ennis, who wrote ‘The Boys’ — started subverting it and satirizing it and deconstructing it.”
He said the same thing is happening again, just on-screen. “So I think what you’re actually seeing now in movies and TV is sort of a repetition of that trend — which is, you do the straight-ahead thing, and then a second generation of people come along and look for ways to turn it on its head and explore it.”
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