I saw Ant-Man and The Wasp this weekend and while I thoroughly enjoyed the movie there was something that bugged me about it. Both of Ant-Man’s movies have been devoid of a particular trait. The first Ant-Man was an origin story combined with a heist movie, and this one was a comedy wrapped in an “on-the-run” scenario. Both stories were great for the character but because of the set-up Ant-Man (and Wasp as well) didn’t ever interact with the general public. As such neither of the main superheroes in these movies ever got a “hero moment.”
So what do I mean by hero moment? Well, one of the reasons that people love superheroes is that they are people who can do what normal people can’t: they use their superpowers to do good and save people that need to be saved. Unfortunately, as superhero blockbusters have gotten more and more commonplace the focus has been on impressive CGI battles with supervillains and a certain amount of power creep (aka the next threat always has to be stronger than the last) ends up affecting all the new heroes and their sequels.
Because of the visual nature of movies and the blockbuster frenzy of Hollywood, directors and writers have tended to drift away from part of what draws me (and others) to superheroes in the first place. They rely on spectacle over substance. When the heroes are “saving” people it’s often en masse from a world-ending threat instead of a smaller, more intimate display of heroics. In both the first Avengers and Age of Ultron, we get to see all the heroes team up and save a city (New York and Sokovia respectively) and we see them rescuing civilians, but it’s a part of a larger climax that dulls our perception of the heroism in favor of flashy battles and witty one-liners. We’re even briefly given a death toll in Captain America: Civil War for both battles to try and add more gravitas to the situations, but a number as a statistic on the screen does little to evoke any sort of emotional impact on the viewer.
I’m going to go over a few of my favorite hero moments from some recent superhero movies and try to explain why I consider them emotionally impactful (and usually my favorite scene from the movie they’re from) as compared to their respective climaxes. Minor spoilers will follow, obviously. All scenes will be linked to on YouTube for your viewing pleasure in case you haven’t seen them or forgotten them.
I’m going to start with the most obvious choice in recent memory. In Wonder Woman, Diana, Steve, and their cohorts are traversing through Belgium and come across no man’s land. The British and Germans are at an impasse, and while Steve implores Diana to stay on mission she feels she has to do something to save the soldiers and nearby villagers. What follows is an impressive feat by Diana – crossing the entire no man’s land while drawing all the fire of the German soldiers, allowing others to follow her and take down the German line.
This is an amazing scene because it demonstrates Diana as having a hero’s sense of honor and justice. She knows she has the power to do something about the situation that others can’t or are too afraid to do and thusly uses her powers for good. At no point in this scene do we think Diana is in danger – it is made pretty clear that human weapons aren’t affecting her and/or she’s just too fast to let them harm her. But the emotional weight and investment isn’t in the idea that Diana is in danger – it’s actually the opposite. The moment becomes emotional because she’s saving these people who are unable to save themselves in the situation. We’re seeing her do the selfless heroic thing despite the fact that this particular battle and town holds no significance to Diana.
The climax of this movie is a total let-down after the beautifully shot and directed no Man’s land scene. It’s a CGI-snoozefest of Wonder Woman and Ares throwing fireballs and stuff and I dunno, I zoned out during it. There was no emotional stakes in the battle even though Ares was supposedly powerful enough to hurt Diana. I was detached from all the show of superpowers despite it intending to have more weight.
Oh, and as a funny tidbit, the director Patty Jenkins had to fight to keep the no man’s land scene in the movie in the first place, because people at Warner Bros were confused about the scene and it was almost cut. It says a lot that people in the movie business can look at a superhero and go “she isn’t fighting anything, why is this scene relevant?”
Iron Man 3 is a very divisive movie – people either like it a lot or think it’s on the lower edge of the Marvel spectrum. For a long while IM3 was one of my top 5 favorite MCU movies so you can guess which side I fall on. One of the reasons I liked it was it did a lot of unique things with Tony Stark and Iron Man and didn’t just have him in the suit fighting things all the time. This particular scene is the standout hero moment for me – as Iron Man tries to save the president, one of the Mandarin’s henchmen blows a hole in the side of Air Force One and Iron Man has to dive out to rescue all of the falling civilians. It’s a moment that holds a lot of tension and emotion and while you can argue about the science of the scene, it’s a very superhero moment for Iron Man to save a whole bunch of regular joes that just got sucked out of the hull of an airplane.
(As an unrelated side note, James Badge Dale’s delivery of the line “Speaking of which, go fish!” is one of my favorite line delivers in the movie and general Marvel universe. He says it with the perfect unhinged lack of empathy.)
I love this scene because it’s a personal, intimate scene where Tony Stark is saving a few specific people from a very, very scary fate. It’s short and to the point and an in-universe clever solution to the problem. In the first Iron Man, he flies to a Middle Eastern country and destroys some tanks and kills a bunch of terrorists, saving a bunch of civilians. But the scene is shot in a way where it’s more Iron Man demonstrating his powers and not as much him being a hero. This scene is more about the people he’s saving and not about Iron Man – similar to the no man’s land scene, at no point are we ever scared for Tony. We’re only worried about the people that are falling and hoping he can save them which is very important to establish these “hero moments.”
Danger to the superhero can be a part of hero moments, though, but the primary focus should be the fact that civilians without powers need saving.
Homecoming is far and away my favorite Spider-Man movie of all the ones that have been made (Spider-Man 2 is overrated, don’t @ me) and one of the reasons is I legit started tearing up during the Washington Monument rescue. In the scene, Peter’s friend has been unwittingly carrying around explosive material that goes off in the elevator at the top of the Washington Monument. Peter as Spider-Man has to climb to the top of the monument to rescue his friends in a scene filled with lots of tension but still filled with humor somehow.
This is a great scene because while earlier in the movie we’re treated to a montage of Peter being the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, this is the first time we get to see him pushing his powers to the limit to save some trapped civilians. The civilians being his friends adds dramatic weight to the venture – and on top of that we’re actually somewhat worried about Peter as well since he’s working without a parachute (both figuratively and literally) and doing the rescue without any backup. Tom Holland also adds the perfect amount of panic into Peter’s voice as he’s climbing up. And Michael Giacchino’s score complements everything and adds just the right drama to the scene when needed.
This particular hero moment stands out because it’s both personal and public – he’s acting to save his friends but it’s also his first real display of heroics to the general public. We’re worried for both Spider-Man and the kids in the elevator, but the focus is spread equally between them so it’s not just about Spider-Man displaying his powers. It’s also helped by just how earnest and scared Peter is for his friends as he’s performing selflessly to save them.
Like Wonder Woman, the climax scene falls short of this for multiple reasons – the climax has nebulous stakes versus the very personal danger of the Monument scene. While it’s not a CGI borefest like Wonder Woman, the climax is also very confusing visually but the simplicity of the cinematography during the Monument rescue allows for more inherent drama.
I’m going to finish my examples with a slightly different kind of example. Kick-Ass is not your conventional superhero movie – it’s about a guy who dons a superhero costume to fight crime and help people in a world without superheroes (except in comics). So while nobody in this movie has superpowers, it’s still a kind of hero’s journey and there are costumed heroes.
In the scene, Kick-Ass is looking for a lost cat (Mr. Bitey) and is having bad luck finding it. Up until this point in the movie, he’s been treated like a joke and gotten beaten up and stabbed by the criminals he tried to save. In the process of trying to rescue Mr. Bitey he falls on a guy running away from a few thugs. The thugs proceed to start beating up the fallen man and Kick-Ass intervenes, saving the man from the beating.
It’s Kick-Ass’s hero moment and while up until this point he’s had the heart of a hero, this is the first time he’s gotten to defend and save a civilian. It’s a very cathartic moment because not only do we get to see Kick-Ass hit full superhero mode, we get to see the general public jump to his side. There’s a brief pause as a kid tells the crowd inside the dinner “There’s a dude dressed as a superhero outside fighting a bunch of guys” We expect a “NERRRDDDDD” or “how lame” due to how the movie has treated Kick-Ass up until this point, but instead the kid yells “It’s fucking awesome!” You feel the oppressive weight lift off Kick-Ass because even though he’s getting really beat up by the three thugs, he’s no longer just a dude in a costume: he’s a superhero.
(Also a wonderful cut of The Prodigy’s Omen makes the soundtrack to this scene perfect.)
There is often a catharsis that comes from heroes coming to the rescue of other heroes. There is the “all hope is lost, how will we survive” followed by a superhero showing up just in the nick of time – there are a couple moments like this in Infinity War. But heroes rescuing other heroes, while awesome, doesn’t hold the same emotional impact as when a hero is putting themselves on the line for those who can’t save themselves. This scene in particular is my favorite moment from Kick-Ass just because of how the music swells as Kick-Ass decides to step in and defend the guy getting beat up. Not only that but the man he saved was in the process of cussing Kick-Ass out before the beatdown started. It’s a selfless, heroic act that starts his upswing and hands-down the best scene of the movie.
The main through-line of all these hero moments is that these scenes aren’t just about the hero – they’re about the people they’re saving. The heroes aren’t fighting the big bad or killing robots or whatever. They’re simply saving the people that need saving from imminent danger. Now, I’m not saying that superhero movies are bad if they don’t have them – see Winter Soldier, which is an on-the-run thriller and Steve only saves people in the general sense of saving the world in that, but it’s still my favorite MCU movie. But having these kind of moments are what endears me and others to superheroes in the first place and you definitely can’t go wrong with them.
Superheroes don’t always need to save the world – sometimes just saving one person can be a grand moment.