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Of Heroes, Villains and Multitasking

Batman takes on the Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster hit.
Batman takes on the Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 blockbuster hit.
Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s a tendency in comic book movies that many of you movie fans probably know of. It’s when a franchise keeps adding more villains to each new film until they finally produce a sequel that’s a mess of crudely drawn characters, slim backstories and tangled subplots.

It happened first with the original Batman franchise. The series began simple, with Batman vs. Joker. Then came the trio of Batman Returns, with Batman vs. Catwoman and The Penguin. Next, Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever went for a foursome, Batman and Robin, taking on Two Face and the Riddler. Finally, we hit the crazy jackpot with 1997’s Batman and Robin with Batman, Robin, and Batgirl taking on Poison Ivy, Bane, and Mr. Freeze. That infamous flop ended the franchise until Christopher Nolan brought it back to simple.

However, Hollywood didn’t learn from Batman and Robin. Soon came Sam Raimi’s Spider Man franchise, and at first, just like with Batman, it was simple. Tobey Maguire’s Spider Man took on the Green Goblin, and then Doctor Octopus in the sequel. In each, the stories of the villains were as central as those of the heroes.

Then came Spider Man 3, with Spidey fighting Venom, Sandman, the Green Goblin, and even his own suit… while also engaged in 2 romantic subplots. Though it raked in profit, the film was panned. Raimi later said that he was forced to add extra enemies by the studio, and soon after, he parted with the franchise.

As with the others before it, the Amazing Spider Man franchise started simple with Spidey vs. the Lizard, but with the sequel, it goes for broke: three villains, Electro, Rhino, and the Green Goblin, stuffed into a 2-and-a-half hour story.

Now I know we live in the era of multitasking, where we're expected to be able to focus simultaneously on multiple priorities. However, it’s been shown that multitasking can impair our attention and memory. College students, for example, who check Facebook and text messages in class or study time are often shown to have a harder time retaining lecture content.

Likewise, it's my belief that the more characters get piled into these films, the less an audience may remember any one of them, or the film itself as a whole.

There’s an obvious profit motive at work: merchandising. Studios know there’s just as much ( if not more) money to be made in the merchandising, as in the movie ticket sales. Joel Schumacher talked about how he was asked to make Batman and Robin as "toyetic" a movie as possible, as in one that would help sell action figures. The more villains and gadgets they can pack into the movie, the more toys to sell. So profit wins; narrative loses.

I’ll grant you, every hero encounters several challenges along a journey: Odysseus, Hercules, and other great heroes faced multiple enemies. However, these enemies were all clear parts of the journey, challenges to be faced on a road with a clear destination.

In contrast, in these comic book sequels, it seems more like villains clashing with heroes at random, each of them with their own agendas, colliding like atomic particles. As such, these villains can become just as much of a distraction as Facebook or Twitter — they become more about titillation than serving any purpose.

I leave you with psychology professor David Meyer’s words on student multitasking:

“They may like to do it, they may even be addicted to it, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s far better to focus on one task from start to finish.”

Sadly, in Hollywood’s case, as long as the money keeps coming in, I don’t see the addiction going away anytime soon.