These days it seems like you can’t go grocery shopping without someone trying to show you a superhero movie. With three studios making Marvel movies, DC making Wonder Woman, Netflix shows, the CW’s Arrowverse, truly we are in the superhero golden age.
But I’m here to tell you this goes back further than you might think. Many great movies of yesteryear are, at their core, superhero movies. Films that are only missing the technology to CGI a giant beam shooting at the sky in the third act to complete the deal. In this series, I aim to look at some classic movies and show you what might have been… if only they could show me the sky beam!
Figure One: Screen grab from Avengers, Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad or Man of Steel
Die Hard (1988)
Now, hold on, don’t get ahead of me here. I know what you’re thinking. “Oh sure, lone hero fights bad guys, swings around skyscrapers, throws quips, obvious!” But I’m not suggesting that John McClane is some sort of Batman/Punisher hybrid… I mean, he is, and I could stop right there. But I want to dig a little deeper than that, and show that down in its bones, Die Hard was really trying to be a superhero flick.
Modern superhero movies have largely done away with secret identities, particularly on the Marvel side, but they are a big part of the genre. “I keep my identity a secret, so my enemies can’t target my loved ones,” says Spider-man, Superman, Flash, Daredevil… Well this is precisely what McClane does in Die Hard, adopting the identity of Roy Rogers so Hans Gruber won’t target his wife. I mean, as code names go, it needs work, but the idea is there. Point!
He even maintains this secret identity when dealing with the police. Sergeant Al Powell in the film is basically Commissioner Gordon complete with moustache and high-powered lights. Welcome to the party, pal! Point!
Again, look at the comic book roots of superheroes and you will see them travelling around with their costume on under their street clothes, so they are ready to burst into action at a moment’s notice. McClane’s costume, like his code name, needs work, but when he battles bad guys, he’s taken off his shirt to reveal his superhero costume underneath… an increasingly grime-ridden vest. Point!
Swinging around skyscrapers
Okay, I conceded this point above, but come on, he swings on a rope/hose around the outside of a skyscraper. Also, there are quips. Double point!
If all of that is not enough to convince you, we probably need to address the elephant in the room, and talk about the fact that the villains, and later McClane, all have superpowers.
What!? I know, right? Buckle up, people, we’re going through the looking glass now.
First of all, I want you to consider Gruber’s henchman Karl. If you don’t remember, he’s the big guy that McClane strangles with a chain after a brutal beat-down, who then appears alive and ready to fight at the very end of the movie, so Commissioner Al can shoot him. How does Karl manage to do all that? Because he has superpowers given to him by the special cigarettes that most of the terrorists use.
These super-soldier-serum containing death sticks grant increased durability, strength, speed, but come at the cost of over-confidence and reduced empathy. Karl almost wrecks the plan right at the start of the movie by chain-sawing through the Nakatomi phone lines before his brother can isolate them. Why take that risk? Because he’s hopped up on cancer-ridden super-power-giving cigarettes (Don’t smoke, kids) and thinks he’s invincible.
Surely that’s just one guy, right? I mean, yes, all the terrorists have a certain amount of swagger throughout the movie, but are they all suffering the side effects of the super drug? No. Theo the tech guy takes a dose before the movie, and starts a little hyper, but Gruber needs him to focus on the job so he isn’t allowed another dose, and slowly calms down over the course of the heist. By the time Argyl punches him his, Theo has lost the advantages and drawbacks of the serum.
Still not convinced? Okay, try this. Both McClane and Gruber suffer the same side effects at different points in the movie, both after smoking the power cigarettes!
Figure Two: John McClane. The smoking gun?
McClane spends much of the early movie just trying to stay alive. He keeps hidden, gathers information, feeds that to the police. He fights only when he must to save himself. Even when he sees Gruber execute Takagi, he has a very sensible reaction. “Why didn’t you try to stop him, John? Because then you’d be dead too.” Yet, later in the movie, after smoking the cigarettes he took from the first terrorist he beat, suddenly he’s all gung-ho about finding out what the bad guys are doing with the explosives, and strapping guns to his back. And he succeeds! Over-confidence and superpowers.
Likewise, Hans is in control, goal-oriented and calm, until he meets McClane near the roof, shares a cigarette, and suddenly he’s all controlled rage, threatening Holly and falling out of windows. Over-confidence and… superpowers? Harder to be sure on that, but he’s facing off against the hero at the climax of the movie. Like Spider-man/Venom, Superman/Zod, the now super-powered McClane is facing off against a similarly-powered dark reflection in Gruber.
I think the case is compelling. We’re just lucky Gruber didn’t gain the power of flight.
The Sky Beam
Die Hard is clearly a superhero movie, I think we’ve proved that now. What you may not realise, is that it tries hard to include a nascent sky beam in the film. It’s already in there, something shooting up from the ground to the sky, occasionally with dramatic light shows, explosions, debris and helicopters circling it. That’s right people, we didn’t have the CG for a sky beam, but Nakatomi Plaza is trying its hardest to be one anyway. Boom! Looks like we’re going to need some new FBI agents, because that’s got to be hella points!
So, there we have it, clear proof that, for want of a proper sky beam, Die Hard is a superhero movie. Also, a Christmas movie.
Join me next time, when we look at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and ask… is this just Justice League?
Show me the Sky Beam!