Superheroes and Spies

Author’s note: I originally wrote this piece for as an article for The Odyssey Online when I was writing weekly articles for that site. I never got around to publishing it there, but thought some readers may find the ideas interesting.

Superhero movies and James Bond-style spy movies may not sound very similar at first.

However, when you consider what each movie normally has, you realize they actually have a lot of common.

Among other things, both kinds of movies try to tell crazy, escapist kinds of stories with just enough grounding to make them seem plausible. You may find this common territory obvious. After all, superhero movies Captain America and The Rocketeer clearly have espionage subplots.

But some movies have gone even further. Once in a while someone creates a hybrid movie that mixes superhero and spy movie elements so closely it’s hard to tell which group it fits in.

Disney was one of the first companies to do this when they released the 1981 movie Condorman. The story followed a comic book writer who gets recruited for a spy mission and convinces the government to create superhero gadgets based on one of his characters. The movie was somewhere between a spoof of 007 films (with faraway locations, cool gadgets and Russian villains) and a comedy about superheroes. Most critics agreed Condorman didn’t work, possibly because (as one YouTube movie critic pointed out) the writers seemed to think cartoons and comic books were the same thing.

Then in 2004, Pixar released The Incredibles.

On the surface, this movie is simply a superhero movie. Like the graphic novel Watchmen, it follows costumed crime fighters who’ve been forced into retirement and shows what happens when they decide to don their capes again.

However, there’s a distinctly spy move edge to The Incredibles. The villain may have a supervillain name and plan, but his tropical island base has the luxury we associate more with Bond villains than with supervillains. The majestic white rocket is reminiscent of the rocket in Ian Fleming’s book Moonraker. The jazzy soundtrack and quasi-1950’s opening scenes could easily fit into a Bond film. Edna Mode, the superhero suit designer, might best be described as a female Q.

David A. Price noted in his book The Pixar Touch that filmmaker Brad Bird initially wrote The Incredibles as a “homage to 1960’s comic books and spy TV shows.” That description probably describes the movie better than anything else.

Then in 2010, Illumination Entertainment took released the movie Despicable Me, which may be the most obvious hybrid in recent years.

Various people describe Despicable Me as a supervillain movie, and the main character and his colleagues fit that description pretty well. They carry crazy weapons. Some of them wear specially designed superhero costumes. One or two of them even have supervillain names.

Cast members Steve Carell and Jason Segel even appeared in featurettes about “how to be a super-villain.”

At the same time, the movie has a strong espionage theme. When the main character invades a rival’s base to steal a secret weapon, he uses subterfuge rather than outright force. He plans to steal the moon in a retro-1960’s rocket, which feels extravagant and over-the-top, the kind of thing we easily associate with Bond villains. His secret lair could just easily be something we see in a Bond film as in a superhero film.

In other words, Despicable Me could be a superhero film, but it could also just as easily be a Bond movie that centers on the Bond villain.

Moving forward, it looks like Disney, who produced Condorman back in the day, is once again trying to create a live action superhero-spy hybrid.

Black Widow, currently scheduled to come out May 2020, will take a look at Natasha Romanoff’s espionage past, and feature supervillain Red Guardian. Trailers so far suggest the movie will be a mix of Marvel superhero action and Jason Bourne-style spy thriller.

We’ll see if it works this time around.

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