I’ve heard the criticism “that’s just one long fight scene” made more and more often lately. Hell, I’ve even made it myself – in fairness, it’s hard to interpret the opening arc of the new Justice League title any other way. And certainly Marvel’s next big Event comic, Avengers vs X-Men basically proclaims itself to be that in the very title.
But why is the fight scene so prevalent?
There’s an argument to be made that it’s intrinsic to the genre. That the fight scene is to the superhero comic as the song is to the musical, the explosion to the action movie, or the fuck to the porno. If this is the case, then it implies that the fight scene has primacy above all else. Indeed, that it is the reason we’re reading: if Batman doesn’t punch someone by page 4, we’re out of there.
However, if that were true, it would imply that everything else is window-dressing to get us to look at the fights. That character and plot, in particular, were wholly subservient to it. (I’d mention theme, but it’s painfully apparent that many superhero comics don’t trouble themselves to have one, at least not for more than lip-service purposes.)
Arguably, this approach has broadened in recent years, with a growing awareness among writers and readers that although it is conflict that drives plot and reveals character, the conflict in question need not be physical – emotional conflict works just as well (and indeed, on the occasions that they are successfully combined, each gains greater weight from the presence of the other).
The conflict argument, which privileges plot above other aspects, is challenged by the spectacle argument. Although this argument is borrowed from cinema, which is generally much more straighforward about giving us spectacle, it does apply to that one spectacle that comics still do best: showing the exercise of superhuman powers. (Admittedly, ‘superhuman powers’ is a broad term: Batman’s deductive prowess is as much a power as his physical prowess is, or as his gadgetry is.)
I tend towards this last argument: although there are a growing number of superhero comics in which the heroes do not fight, there are very few where they do no use their powers – even if it’s only Spider-Man hanging from the ceiling while the converation goes on around him, or Wolverine using his claws to open a can of beer.
Ultimately, like all comercial artistic fields, superhero comics are themselves one long fight scene: the fight between those who wish to advance their art form by experimentation and those who wish to draw a steady paycheck by producing more of the same old same old.