“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” Those iconic words, heard in each episode of The Adventures Of Superman, established a clear precedent for the superhero genre. Civilians exist in these stories mainly to be rescued from danger and to gaze in slack-jawed bewilderment at the costumed crime fighters before them. Artist LJ Frezza examines this trope in a new video essay for Fandor Keyframe called “Superhero Bystanders.” Culled from 34 years’ worth of superhero movies, ranging from 1980’s Superman II to 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the video largely consists of scenes in which powerless mortals gape like idiots at something amazing happening just off-screen. Actors rarely look as foolish as they do when they’re pretending to watch a man fly over a major American city. “The on-screen audience mirrors us as viewers,” claims a caption in the essay. If so, this is not a very flattering reflection. Because these people look like dopes:
Whether it’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, or Green Lantern, the crowd shots always look pretty much the same. In some ways, they recall the famous “Spielberg Face”—that is, people gazing in wonder at something just offscreen—only without the purposeful framing and overarching sense of childlike awe Spielberg’s movies have.
The essay at Fandor suggests an alternate tack: “What if movies showed crowds taking action,” the essay asks, “instead of waiting to be saved?” The answer to that is provided by clips from Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies from 2002 and 2004. In these films, both set in New York, the citizens do their part in razzing the villain and protecting the hero. After all those dumb crowd shots, it’s a refreshing change of pace.