Why do superhero movies love trains?
Right now, I want you to think of your favorite superhero movie. You got it? Does it have a scene with a train? Because there's a very good chance it does. But like, why? I asked myself very casually a couple of years ago when I saw the first trailer for No Way Home. Why do so many superhero movies have a train? Is it a historical thing? Is it practical or is it something else? Is there some other reason why so many pivotal scenes in this one genre are train related? So I figured it out. Looked at all the trains and broken it down into three categories, starting with number one.
Trains are history. Ever since the 1896 showing of arrival of a train at La Coitat station. Trains have always been cinematic, but it seems like the legend that people panicked because they thought the train was coming off the screen. We're not anything more than that.
This particular reel was not the first one the Lumiere brothers showed, so audiences probably would have gotten the gist by then. The only other explanation I've read is that people thought it may have been a camera obscura, which would suggest that a train was coming from behind them and also upside down. Fun story, though. But I don't think it's a coincidence that the turn of the century brought with it the popularization of two groundbreaking new technologies, And those technologies have themselves also been connected.
And sure, the steam train had been around since the early 1800s. And in the late 1860s, even America created the Pacific Railroad that spanned the continent. But the 20th century brought with it the mass adoption of the subway with cities like London, Paris, Berlin, Boston, New York, Chicago, Budapest and Istanbul, all creating some sort of underground electrified mass transit system that changed the way people experienced the train. And at the same time, film is changing the way people experience practically everything else. The motion picture gave a glimpse into otherwise inaccessible worlds that had only been available on static pictures technology that created movement to give the user a new perspective. According to film historian Lynn Kirby, the train can be seen as providing the prototypical experience of looking at a framed, moving image and as the mechanical double of the cinematic apparatus.
Both are means of transporting a passenger to a totally different place. Both are highly charged vehicles of narrative events, stories, intersections of strangers. Both are based on a fundamental paradox simultaneous motion and stillness. These are two great machines of vision that give rise to similar modes of perception and are geared toward shaping the leisure time of a mass society. And at the tail end of the golden age of rail travel in America, April of 1938, the world was introduced to another invention that would change the course of leisure history.
The superhero Superman debuted an Action Comics number one with a familiar introduction Dying Planet, Desperate Scientist's. Last Hope, Kindly Couple. And then on panel four of the first superhero comic we get. When maturity was reached, he discovered that he could easily leap an eighth of a mile hurdle, a 20 storey building, lift tremendous weights, run faster than an express train. That description has changed slightly to the modern, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. From the very beginning, on the first page of the first Superman comics, the train was the bar against which the superhero odds were measured.
More heroes popped up, more companies timely than Marvel Fawcett National Comics then DC, and they were all headquartered in New York City. Creatives like SIEGEL, SHUSTER, Fingar, Eisner, Dick Cole, Lee and Kirby either grew up in or eventually moved to New York City. So it's no surprise that many of the early superhero shows were from New York or a pastiche city like Metropolis. Although Metropolis is sort of Toronto or Gotham, although Gotham is sort of Chicago, and New York is like really no other American city defined by its public transit system. The subway shaped New York changed the geography.
So naturally it was also a big part of the comics Early Superman comics, said the hero, catching an out of control train. Action Comics number ten is this. And then Adventure Comics 142 and then everyone else joined in on this superhero meets train action. Batman 95 introduced the Bat Train. Amazing Spider-Man 133 to 67.
Marvel Team-Up 15. Sensation Comics 26. Wonder Woman 55 163. Captain America 45. Iron Man 1385.
Whiz Comics 18. Captain Marvel 85. The Only Thing Early Comics loved more than trains was gorillas. And his characters, like Superman, were adapted to TV and film. They kept coming up against trains because trains were still the most powerful thing on the planet besides, I guess, the space shuttle and the atom bomb. They were the most powerful thing on the planet that people saw in their daily lives. In 1948, Billion Dollar Ltd, the third episode of the animated Superman series Superman needs to catch a train carrying Lois Lane and $1,000,000,000 in gold.
In The Adventures of Superman, The George Reeves Show Episode five of Season two was shot in the dark. Superman needs to disrupt the power of a subway, which villains are trying to use to kill Jimmy Olsen. Episode two of Season six The Perils of Superman. Superman needs to save Lois after a villain literally ties her to a railroad track. This continued on the silver screen. Almost every version of the character did a train thing.
Reeve raced to train and fix the train track in Superman, the movie. Then in Superman four, The Quest for Peace, Superman stopped a runaway subway train by absorbing the electricity on the track. But not to worry. I'd like all the people back there to know that our subway system is still the safest and most reliable means of public transportation. Thank you.
Returns doesn't feature any Superman train scenes, but Christopher Plummer does test out his crystal using an enormous model train set. Cavill throws Nemec into a train yard and then gets a train thrown at him during the Smallville fight. And then over on TV, Welling caught a runaway train.
Eklund saves a derailing Train. Even the Superman who sucks do you pretty decent train save animated Superman called plenty of trains. It's just what Superman does.
This is to say, historically, trains have been a part of superhero comics since the very beginning, acting as the forerunner to the American superhero. Both are a symbol of progress, strength and possibility. So that's the history. But beyond that, why are trains so effective in this one kind of movie? Why do they keep coming back? Well, because part two trains are cinematic. Trains are the Swiss Army knife of the superhero movie. They could do pretty much anything.
The train can set the plot in motion. And Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable opens with a train crash. A complete disaster. Everyone on board dies. The movie is 2 minutes long. Or is it because one man, David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis, survives the accident unscathed? Not a scratch.
And while David spends most of the movie in denial, we, the audience and David know the truth, the rules of the universe. Any malfunction in the operation of this behemoth can kill everyone on board except a superhero. Amazon's The boys, based on the comic of the same name, is about the collateral damage superheroes cause the people who try to prevent it and the protagonist we Hughie is a normal guy living a normal life with a normal girlfriend who is liquefied when she is run over by one of the supers. Which one? A-Train, the train is a force of nature, one that destroys, and that destruction needs to be particularly extreme in a world where superheroes exist.
But that destruction can reveal something special and it can galvanize a new hero. But the train is also a setting. The subway specifically provides a unique area from which a hero can operate.
Take Moon, Girl and Devil. Dinosaur. Brunelli uses an abandoned subway station as her base of operations, and really nowhere else in the city would work. Devil is a humongous T-Rex who needs to hide in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Regardless of what the Godzilla movie tells you, it's perfect. An island water on all sides. But like no other island in the world, this is a place where he can easily hide. It isn't. This enormous monster needs to fit into the tight, cramped city. But luckily another enormous monster hides just below the surface of the city.
Lou, Nella and Devil are able to use this network of tunnels both as a hideout and as a fast travel system to protect their identities. Or at least hers. Or Amazing Spider-Man two.
It's a movie about everything but one of the five movies in this movie is a mystery about Roosevelt and its connection to Peter's parents. And even though Peter has a subway token and the word Roosevelt as his only clues, Peter takes forever to put together the idea that maybe Roosevelt and the subway are connected. Apparently, FDR has a secret subway. This is a real thing. But also, Richard Parker was able to use this station as a secret lab where he could conduct his spider experiments in peace. Again, New York, a city known for being filled to the brim with people and secrets.
And they can be found in the old train stations. And this setting can be used to place our more fantastical heroes in a familiar context. One small thing I appreciate about Captain Marvel is that in the opening on Hala, we see Carol and Yon-Rogg take some sort of free subway train to work. They don't fly or use jetpacks.
They're just regular, relatable people. Or Kamala Khan travels back in time or whatever it is that she does through the real historical events known as the Partition, a chaotic migration of an estimated 14 to 18 million people. Based on the drawing of new borders after the dissolution of the British Raj. The consequences of that event are not only felt in the present day fight over the Bengal, but the cultural divide between Kamala and parts of her family that she needs to reconcile. So Kamala travels to a train station and sees it all for herself. But the most familiar train scene in any movie to me, maybe the most evocative single detail I have ever experienced, came from into the spider-verse because Miles gets on the subway after managing to lose power, we hear Stand clear of the closing doors please.
Nothing. No landmarks, no music. No, I'm walking here as ever made me feel like I am back in New York more effectively than that. But the train station can also be a battleground. Many superhero fights take place around the train, and the train acts as a hazard.
Hellboy opens with a fight between Hellboy and a monster in the New York City subway, and even Hellboy, the Demon Prince of Hell, needs to worry about being decapitated by a passing train. Black Panther ends with a fight in the middle of the Wakandan vibranium mines. The tracks are the only thing that T'Challa can use to break through Killmonger suit, but they are both at risk. They need to worry about fighting each other and periodically dodging oncoming trains. Also, it is not lost on me that Black Panther, a movie about the effects of colonization in Africa and what they fight on a literal underground railroad.
But the train can also become part of the action. A hero or villain with the right awareness and speed can turn the train into a powerful weapon. In Far from home, Mysterio tricks Peter into sitting on the tracks just long enough to get annihilated by a passing high speed train.
Or in Spider-Man three, Peter uses the trains to beat up Sandman. And I mean, this is Spider-Man here, a superhero with the proportional strength of a spider. And even he's not strong enough without the help of a passing subway car. When Sandman stops Spider-Man with a kick to the chest, Spider-Man needs to get his composure before the next train runs him over. In this instance, whoever can use the trains to their advantage will win.
Spider-Man grinds Sandman down using a passing train. Spider-Man is knocked back and bounces off a few trains before turning the same move on. Sandman. The trains are the only thing more powerful than Spider-Man or Sandman. One wrong move.
And even Spider-Man could probably be killed in Daredevil when Matt chases a mobster named Jose Quesada down into the subway. He and Cassady are able to use the train to their advantage. Quesada gets lucky when Daredevil is weakened by the passing train, gets out and never finds out why.
But we know it's because the noise made by the train is loud enough to blind Matt. And then when Quesada gets cocky and Matt's able to recover, Matt kicks Quesada onto the train and lets the train do the rest. And in a very 2014 line, Matt says that light at the end of the tunnel. Guess what? That's not even a good game. That's the same train. While the train may seem like a blessing, a technological marvel, for some it's damnation.
But that's not to say that the train is never salvation. It more than a few times becomes a last minute method of escape. Like in Shazam.
Billy, running from his bullies, is able to sneak on to a subway train at the last possible second, or Miles is able to use the train to lose Prowler during their first encounter. Morbius jumps in front of an incoming train to escape from Milo. Hawkeye and Kate jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and swing on to a passing train.
Cameron and Bryan use the train to evade damage control. The What if Zombies crew escapes from Penn Station on a rewired train and Loki nearly escapes them into one by sneaking onto a train. If early in your story, your hero needs to escape a confrontation that they are not yet ready for, a well-timed transfer can do the trick. You don't lose the tension of the chase, but you have a very clear objective that the hero needs to accomplish.
And if they miss their window by just a second, the consequences could be deadly. But for some, the danger of a train lies not in its power, but in its space, because from time to time, a superhero movie will find itself inside a train. Games like Spider-Man four are all about mobility, swinging around the city, webs zipping through a room of goons. And yet Spider-Man's first encounter with one of the game's many agonists, Martin Lee, who is at the time going by. Mr. Negative, finds Peter and Martin fighting in a subway car. And just like that, one of Spider-Man's biggest advantages freedom of movement is gone.
Peter can only dodge Martin's massive energy blasts by jumping from wall to wall. But unlike every other boss fight in the game, Spider-Man is trapped in a small, claustrophobic space. Boring joker Arthur Fleck is running from the Gotham Cops and hops onto a subway car filled with other clown protesters. And Arthur is able to use the chaos of the train to his advantage. Arthur blends in with the other clowns, and when the cops do find Arthur, a fight breaks out in.
The cops cannot help but escalate the situation which ends in them getting carried off the train and kicked by the clowns while Arthur dances away. Compare that to his trip in the beginning of Joker, where Arthur is attacked by a bunch of Wall Street show toon enthusiasts. In both situations, the odd man out. Is that a huge disadvantage because they are trapped, cornered and Arthur can't escape his attackers the same way that the cops can't escape the protesters. The train is a prison.
The confines of the train don't even need to be that serious. An amazing Spider-Man. Peter first develops his powers during a subway ride, and because he's in a small space surrounded by other passengers, everything gets worse. Nothing is worse for Spider-Man than being trapped. But if the claustrophobia of the train is too much for our hero, the train has another option up.
More than a couple of superhero fights have used the train as a stage, a platform, traveling at high speeds with its very own hazards. The train goes through tunnels and past signs. It makes turns. Winning a fight is difficult enough, but on a train, it can be downright impossible. In The Wolverine, after Logan is followed down to a bullet train by the Yakuza, he finds himself hanging off the side of the train and climbs onto the roof.
This fight would not make sense under other circumstances, but in this case, Logan's able to use his force to anchor himself onto the roof while the Yakuza use their knives. There, Logan needs to dodge the low hanging hazard and is able to use the environment against his assailants, tricking one into an ill timed dodge and using his momentum to rocket himself at the last killer. Captain Marvel is pursuing a strong shapeshifter who manages to sneak his way onto a train. And after Karel figures out his disguise himself as this kindly old lady, a fight starts.
The people on the train are very quick to hold Carol back, even though the lady does a wild flip around this pole. Like clearly something's going on and then they all just chill out afterwards. But the fight continues on the roof of the train. The stroll accidentally touches the electrified cable. He manages to nearly kick Karel off the train and the fight is ended when Carol needs to bail. Otherwise she'll hit a tunnel.
This role use this precarious setting to get away. And then Spider-Man two, perhaps the best train fight scene uses every trick in the book. Peter and Otto climb around the train. Otto catches Peter through the window. Peter is forced to avoid oncoming trains.
And when he is thrown from the train, Peter needs to use his webbing to keep pace. The train is the single most dynamic setting for an action sequence. It is mobile, cramped, fast, powerful, and most importantly, it is out of your control. And sometimes the train is not only the setting for the scene, but an antagonist. Movies love to use an out of control train is an obstacle that our hero needs to bring to a stop to prevent a calamity.
The train is a danger progress bar. You can watch a scene from a distance and immediately know exactly what the disaster is and how far we are from it. That's why almost all movies like this feature some version of this shot where we zoom out to see the entire track or follow it all the way to the end. It's so easy to set up a train save scene. The train can't stop.
Maybe the conductor is out of commission or the console is destroyed or the track is damaged. Either way, if one of those things happened, the audience knows what we're doing. Like both Incredibles movies use an early train rescue to establish our protagonist as either incredibly strong or resourceful.
And even for Mister Incredible, a character who just fell from a great height without really skipping a beat, he winces before he can catch the train. Because it is that powerful. It is the one thing besides the Omni droid later on that can actually harm a super, and it's hard not to see some similarities between the train and the Omni droid. Both are humongous metal machines designed for a specific purpose that have lost control and can only be stopped by superhuman strength. And both situations are sent out of control by syndromes negligence.
The Incredibles franchise has a strange symbolic relationship with technology. After all, frequently the heroes are in danger because the machine, like a train or a robot or a boat, has gone haywire. And the only thing that can stop it is the supers. These normal people have used technology to emulate the supers who can fly or travel at superspeed or even run on water. And those are things that only superheroes should be able to do because if everyone's special, nobody is. But when a normal person gets jealous of the supers, the supers need to use their innate gifts to save everybody else.
Neither Incredibles movie ends with the fight between the hero and the villain. They're both between the supers and a big machine because the machines are the problem. The normal people trying to do the same thing is the supers that makes everything worse. You can see similar themes at play during Age of Ultron. Technology is bad. Tony tries well-intentioned to protect the world from the threat of space tyrant based annihilation, so he creates Ultron, which goes rogue and ends up destroying an entire country.
An out of control piece of machinery wreaks havoc. And halfway through the movie, a fight between Captain America and Ultron leads to a train. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch join Captain America and Ultron, in a fit of desperation, shoots at Quicksilver and flies away.
Ultron misses Quicksilver, but he does manage to accidentally kill the train conductor and destroy the controls, leaving the train running at full speed with very little track left. It's up to Cap Crow and Wanda to stop the train and save the pedestrian in its path. A piece of technology goes off the rails and our heroes need to stop it. The train can genuinely be whatever you need it to be A force, a stage, a weapon or an enemy. But there's one more thing. One theme that is integral to superhero movies and more often than you'd expect.
This theme is expressed on or near or because of a train. Part three The Train is Choice. The Gotham monorail from Batman Begins represents a lot of things. Progress. The past, Bruce's parents. But the conversations on the train between Bruce and Ra’s al Ghul basically spell out the movie's real biggest idea. In case you forgot, Ra’s is in the process of turning Gotham City into a hell on earth.
A no man's land, if you will. And Ra’s is doing this by using a microwave emitter to vaporize the water supply, which has been laced with scarecrow's fear toxin. And the center of Gotham. And the main water hub is Wayne Tower, which also happens to be a stop along the monorail path. If race is able to get the microwave emitter to Wayne Tower, the whole city explodes and the fear toxin Gotham over.
Also, real quick, not to nitpick, not unlike my podcast, mostly nit picking the microwave emitter is vaporizing water, right? And it's that strong. It's able to affect water on the street level from the monorail. What about all the water inside? I don't know, Bruce Wayne. Anyway, Ra’s has for dramatic effect, decided to use the Gotham monorail to transport his microwave emitter. The monorail was created by Bruce's parents to save the city, embrace his perverted their dream, and is going to use the monorail to destroy the city.
So poetic. But let's forget that symbolism for now and focus on Ra’s. He pins Bruce down and sets.
Don't be afraid, Bruce. You are just an ordinary man. And that's why you couldn't fight injustice.
And that's why you can't stop this train. And Bruce is sitting in the bus stop. And then when Ra’s realizes what happened and Bruce is in control, Ra’s says, you finally got to do what is necessary. Harkening back to Bruce and Ra's original philosophical disagreement.
Bruce will not kill even a murderer. He believes compassion separates us from them. Ra’s believes Bruce lacks will the will to take action. And Bruce spends the entire movie trying to prove race wrong.
And that led to this moment where Bruce answers, I won't kill him, but I don't have to save him. And Bruce leaves the monorail, which, because of Gordon's help, is about to crash. Ray wants Bruce to kill, kill, race to save Gotham. And Bruce refuses. He finds another way. A loophole that lets Bruce save the city without murdering race directly At the midpoint of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Peter and Strange have a disagreement.
Strange wants to send the villains back to their own universes. If they stay here, this universe could be destroyed. But Peter knows that sending them back means sending them home to their certain death, except for Sandman and Lizard. So he and Strange fight.
And look where we end up on a train. And that happens to be where our characters lay down. No Way Home's big idea. It's their fate.
You can't change that any more than you can change who they are. But what if we could? What if we could change their fate? Strange wants Peter to choose. Kill the villains to save everyone else. And Peter refuses. He finds another way, Helps the villains so that they can go back to their own universes and live in X-Men.
Rogue has fled the X-Mansion and the team tracks her down to a train station. Magneto and his Brotherhood managed to incapacitate Logan Scott and Ororo and capture Rogue. But as they leave the train station, they are met by all these cops, which leads to an all time line read by McKellen, You Homo sapiens. And here goes.
And Magneto is able to turn the weapons on the police. However, Charles and Jean in a nearby car manage to telepathically control sabertooth and Toad and Charles as Sabertooth puts his hands over Magneto's throat. And Magneto says, What now? Save the girl, You'll have to kill me.
Charles. And what will that accomplish? Let them pass that law and they'll have you in chains with a number burned into your forehead. Magneto wants Charles to choose, kill Magneto to save Rogue and everyone else from whatever Magneto is planning. And Charles refused. He needs to find another way.
Save everyone without becoming the monster the world fears. Mutants are. You've probably heard of the trolley problem.
It's a thought experiment developed by Philipa Foot and furthered by Judith Jarvis Thompson Real short version: There's five people about to be hit by a trolley. You can pull a lever that will divert the train and it will avoid the five people, but kill a sixth person. Do you pull the lever? What frequently happens is someone answers, Yes, it's better to save five people than one. This is a philosophical theory known as Utilitarianism.
Do whatever does the most good. And if you say no, you let five people die because you cannot actively kill anyone, even if it saves more people. That is Deontology or ethics governed by a rule or duty. Killing is wrong.
Even if you save more people by killing you just don't do it. And so much superhero media is about this question. A villain who says killing one person is necessary. The will to act is everything where the hero believes killing is wrong. It is their one rule that they will never break.
Recently take Thanos, the ultimate utilitarian. Kill half to save everyone else. I know people say Infinity War is not about anything, but I disagree. Captain America is the moral center of that movie.
Very clearly articulating the argument against Thanos’ ultimate utilitarianism. Thanos threatens half the universe. One life cannot stand in the way of defeating him, but it should. We don't trade lines vision, and I don't think it's a coincidence.
The cap is introduced in Infinity War by a passing train and a train station which is made all the more interesting because the first real lesson Steve ever learned is Captain America was on a train. Bucky died. Steve did everything he could, but Bucky still died.
And Steve learned that you cannot save everyone. A lesson he explains to Wanda after the Lagos incident in Civil war. But he never stops trying to find another way. And perhaps that's why the end of Man of Steel feels so strange.
Clark says, I won't kill you, Zod says. I'll never stop, Kill Zod, save the people. And Clark does not find another way. He pulls the lever.
Let Zod make that choice for him. And when you know it takes place in a train station, green Goblin understands the trolley problem, Forcing the hero to make an impossible choice between the people on the train. A tram is sort of a train. And the love of his life, or slightly less directly in Spider-Man two. Peter is not just stopping a runaway train like in Incredibles one, he is stopping a train that Octavia specifically set on a path of destruction to force a choice, Save them or catch me. Let them die to save everyone else.
You have a train to catch. It is such an effective visual metaphor. Then even if the villain wants to demonstrate to the hero that the hero does not have a choice.
Spoilers for Invincible. There's a train for that in the final episode of Season one. Omni-Man takes Mark and pushes him into an oncoming train, forcing Mark to watch everyone die. Save no one. Utilitarianism de Ontology. The trolley problem does not matter if you don't buy into the argument that life matters.
And I was just about to release this video when I remembered that a superhero movie that is not even been released yet appears to feature both a trolley problem and a train. Based on the dialog in the trailer for Across the Spider-Verse. The conflict seems to come from Miles wanting to save a person who Miguel has decided must die because if that person does not die. The multiverse will be destroyed. Miguel states You have a choice between saving one person and saving everyone. And Miles says, I can do both.
But after Miles runs away, where does it appear? Miles? Miguel and the rest of the spider people end up on a future train. Movies love trains because the train is the ultimate technological metaphor for death. It's powerful, fast and unstoppable. And we love super hero movies because either by the heroes, superhuman stamina or their moral fortitude or because of the effect they have on others. When faced with an impossible choice, they can do the impossible.
They find another way and managed to save everybody. Superheroes solve the trolley problem. So speaking of Superman, next video is another fan casting video. It's the Superman supporting cast. Lois, Jimmy, and Lex and for all you Perry stands out there. I don't spend too much time on him because practically any serious 50 year old actor could probably do it.
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