Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Superhero Era

After the recent announcements by DC and Marvel about their plans for their upcoming comic book superhero film franchises, you've probably seen the schedules and infographics of all the superhero films that are planned for the near future - at least thirty in the next six years from four major studios are planned. There have been plenty of other bloggers happily providing analysis film by film, but I'm more interested in the bigger picture here. With Marvel Universe films having dominated the worldwide box office charts for the past several years and nearly everyone in Hollywood eager to try and replicate their success, the popularity of superhero franchises has exploded. The big question is, will audiences embrace the trend and make superhero films a long-lasting and lucrative new fixture in cinema, or are we looking at a bubble that will burst sooner rather than later?

There have been many pieces by film lovers trying to make comparisons between the relatively young superhero genre, and genres that were popular in the past like westerns and musicals. John Heath's Why Superhero Movies Aren’t Like Westerns (and Probably Won’t be the Next Great Chapter in Genre Filmmaking) is a good one, pointing out the many weaknesses of the current crop of superhero films, the biggest being that there's so little variation in the stories that superhero movies have been telling. Because the films are so expensive, only the risk-averse major studios have been able to make them, resulting in a lot of cookie-cutter films that all largely follow the same familiar patterns. There have been a handful of projects that have criticized common superhero tropes, such as "Super," "Watchmen," and "Chronicle," but these have done little to expand the scope of mainstream superhero films. Despite Marvel touting their recent titles mixing superheroes with other genres such as space opera, in "Guardians of the Galaxy," and political thriller, in the latest "Captain America," deviations from the standard formula of self-discovery, mild romance, and bombastic action have been slight. Some of the most intelligent and thoughtful entries in the genre, ironically, have been animated films ostensibly aimed at younger audiences: "The Incredibles" and "Megamind."

The films coming from the big studios in the immediate future promise more of the same. It's nice to see some diversity finally being embraced with the upcoming "Cyborg," "Black Panther," "Captain Marvel," and the long awaited "Wonder Woman," but it also begs the question why it took Marvel and DC so long to greenlight these films. Sony's "Sinister Six" and DC's "Suicide Squad" will shine the spotlight on anti-heroes and villains, a potentially interesting subgenre, but it's doubtful that the narratives will really stray all that far from what we've already seen. Plenty of successful superhero films already have protagonists with darker origins and redemptive arcs. Note that FOX is also readying "Deadpool," a feature that will star a foul-mouthed, meta-loving mercenary who is currently one of the most popular comic book anti-heroes. However, it's likely that his feature will carry a PG-13 rating, undercutting a lot of elements that gave the character so much bite. Past attempts to franchise more adult-oriented titles like "The Crow," "The Punisher," "Watchmen," and "Kick-Ass" have had mixed results at best.

However, with so much competition, the studios will be forced to start taking some risks, just to stay ahead of the pack. The current strategy that everyone has latched on to is to try and follow in Marvel's footsteps and create shared universes that link a series of superhero films. However, they're doing this in different ways. Warner Bros., after stumbling with "Green Lantern" and landing a moderate hit with "Man of Steel," will be skipping the preliminary character introduction films, and launching straight into "Batman v. Superman" for 2016, and then "Justice League." FOX is doing the MCU model in reverse, spinning off specific characters for their own features after they appear in the "X-men" films. "Wolverine" will be followed by "Deadpool," and there's been talk of films for Gambit and Quicksilver on the way. FOX will also be attempting to launch a new "Fantastic Four" franchise separately, and then figuring out if they can fit together with the "X-men" films at some point.

Will the superhero onslaught slow down anytime soon? Are audiences going to burn out on them? Culturally, I don't see superheroes losing their appeal, but it's going to be a lot harder to stand out from the crowd with so many players jostling for space. Marvel has established a good enough track record that they'll be insulated from poorer installments for a while. I can definitely see a landscape where there's the MCU continuing its success and everyone else fighting to get the audience's attention. FOX's "X-men" films are also in a good place, and the franchise is one of the few that could sustain multiple spin-offs and a cinematic universe. Warners has ambitious plans laid out, but an awful lot is hinging on some iffy projects, and the lukewarm success of "Man of Steel" doesn't inspire much confidence. As for Sony, they definitely need to reevaluate what they want to do with "Spider-man," because the property is sinking quick.

Superhero movies have achieved the kind of massive popular success that's going to leave an impact on cinema, whether the actual movies themselves endure or not. Honestly, I think that the genre is just getting started, and the financial success of the next crop of films is beside the point. While few of the films that have actually been announced interest me, I am very interested in how other filmmakers are going to find variations on these stories, and the films that are made as reactions to them. I'm interested in the spoofs and the satires and the subversions that are inevitably going to come along. I want to see what other kinds of movies the "shared universe" trend might spawn. And I'm dying to see if "The Dark Knight Returns" or anything like it ever comes to the screen uncompromised. And will I finally get my "Sandman" movie, thanks to the momentum of so many other comic-book projects?

Imagine the possibilities of what comes after 2020.

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