Monday, August 24, 2015

The State of the Superhero Movie 2015

Here we are in the waning days of summer, with another year's worth of superhero movies behind us.  It's a good time to take stock of where we are and what lies ahead.  2015 turned out to be a fairly lean year for superhero films - only three titles - and feels a bit like the calm before the storm.  2016 has seven major superhero movies on the schedule and 2017 will have at least six.

First, the new releases.  Marvel's "Age of Ultron" and "Ant-Man" lived up to expectations.  "Ultron" didn't quite hit the box office numbers of its predecessor, but it's close enough that nobody can complain.  Audiences didn't embrace it quite as eagerly either, but nobody could call it a disappointment.  Meanwhile, there weren't particularly high hopes for "Ant-Man," but it made money and the reviews were actually pretty good, so that's a potential crisis for the Marvel brand that's been averted.  There are still some lingering feelings of ill will about what happened behind the scenes on that film, which may be indicative of some worrying trends.  More on that below.

"Fantastic Four," by contrast, was a complete disaster on every front.  Most of the blame has been pinned on director Josh Trank, who apparently self-destructed under the pressure.  It's rough watching a once promising career go down in flames, but this also leaves FOX's future franchise plans in deep trouble.  The announced 2017 sequel is almost certainly dead.  Crossover plans with the "X-men" universe films are surely cancelled.  Fans and industry watchers alike are hotly debating whether it would be better for FOX to sell the rights to the property back to Marvel or to attempt yet another "Fantastic Four" reboot once the heat is off.  FOX's superhero hopes are now pinned solely on the aging "X-men" franchise, which somehow has three films scheduled for next year: "X-men: Apocalypse," and the spinoffs "Gambit" and "Deadpool."   

The "X-men" universe is diverse enough to support that kind of gamble, though, and I think FOX is still in a far better position than Sony.  After cancelling two sequels and benching the "Sinister Six" spinoff thanks to "The Amazing Spider-man 2's" underperformance, Spidey is in limbo.  The deal with Marvel that will allow him to appear in the MCU is supposed to help pave the way for yet another "Spider-man" reboot, starring newcomer Tom Holland and directed by Jon Watts.  I don't know if that's going to be enough to drum up interest though, as the new film is being fast-tracked for 2017, and that's not much time to distance itself from the Andrew Garfield films.  The casting choice already shows that Sony isn't willing to stray too far from formula to really distinguish this "Spider-man" from the previous ones.

With film slates being drastically reorganized after the failure of only a handful of films, a lot is also riding on what happens with "Batman v. Superman" next year.  Warner Brothers and its stable of DC superheroes have always been the only real possible rivals of Disney and Marvel.  Next year we're going to see if they've finally gotten their act together enough to start challenging their dominance.  I have my doubts about Zack Snyder, but at least "Batman v. Superman" and David Ayer's "Suicide Squad" are offering some riskier alternatives to the standard Marvel movie, which is starting to feel more and more familiar with each new installment.  Between "Suicide Squad" and FOX's "Deadpool," some superhero movies are going to get more adult and subversive in a hurry.  At the same time these two are clearly atypical productions with much smaller budgets and much smaller anticipated audiences.

There have been many indications that there are too many constraints on the big blockbuster superhero films for anything really interesting to come out of them.  Over the past few months we've seen several high profile directors part ways with or turn down superhero films, citing an inability to come to terms with what the studios wanted creatively.  So, we won't get to see what Michelle McLaren could have done with "Wonder Woman," or how Ava DuVernay would have portrayed "Black Panther."  "Ant-Man" seems to have come out all right in spite of Edgar Wright's departure, but the loss of his singular comedic vision surely hurt it.  James Gunn may have enlivened "Guardians of the Galaxy," but it's nowhere near as daring as what he did with superheroes in "Super."  It's frustrating to see so much potential wasted in these projects, over and over again, as the studios insist on safer, broader, more commercial fare.

Out of all the superhero films coming our way in the next few years, I'm supporting the more diverse entries like "Wonder Woman" and "Black Panther" on principle, but there aren't may that I'm really excited by.  Next year's batch of superhero films look the most promising - it'll be fun watching Batman fight Superman, and Iron Man fight Captain America (which finally solves the MCU villain problem).  And if FOX can pull off "Deadpool," that'll be great.  However, everything else coming after looks repetitive and familiar.  I won't be surprised if WB surpasses Marvel and Disney as the MCU really is starting to feel like it's in a rut.  However, WB is going to find itself in the same rut pretty quick if it doesn't innovate too.  Dark and dour only go so far, especially once you get away from Gotham City.

The television DC universe figured that out - but that's a post for another day. 

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