Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The State of the Superhero, 2016

We've survived a year that saw the release of six superhero films - seven if you count the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" sequel, eight if you count "Max Steel," and nine if you count "The Killing Joke." And so far, so good, at first glance. Almost all the movies made money, though not as much as the studios would have liked. The adult-oriented "Deadpool" and "Suicide Squad" did far better than anyone was expecting. Also, the releases were spaced out well enough that there wasn't much cannibalization of each other's business. Maybe "Civil War" impacted "Apocalypse" a little.

From a critical standpoint, however, the picture isn't as rosy. The biggest offender was Warners with the DC movies. I've been hoping for years for Warners to get the DC superheroes to a place where they could compete on the same level as Disney's Marvel movies. Instead, they managed to royally bungle both "Batman v. Superman" and "Suicide Squad." Zack Snyder's take on the caped crusaders was plodding and dark when it wasn't incomprehensible, and all around just badly made. David Ayers' "Suicide Squad" was hamstrung by not being rated R or allowed to be as adult as it should have been. And it really worries me that the recent DC movies have been so kid-unfriendly, because it's going to seriously limit them in the long run. "The Killing Joke" just seemed to drive the point home that DC's aiming at a much older audience than Marvel.

Fortunately there will be a LEGO Batman movie coming our way soon, which means there will be at least one movie featuring Batman next year that I'm likely to enjoy. At first I wasn't so sure about the spinoff, but compared to the doom and gloom at Warners, the return of Will Arnett's minifigure bat sounds absolutely delightful. The real question is what "Wonder Woman" is going to look like, and how it will be received. The introduction of the character went over very well, and I'm hopeful that Patty Jenkins will be able to wrangle a decently rousing adventure for her that doesn't trigger another culture crisis like "Ghostbusters" did last year. At this point, I have no idea if Zack Snyder's "Justice League" is even going to be watchable, but I sincerely hope that he manages to course correct, get a better editor, and lighten up. Warners can still fix the DC universe films at this point, but they are very quickly reaching the point of no return. If they don't shape up in 2017, they're going to be out of chances.

Fox fared considerably better with the unapologetically adult "Deadpool" reaping a February bonanza at the box office. "Deadpool" wasn't a great movie, but it was good enough to keep me optimistic about the franchise, and the prospects of adult-oriented superhero comedies in general. "X-men: Apocalypse," on the other hand, was a misfire. It didn't commit any particularly egregious cinematic sins, but it was altogether too obviously the sixth film in a series. Bloated, repetitive, and offering a pretty poor case for existing in the first place, all it ended up doing was wasting an awful lot of good talent. Reportedly there's yet another "X-men" film in the works that threatens to repeat the same mistake of "Apocalypse," which I'm not looking forward to. Things will be relatively quiet for Fox in 2017, with "Gambit" still in limbo. However the third Wolverine movie, "Logan," which is supposed to be Hugh Jackman's last time playing the character, may make some waves in March.

Finally, there's Marvel, which is still on top of the world. "Captain America: Civil War" and "Doctor Strange" were both very well received by both critics and audiences, and there's no sign that anyone is tiring of the MCU yet. The real test for them will be next year, when they're releasing three movies, the most that any studio has tried up to this point: "Guardians of the Galaxy 2," "Spider-man: Homecoming," and "Thor: Ragnarok." "Homecoming" may be technically Sony's show, but with Robert Downey Jr. putting in a cameo, and Marvel handling production, it's definitely part of the MCU. I'm looking forward to "Ragnarok" the most because it's a buddy comedy being handled by the right people.

All in all, I'm not feeling overwhelmed by the number of superhero movies, as some have predicted - historically this isn't even the peak. However, considering how dominant these movies have become at the box office, there's definitely a lot of building pressure to keep up the same level of performance, and I don't think that any of the studios are guaranteed to be able to do that in the long run, not even Marvel. Watching the genre change and evolve, however is fascinating. We're definitely going to be seeing more adult-oriented features after "Deadpool" and "Suicide Squad." But will the kids end up left behind, I wonder?

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