Chaos Theory: An Unofficial History of the Modern Superhero Film

Chaos Theory: An Unofficial History of the Modern Superhero Film

While this wasn’t always standard practice, continuity has become the
cornerstone of American superhero comic books. Stand-alone stories that start
and stop within one issue are a rarity now; six-part stories that tie into
other series, often for cross-over events, are the norm. This is partly because
the average age of comics readers has shifted over the years from pre-teens to
40-somethings. Comics aren’t just for kids anymore, as mainstream journalists
have recurringly  screamed since the
’80s, so mainstream comic books have to form a cogent narrative. But, as comics
readers know, continuity-based comics almost never make intelligible sense.

For example: if a major character died years ago, there’s a good chance he
(it’s usually a he) will come back, thanks to a new creative team. Think of it
like a soap opera: each of these whimsical resurrections pokes a hole in readers’
faith in the stories they’re reading. If Barry Allen’s The Flash can return
after selflessly sacrificing himself in Crisis on Infinite Earths, who
cares about the death of a lesser character? That’s the defining paradox of
comic book superheroes: even though they’re perennially rewritten, superhero stories
are defined by wink-wink, nudge-nudge, secret-handshake-worthy events,
allusions, and mythology.

On the one hand, these are imaginary stories about characters that control time
and space, as Grant Morrison, the writer who brought Allen back from the dead,
has argued. Every issue is ostensibly a new one for a comics reader, so why not
ingratiate these readers with new stories about old characters? Also, comics
are for kids, and kids aren’t insane enough to care about narrative
inconsistencies. Ahem. On the other hand, constantly-retooled origin stories,
and routine Christ-like resurrections blow holes in the very idea of continuity.
If Barry can come back, why care when the Red Skull dies one more time, or the
death of yet another Robin? It’s a headache for everyone involved, but it’s
also business as usual.

It makes sense, then, that superhero movies would also be about remakes,
reboots, and recycling. Even today, we’re still being told and retold the story
of how Peter Parker earned his arachnid-like powers, or what really made Bruce
Wayne want to dress up and scare criminals. The sad fact is that almost nobody making
superhero movies has any idea what they’re doing. There’s no proven formula for
success in the genre, so any given successful superhero film is only proof of
what works in the present, not what will work again. Here comes the first sequel to the
second Spider-Man franchise; and next up, a new actor playing Batman in the
sequel to the third Superman feature film series; and so on.

Rebooting a franchise does not have to be a terrible
idea. In a 2011 Cinema Journal article entitled “Why I Hate
Superhero Movies,” Scott Bukatman hit the nail on the head when he wrote,
“Superhero films remain something of a provisional genre, still very much
in a state of becoming.” Bukatman goes on to praise origin stories as,
“the most intriguing part of these films […] this is the moment when […]
everyday reality will yield to something more, the moment when the constraints
of the mundane world will evaporate, forcing a new awareness of corporeal
possibility as the body is rethought […]”

Bukatman has a point: a good origin story reminds you of how exciting a
character can be. But since franchises are rebooted so often, premature
fatigue sets in, and audiences just don’t want to support even superior origin
stories (cough, Amazing
Spider-Man
, cough). Audiences always vote loudest with their wallets,
but as with anything, a film’s box office success is usually relative. Batman
Begins
soberly re-established the title character’s popularity after Joel
Schumacher high-lit Val Kilmer and George Clooney’s Bat-nipples. But even
Schumacher’s Batman & Robin was
eventually successful, even if it only grossed 40% of its original
production budget during its opening weekend release. And Schumacher’s manic,
campy style was itself a response to Tim Burton’s expressive, grim (and even
more financially successful) take on the title character.

But again: nobody knows what they’re doing. In a 1997 Cinefantastique interview,
Schumacher says he hoped to present Batman as “a more accessible, less
agonizing, lighter character… There is a certain narcissism and selfishness to
constantly brooding about yourself and although Batman was created in 1939,
this is 1997 and it was incumbent for Batman to mature and become more
concerned about others.” Remember: this is the guy that put Bane in a
trench-coat and armed Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze with puns that would make Otto Preminger’s version
of the character (from the 1960’s TV show) blush. So it’s no wonder that
audiences took to Batman Begins. Kitsch-fatigue had set in, though
everybody still paid to see Schumacher crash-zoom into his brooding hero’s junk
a few years earlier.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman will be succeeded by Zack Snyder’s Batman because
Snyder’s Man of Steel made money. Not
much is known about Snyder’s take on the character except that Christian Bale
will be replaced by Ben Affleck, suggesting that Snyder’s Batman does not exist
in the same universe as Nolan’s. But Man
of Steel
is clearly inspired by Nolan’s Bat-films. Now, Clark Kent’s origin
has twice the bathos: Daddy-devouring tornados! Wanton skyscraper demolition!
Neck-snapping fury! And per diem, too! After the failure of Bryan Singer’s
Richard Donner-inspired Superman Returns, studio execs were convinced
that Superman had to toughen up (though Returns also netted $120 million
during its theatrical run, almost half of its $270 million budget). They spoke
for the fans when they said people wanted a tough, contemporary hero who is
also devoted to, in the words of Donner’s Superman, “Truth, justice, and
the American way.” Snyder’s Superman reworks that mantra, suggesting that Man
of Steel
is light! But also dark. In that sense, the next Batman film will
be something of a return to beguiling form, though only in the sense that it
will be almost as confusing as Schumacher’s film.

Then again, one shouldn’t just blame superhero films’ creators for their
characters’ schizoid characterizations (especially not directors). Avi Arad,
the Toy Biz mogul who helped rescue Marvel Comics from bankruptcy in the ’90s,
is exceptional in that he’s been involved in several superhero success stories,
from the mid-’90s to present. Arad helped create Marvel Films in 1996, a
company that ostensibly helped Marvel to avoid the many pitfalls that kept
money-making properties like Spider-Man and Captain America caught up in
law-suits and pre-production limbo. The formation of Marvel Films was supposed
to be a major step towards standardizing continuity in superhero comics:

Realistically, Arad has only unified the Marvel universe so much. He’s produced
both Sam Raimi and Marc Webb’s versions of Spider-Man, and Ang Lee and Louis
Leterrier’s Hulk films, as well. He’s also bankrolled a couple of Marvel films
that belong to competing studios: Daredevil and the Fantastic Four films were
produced by 20th Century Fox while the Spider-Man films were released by Sony
Pictures. And of the Avengers-related properties, Arad only produced the first
Iron Man film (Robert Downey Jr. is locked for two more films!), both Hulk
movies (already rebooted once!), and a Nicky Fury film starring David
Hasselhoff that nobody
wants to remember
. He’s also only produced the first three X-Men films
(three more done, and three on the way!), one of two Punisher films (New World
Pictures!), and two of three Fantastic Four films (Roger Corman’s New Horizons,
oh no!). If there’s a unifying principle to Arad’s filmography, it’s anything goes,
a form of chaos theory. They’re all made under basically similar conditions,
but their success is determined by small, but significant different conditions
of their production, and popular reception.

And yet, while you might not think it to look at them, the three Arad-produced
titles that helped to prove that superhero comic books were blockbuster
material were the Blade films. Based on a minor character introduced in the
cult favorite comic book series Tomb of Dracula, the first Blade made
$70 million in profits. Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story writes: “although Marvel only
saw $25,000 of the profits, suddenly there was proof that Marvel Comics
characters were viable as film franchises.” The Blade movies were
probably also successful because Wesley Snipes played the title character in
all three films. In the comics, Blade was always a secondary character, making
cameo appearance in other heroes’ series. But Snipes has played the character
as many times as Christian Bale has played Batman, or Tobey Maguire has been
Spider-Man. No wonder there have been decades of fruitless speculation on
similarly minor characters, like Doctor Strange (Wes Craven was gonna direct!),
and the Black Panther (Snipes was gonna star!).

These movies obviously don’t sink or swim based on a producer’s confusing (but
successful!) whims. There’s also the simultaneously negligible and crucial role
comic book fans have in determining the success of a superhero film. Nerds
build hype, as when trailers, casting rumors, production stills, and sequel
speculation popped up to rally around Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern at
fanboy sites like Bleeding Cool, Newsarama, Ain’t It Cool News, and others. At
the same time, despite earlier planted reports, Green Lantern 2 won’t
happen anytime soon, because the first film cost $200 million to make, and only
netted $20 million during its theatrical release.

Then again, Edgar Wright somehow managed to bounce back after the geek-driven
momentum surrounding his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World adaptation failed
to carry-over to the box office. If the world were ruled by
geeks, the kind that salivate over various PR-friendly production updates from
the film’s cast and crew, Scott Pilgrim
vs. the World
might have been a blockbuster. In this world, almost nobody else showed up. Wright is currently
developing an Ant-Man movie for Marvel, a film that will presumably tie-in with
the other Avengers-related satellite films. Admittedly, assigning Wright
to direct an Ant-Man movie seems like a low-stakes gamble. But it also suggests
that Marvel wants viewers to distinguish the Avengers-centric films from
each other. So, directors for these films are being chosen based on their
established track records, even if their previous films weren’t financially
successful (Scott Pilgrim didn’t make back its original production costs
during its three-month theatrical run). So Kenneth Branagh and one of the
show-runners of Game of Thrones handle the Thor films, Rocketeer director
Joe Johnston takes the Captain America movies, and Super director
James Gunn is making the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film. This last
assignment is especially exciting/perplexing.

Gunn has scripted films for Troma, Lloyd Kaufman’s boastful, flea-circus
barker-style independent production company. He’s also done some mainstream work
before, though scripting two live-action Scooby Doo films only lends you
so much street cred. The closest thing to a superhero film Gunn has done prior
to Guardians of the Galaxy is Super, a black comedy in which The
Office
‘s Rainn Wilson plays a disturbed wannabe superhero. Still, asking
Gunn to direct a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, an action-adventure
in which Bradley Cooper voices a talking, gun-toting raccoon named Rocket
Raccoon, sends a loud message to a small audience: here’s a weird one for you,
fanboys and fangirls. Here, finally, is a weird-ass, misfit movie that will
also be part of Marvel’s burgeoning meta-narrative. Here’s hoping it doesn’t
bomb too badly.

Uniting the Marvel movies into a barely-coherent narrative is such a popular
strategy that DC Comics is now aping that conceit with their upcoming Man of
Steel
sequel. That film will apparently feature Batman and Wonder Woman,
too. But Marvel’s novel structuring gimmick has also become something of a
running joke. For example, mid-credits stingers only really serve to introduce
characters that will barely matter in the movie, in Marvel’s four-colored,
Wagner-worthy cycle. And Avengers director Joss
Whedon has even said
that Thanos, the shadowy boss-behind-the-boss in his
first of three planned Avengers films, was “never meant to be the next
villain.” Whedon has also said that Thanos “was only teased to give
fans a taste of how big this Marvel Cinematic Universe can really get.”
That kind of ass-covering logic–He’s not the bad guy, we just made him look
that way! Look over there, we’re already working on another story!–is
unfortunately par for the course with Marvel’s Avengers films. Their films are
part of a continuity-reliant series whose individual entries are united only by
their creators’ need to resemble the Wizards of a Neu Oz. Just don’t look
behind the curtain—but oops, Whedon has already peeled it back.

Marvel’s struggle to make films that feel of a piece is the biggest sign that
superhero films are still stuck in Bukatman’s never-ending provisional phase.
The most stylistically experimental superhero films to date–stuff like Peter
Berg’s Hancock, Frank Miller’s The Spirit, Ang Lee’s Hulk,
and Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone–bombed at the box
office. Furthermore, the only one of those four films about a
popular-enough character has already been rebooted twice. 

Superhero movies are, for the moment, hyper-popular, but
what makes them work still eludes us. Marvel’s multi-film model is successful
right now, and Marvel Studios are now branching out to television, and
Netflix-exclusive programs like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil,
and Defenders are in
various states of development. But there’s no guarantee that business model is
sustainable. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on the way, just ahead of
another Captain America sequel (yes, I do count the Reb Brown made-for-TV
monstrosity where Christopher Lee participates in one of the least climactic
fist-fights committed to film). And while the former series was never
associated with the Avengers franchise, it will probably go on to have a
second sequel, and so will Captain America

The allure of a cohesive, all-encompassing universe of
characters is tempting. But contemporary audiences are just as likely to
grumble while forking over their money for yet another origin story. So until
the next successful paradigm-shifting film somehow makes money by being
different, superhero films are going to just be more of the same Marvel
Studios-style chaos. The genre’s future is uncertain because it’s being made up
as its creators and characters go along. Let’s just hope that Joel Schumacher
doesn’t helm the inevitable Spider-man reboot; the world isn’t sophisticated
enough to resist The Tackily Flamboyant Spider-Man just yet.

Simon Abrams is a freelance film critic and native New Yorker. His
review and feature coverage is regularly featured in the
Village Voice,
Esquire, RogerEbert.com, and other outlets.

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Comments

DW

Smallville’s clark kent/superman since the original 1978 Superman. The show made a lot of money for Warner Bros. It may be the most successful superhero show to be created for television.

brando

Some of those BO numbers are way off (Green Lantern & Superman Returns)..check out box office mojo..

Andrew

Johnston isn't directing Winter Soldier.

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