This weekend, San Diego Comic-Con, the biggest event in the geek culture calendar, reinforced what we already knew: the next few years is going to be heavy on capes and tights, as the superhero movie gears up in a big way to dominate the tentpole calendar.
2014 was the biggest year for superhero movies to date in terms of the amount that hit theaters, with five of the top eleven worldwide grossers—“Guardians Of The Galaxy,” “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “Big Hero 6”—being based on Marvel superhero properties. But it’s nothing compared to the onslaught on the way—2016 will see seven superhero pictures hit theaters, 2017 has eight at present, with the potential for more.
None of this is new information: most of these movies have been scheduled for over a year, and in the works for longer. But with the major glimpses arriving this weekend of “Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” “Deadpool,” “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Suicide Squad,” plus Marvel’s latest “Ant-Man” hitting theaters on Friday (read our review here), this week seemed like the perfect time to look at the state of the superhero movie nation as it stands. Are they the enemy of creativity and originality in mainstream cinema, or an easy target? Will they keep running and running, or are we approaching the moment of burnout?
This week’s “Ant-Man” is the twelfth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and marks the end of Phase Two of the studio’s efforts. Another ten movies are expected from the studio over the next four years, including the introduction of four new franchises, the rebooted Spider-Man entering the MCU, with everything culminating in the two-part “Avengers: Infinity War” in 2018 and 2019. But everyone else is essentially entering into their own Phase One at this point.
Warner Bros. and their DC movies begin to introduce their own Marvel-aping universe next year with ‘Batman V. Superman,’ leading into “Suicide Squad,” “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman,” “The Flash,” “Green Lantern Corps,” “Cyborg” and “Justice League” films. Fox are gearing up their own efforts with “Fantastic Four” landing at the start of August, and then four X-Men movies arrive in the space of thirteen months with “Deadpool,” “X-Men Apocalypse” (mooted as a soft reboot of the franchise), “Gambit” and a final “Wolverine” movie for Hugh Jackman.
And though Sony have seemingly stepped back from their extended Spider-verse plans after the critical and fan hatred of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” opting to team with Marvel for another reboot, they’re still looking to maximize what they have as far as possible — an animated Spider-film is in the works from Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and we imagine further spin-offs are very much part of their plan moving forward.
It’s easy, fun and sometimes cathartic to place the blame on the problems of the modern blockbuster — bloated, derivative, entirely franchise-led — on the superhero movie. They’re product first and foremost, as far as studios are concerned, movies that generate further movies, and licensing opportunities, are safer and more lucrative than original programming.
However, superhero films are a symptom of a larger issue facing the industry, rather than a problem. If we do feel fatigued and disheartened — and most of us bar the most superhero-obsessed are certainly starting to, particularly given the increasing number of superhero-related TV shows as well— it’s in part because of the way that coverage, particularly online, is skewed towards these movies. Obviously that’s triply true during Comic-Con, but it stretches to the rest of the year, with a constant stream of set photos, rumors, conjecture, actual news, official photos, trailers, clips and interviews feeding the beast. And to be certain, comic book characters are iconic and magazines and websites know that Batman will sell more copies and drive more traffic than “Birdman.”
Comic book fans have also been very vocal about wanting the industry to cater more to their interests, and what was once a noisy minority, is now a part of billion dollar box office majority.
Superheroes are now part of the American mythology, and there’s no reason to think that “ordinary person gets extraordinary powers” is any more played out an archetype than “hilariously mis-matched cops” or “couple who hate each other but eventually fall in love.” However, even with a proven track record, studios run the risk of bursting their own bubble.
Age Of Apocalypse
Within a few weeks, some may be predicting that the end’s already come. This year, ‘Age Of Ultron’ underperformed compared to its predecessor, and has surprisingly been lapped internationally by both “Jurassic World” and “Furious 7.” If early tracking holds, “Ant-Man” will hit around the $65 million mark this weekend, which would mark the lowest Marvel opening since “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” four years ago, and put it on track for a final worldwide take around $500 million. A few weeks later, we get “Fantastic Four,” which has spent the much of the year battling questionable buzz, though the presentation at Comic-Con seemed to change a lot of opinions (however, it still doesn’t look likely to be a ‘Guardians’ style August breakout). And overall, it’s entirely possible that for the first time in years, only a single superhero pic could be among the year’s top 10 grossers, at home and abroad.
This won’t set alarm bells ringing too much, because next year ‘Batman V. Superman,’ “Captain America: Civil War,” “Suicide Squad” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” will have a good shot at making a billion dollars each. That’s not to mention “Deadpool” which went over like gangbusters at SDCC, suggesting that it could appeal to a wider audience (we’d wager that Fox will be happy if it finds the same audience and money as their irreverent “Kingsman: The Secret Service” this year). And while a potential dip in returns this year may be a reminder that releasing a superhero isn’t necessarily a licence to print money, one musn’t forget that this is a circular business, with peaks and valleys.
Crisis On Infinite Earths
However, trying to keep to keep a sense of variety between all of these movies, is also a good way of preventing alienating your audience. Marvel boss Kevin Feige has been aware of this from the beginning, talking about superhero movies not as their own genre, but as a peg to tell space adventures, heist flicks, fantasy adventures, and more. And while it’s one thing to say that, it’s another to actually do it, and the biggest problem with the Marvel movies is that they might change the clothes, but not necessarily the skeleton, and familiar tropes keep emerging from film to film. However, it’s a formula that is working smashingly well.
The whole is more important than the parts to Feige and Marvel. It’s why directors like Alan Taylor have clearly had trouble working with the studio, why even superhero-loving geek gods like Edgar Wright and Joss Whedon have clashed or fallen out of projects, and why a filmmaker like Ava DuVernay ultimately decided that the Marvel machine isn’t for her. And it ignores one of the reasons that “Guardians Of The Galaxy” or “Iron Man 3” or “The Avengers” connected with people — those movies felt like there was a distinctive voice behind them.
DC have, in a pointed jab to their rivals, suggested that they’re going for an approach of putting their films in the hands of “master filmmakers,” but again, the practice doesn’t match the theory — no offence to either, who’ve both made decent movies, but David Ayer (“Fury”) and James Wan (“Furious 7”), aren’t what we’d call “master filmmakers.” And hiring multiple writers to write simultaneous drafts of movies and then copying-and-pasting them together is a good way to make your films feel more like they were made by committee, not less.
To Be Continued
It’s easy to question the idea of superhero fatigue, but it’s not to be taken lightly. 2018 currently has four superhero movies slated for July alone — “Black Panther,” the animated “Spider-Man,” an untitled DC movie and a Fox movie that’s likely another “X-Men” picture. And there’s the added complication that actors who are beloved in their roles are going to start to move away from them. Hugh Jackman, who’ll have been playing Wolverine for close to twenty years, says the solo movie in 2017 will be his last. Most of the Marvel contracts expire at the end of Phase Three, and some may be less keen to re-up than others, no matter how much money is thrown at them. Will audiences follow if the actors they’ve long associated with key roles move on? Or can a new breed of talent carry the torch?
At the moment, superhero movies are providing a very financially successful fix for Hollywood’s great conundrum: how to continue to draw young male audiences that have been their traditional bread and butter. And not only have they reached that audience, but beyond — you don’t make a billion dollars time and again by just catering to a single niche. However, it’s not a cure-all, and the studios treating them as such risk creating a supply that outstrips the demand. After all, for all their bullishness with Marvel, Disney are being given run for their money at the box office this year by Universal, one of the few studios without a single superhero movie to their name…