Entertainment Geekly: Why the Superhero Movie may live forever (or at least another decade or two)

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Image Credit: Disney

Entertainment Geekly is a new weekly column which examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!

The superhero movie is the defining product of contemporary Hollywood. Last year, Avengers made $1.5 billion and roadmapped a multi-spinoff franchise structure that basically allows a single studio to make two successful sequels per year. This summer, Hollywood released four super hero movies. Two of them were pretty good and two of them were pretty bad. But financially speaking, Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel were megahits, the kind of monstrous successes that appear on the quarterly reports of global-conglomerate Fortune 500 Companies. The Wolverine was a disappointment, but only in the sense that it merely made more money than God. Kick-Ass 2 was an outlier, a box office disappointment that probably cost less than Robert Downey Jr.’s salary. (It sounds strange to call Kick-Ass 2 a flop; a movie so bad and so cheap-looking was probably a tax shelter for somebody.) If the Superhero Film were just another Hollywood genre, it would be uncontroversially successful: At least half of the movies are good, and more than half of them make money.

But the Superhero Film is not just another type of Hollywood movie. More and more, it is the Hollywood Movie: The best advertisement for everything that modern Hollywood can do well, the easiest demonstration of everything Hollywood usually does terribly. The modern Superhero Film renaissance began right at the new millennium with 2000’s X-Men. The history of the genre since then is also the  history of modern Hollywood: An industry which requires not just movies but franchises, and not just franchises but mega-franchises. It’s a 13-year-period that has seen the rise of a new type of big-screen extravaganza that emphasizes digital effects and cartoon violence and an audience-friendly PG-13 rating — and the simultaneous ceding to television of a wide variety of cinematic storytelling modes (adult drama, science-fiction without explosions, romantic comedy, anything about women.)

Many people are upset about this new Hollywood. Some of them work in the movie industry and have been very vocal: semi-retired maverick Steven Soderbergh; George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the duo which ironically are often blamed for ruining everything that was great about Hollywood in the ’70s; and Lynda Obst, producer of Sleepless in Seattle and One Fine Day. But your average John Q. Moviegoer is also growing frustrated with the nonstop superheroes. Basically, if you are someone who prefers movies set in a real-ish world, movies that are not at least one-quarter cartoon, movies that don’t star decades-old characters with funny nicknames, and movies with actual endings, you are probably not very happy with modern-day Hollywood (because at this point, even movies that aren’t literally about superheroes feel a lot like Superhero Movies).

The problem, of course, is that the Superhero Film has become hugely influential and incredibly popular without becoming very interesting. This is not to say that a Superhero Film can’t be good, or even great. But Superhero Films are built on repetitive and unsurprising stories: The hero always wins, always, always. The heroes are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly dudes, and overwhelmingly white dudes named Chris. There is no genre that depends so much on digital effects, which means no genre is a better showcase for how boring most digital effects are. Women are relegated to supporting roles, and their storyline usually comes down to the basic question of how willing they are to support their brave boyfriend. And almost every Superhero Film builds to the identical final-act 25-minute climactic action scene where digital re-creations of the movies’ stars punch each other through buildings.

(ASIDE: The Dark Knight is the one Superhero Film which puts the climactic action scene in the middle of the movie, which is another reason why The Dark Knight is great. Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan ended both The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel with identical climactic action scenes where a terrorist allegory destroys an entire city. END OF ASIDE.)

What I’m getting at is that even the best Superhero Films don’t feel particularly unique. We understand this implicitly, of course. Conventional wisdom used to hold that trilogies followed a rough structure: The first one was okay; the second one was great; the third one was an overstuffed mess. That was true of Spider-Man and X-Men. It was also true of The Dark Knight, which might very well be the last franchise to ever stop at just three movies. The Dark Knight Rises was a mess —  it was probably one hour and two villains too long — but it was a wild and compelling mess.

Unfortunately, Rises opened the same summer as The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, two very different kinds of Superhero Films which taught Hollywood two very tantalizing lessons about how to make hundreds of millions of dollars with a bare minimum of risk. The Avengers proved that you could create a linked series of franchises with fanbases snowballing into one big fanbase. The Amazing Spider-Man proved that you could remake a valuable franchise with a younger, prettier, cheaper cast (to say nothing of a cheaper creative team) just a few years after that the saga’s apparent conclusion. Metaphorically speaking, Amazing Spider-Man proved you could draw blood from a stone; The Avengers proved that one stone could transform into three or four different stones.

The Avengers wasn’t a guaranteed success, by the way, and the folks at Marvel Studios deserve credit for their careful planning. But now that they’ve roadmapped it, everyone else wants in on the multi-franchise action. The upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past might be based on an early-’80s X-Men story arc, but cinematically speaking, it’s the Avengersification of the X-Men, joining together three different franchise strands (the original X trilogy, the Wolverine kinda-saga, the incipient First Class prequelverse.) Sony only owns one superhero now, but they’re riding him for all he’s worth: There are three more Amazing Spider-Man movies coming out in the next five years. And Warner Bros. has implemented the nuclear option with their rebooted Superman series: They’ll reintroduce a new Batman, a mere three years after The Dark Knight Rises, with the implicit promise of more Batman movies and Justice League and maybe even The Flash in the back half of this decade.

This is the moment when, as a film fan, you begin to bemoan the state of cinema. Generally speaking, a single genre is not supposed to be this dominant for this long. The mega-musicals of the 1960s like West Side Story and Mary Poppins declined by decade’s end into flops like Doctor Dolittle, Paint Your Wagon, and Hello, Dolly! The last teen-horror wave started with Scream and officially ended five years later with Scary Movie. To judge by the failure of Mortal Instruments and Beautiful Creatures, the moody-fantastical YA fad might end with the last few Hunger Games. (Pray for Shailene.) But there are four superhero films planned for next year, and four more for 2015. They aren’t going anywhere.

But the problem with hating Superhero Films is that it puts you in a weird position of defending every movie that’s not a Superhero Film just because. For examples, the boring story in One Fine Day isn’t necessarily better than the boring story in Iron Man 3 just because Hollywood doesn’t make movies like One Fine Day anymore, and I refuse to support Red Tails versus Man of Steel just because Red Tails‘ bad dialogue, one-note acting, and overreliance on cartoonish digital effects were all George Lucas’ personal artistic decisions.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the Superhero Film is a genre which is still in its early stages of evolution. The best genre comparison may be to the Western. Like the Superhero Film, the Western is a dude-heavy genre built on a straightforward good-evil dichotomy. Like the Western, the Superhero genre was invented in America. After mostly disappearing in the early sound era, the Western came roaring back in 1939 with Stagecoach and Jesse James and Destry Rides Again. The Western was a dominant cinematic form from then on. But most of the truly great westerns didn’t come along for years — not until the genre had been so set in stone that filmmakers felt comfortable riffing on it. The Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart Westerns arrived in the 1950s; Sam Peckinpah’s great, dark, bleak revisionist westerns really kicked off in the 1960s, along with the now-legendary spaghetti westerns, which are pretty much the only important kind of western for a certain kind of film nerd (and Quentin Tarantino). Johnny Guitar, one of the greatest and weirdest westerns ever made, came out 15 years post-Stagecoach; next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t have Joan Crawford in black pants, but it might star Vin Diesel as a tree.

Viewed from this perspective — divorced from the cuckoo global economics of the contemporary billion-grossing Hollywood blockbuster — the last decade of Superhero Film is actually the story of a very bizarre genre trying to find its footing. A typical Superhero Film is a science-fiction romcom interrupted by action scenes, a coming-of-age story which is also a Messiah story. Most Superhero Films try to make you laugh and then make you cry and make you laugh again; they have constant beginnings but no endings. This is why even the best Superhero Films feel like awkward Frankenstein mish-mashes of genres and tones.

This is also why, when you’re making a list of the best Superhero Films — in my humble opinion, in no particular order, The Dark KnightSpider-Man 2, Captain America, Hellboy 2, Batman Returns, and Chronicle — you should also make a list of the best parts of the not-so-good superhero movies: the scenes or sequences or entire acts when the filmmaker suddenly found his (always his) footing, amidst the greenscreens and the decades of canon and the studio-mandated requirement to feature Venom/Gambit just in case they want a spinoff. If the Superhero Film is the Western — if it’s just at the beginning of its renaissance — then those tiny good parts in bad movies may point the way forward to a time when movies about superheroes won’t feel like eternal variations on the same chorus line; when the genre will actually be diverse.

So maybe, when it comes to superhero films, we’re just getting to the good stuff. Do the films released in 2013 bear that out? In chronological order: “Yes” with a “but,” “Yes” with a “kinda,” “yes” with an “if,” and “definitely not.”

Yes” with a “but”: Iron Man 3 feels like a very solid episode of the Iron Man TV show, complete with a “Tony’s Greatest Hits!” opening title sequence. This sounds like an insult and it kind of is — every Iron Man movie feels exactly the same, in a way that used to be easily defined as “like a TV show” before it became the norm on television to take daring risks and constantly shake up the status quo. But one of the most enjoyable things about this series is that — when you set aside the special effects action scenes, which cost kabillions of funny money and are all built in a computer — they look weirdly cheap, in a very endearing way. Half the scenes in the Iron Man trilogy are set in Tony Stark’s Malibu house, which has maybe two rooms. Thor spends half of Thor walking around New Mexico, coincidentally the sight of a famously generous filmmaking tax incentive; meanwhile, Asgard is represented by a couple throne rooms and several identical shots of the Rainbow Bridge. Avengers was also shot in New Mexico — and received the financial equivalent of the last half-season of Breaking Bad in subsidies — and most of the second act takes place in the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, a set that’s basically a medium-sized start-up office with a big window.

To extend the Western metaphor, the Marvel movies all feel like they were shot on a backlot; none of them are perfect, but there’s an institutional memory that ensures a certain proficiency, and they are getting better. But nobody runs themselves like Marvel Studios besides Marvel Studios, and nobody else has access to such a stock of characters. They’re an outlier, and they will be until Warner Bros. proves they can make a movie out of anyone besides their two most popular characters.

“Yes” with a “kinda”: A lot of people hated Man of Steel and a lot of people loved Man of Steel, and what made it so divisive was that the lovers and the haters couldn’t even agree on the proper terms of the debate. If you liked the movie, it was because they finally did Superman’s origin right; if you hated the movie, it was because they told the damn origin all over again, except this time with more genetic codex. If you hated the movie, it’s because Zack Snyder took out all the fascinating Superman mythology and replaced it with lots of punching; if you loved the movie, it’s because Zack Snyder got rid of the boring stuff and put in about an hour of full-on Superpeople action. It’s kinda just the same old story, but its success is also an indication that the same old story is still interesting 75 years later.

Anecdotally: I get the sense that the hardcore fanboy contingent didn’t like Man of Steel and everyone else did, which is simultaneously a demonstration that the Superhero Movie has fully evolved behind its core fan base and kinda maybe proves that the Superhero Movie has lost its soul.

“Yes” with an “if”: Or maybe that soul just transmigrated to a different franchise. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the worst superhero movie ever made and might be the most soulless demonstration of corporate illogic since Microsoft tried to make the Zune happen. And yet, The Wolverine was the one Superhero Film of the summer that felt like a real movie, with a new setting and new characters and a simple but thrilling storyline. By casting aside pretty much all franchise continuity — this is the first X-Men movie where nobody ever says “X-Men” — The Wolverine is also the first comic book movie since Hellboy 2 to capture a specific comic-book sensation: The feeling that you are reading a storyline that carries the weight of history, but also a storyline that can stand on its own. It helps that James Mangold seems delightfully unaware that he’s making a superhero movie; some of his influences (Ozu?) aren’t apparent, but it really does feel like an Eastwood movie from the ’70s. And Jackman-as-Wolverine has never been better — maybe because Jackman, even with his chicken-breast-massacre muscle set, finally looks old enough to play the character’s weary nobility.

But The Wolverine infamously divebombs in its last few scenes, becoming more generic and more action-y. It feels, quite literally, like a really good normal movie that suddenly gets invaded by a really bad Superhero Film. The first 2/3 of The Wolverine are almost entirely devoid of tropes; the last 1/3 is all tropes and loud pronouncements and ridiculous science and generic digital-robots. Is The Wolverine a vision of the Superhero Film’s future? Or is it an eccentric oddity, ultimately destroyed by studio machinery? If 20th Century Fox wants to make a different kind of Superhero Movie, The Wolverine is a good test case; but I suspect that, all in all, they’d prefer a movie with more digital robots.

Anecdotally: I get the sense that the hardcore fanboy contingent didn’t like The Wolverine and everyone else liked it. Of course, the “everyone else” who saw The Wolverine was decidedly smaller than the “everyone else” who saw Man of Steel, which proves that Superhero Movies that feel like Eastwood movies from the ’70s will probably not be the hot new trend in Hollywood.

Definitely Not: Kick-Ass 2 is bad in almost every way a movie can be bad, but like many terrible movies, it has a lot to say — accidentally and loudly — about the culture that created it and the culture it was created for. It’s an unnecessary expansion of a movie that didn’t need a sequel, which sacrifices quality for quantity and throws in lots of costumed heroes. It’s filled with fan service and lame jokes and the kind of quotemark misogyny that pretends it’s making fun of misogyny while actually just being an ode to fratboy douchebaggery. It feels like a movie written by someone whose entire knowledge of human existence comes from waiting in line for Hall H.

Anecdotally: Kick-Ass 2 sucks.

But Kick-Ass 2 is important because it might actually be a vision of the future. The superhero movies this summer were relatively subdued affairs, with one central character. Next year brings the aforementioned giant-sized X-Men: Days of Future Past, starring everyone in Hollywood, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which appears to basically be a backdoor S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, alongside The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which was apparently so overstuffed that they had cut out a main character. (Pray for Shailene.) Guardians of the Galaxy is a team movie; 2015 brings a new Fantastic Four, more Avengers, and Batfleck vs. Superchrist.

Could it be that the Superhero Film is actually entering its decadent era? Could it be that, far from being the Western, the Superhero Film actually is the new version of the ’60s mega-musicals — that X-Men: Days of Future Past is the alternate-universe dystopian version of Paint Your Wagon, while Avengers: Age of Ultron is our own Hello Dolly? Will people actually get tired of superheroes? Can Hollywood handle that? What happens when Chinese audiences tire of our non sequitur region-specific special extra scenes? Are Superheroes the bridge carrying Hollywood into the future, or are they a wall preventing Hollywood from coming up with any overall business strategy more creative than endless sequels and reboots?

It’s important to remember that people have been predicting the death of cinema pretty much ever since the birth of cinema. It’s also important to remember that Superhero Films are an entirely new kind of cinema: Hugely expensive ongoing stories, explicitly designed as multimedia open texts, which is a fancy way of saying that most people’s experience of Avengers 2 will be three years of rumors and blog posts and trailers and Comic-Con panels followed by three hours of actual movie. So are Superhero Films actually movies? Or are they just advertisements for other movies? Is that all cinema ever was?


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