Like any villain in any movie, Marvel have mapped out several phases in their plan for world domination. We have now entered phase 3, which will see the release of three movies per year until the end of the decade. We’re also seeing several releases of DC Comics films, but more sporadically, contrary to Marvel whose plans seem as immutable as the passing of time. They’ve been lauded, criticised, reviled and applauded by many different people for many different reasons. The main points that critics raise are: these films are loud, only show unbelievable characters destroying stuff and are to cinema what junk food is to gastronomy. As these films are more and more inescapable and it seems that the market may be reaching maturity, it’s time to wonder: superheroes are destroying everything on their path -are they even destroying Hollywood?
Popcorn at the movies
If you are under the impression that these superhero films that the studios are feeding us are overcrowding the market, then you’d be right. As Steven Soderbergh pointed out in his invaluable State of Cinema address, between 2003 and 2013, there was a 28% drop in the number of releases from studio in the American market, yet their financial market share jumped from 69% to 76%.
I’m one to appreciate popcorn in my hand at the movies, but I like to have something more substantial on the screen. One misconception that has to be dealt with is the rhetorical shortcut that makes us say, with a shrug or an angry arm gesture, “they’re bad movies”. They’re not. The scripts may have been written on toilet paper, but as movies go, they are visually literate and usually do a proper enough job at keeping our attention.
Now, granted, these films take the road that is most travelled -so travelled that the roads need some work done at this point. Edgar Wright had been working on Ant Man since 2006 until he departed the film for “differences in vision”. He has been a singular voice in film and it has since been acknowledged that this departure was the sign that we should not expect change in superhero films anytime soon. We even had to deal with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, whose main contribution to pop culture was the Sad Affleck Meme.
Too big to fail
It now seems that the film business has stopped hiding the fact the the best advertisement for its films are the previous instalments in their franchises. The characters (to the extent that “characters” is applicable here) just pull some punches for the camera. The people behind these movies understand that you’re primarily here to be entertained, and give you just what you want, with only slight variations for the sake of variety.
Superhero films have colossal production budgets, equally colossal marketing budgets, which are mostly recouped thanks to the tie-in products. Such operations, however, are designed for the lowest cultural common denominator, that is: tailor-made for “domestic” audiences when most of the profits are made overseas. The business side controls the .
Reader, I can hear you thinking “How about Deadpool? That was fun!” Indeed it was, and yes it did have a fresh vibe because it went meta and the hero was quirky. And it’s clear that you won’t see Iron Man masturbating with a unicorn doll. If you think about the plot and storyline, however, that film hits all the necessary beats of a Marvel movie.
A new hope?
So is there any hope at all? Well, I’d instinctively tend to say no, not in the superhero realm. Fresh voices, innovative film techniques come from the independent side. Sometimes, however, those antagonistic spaces communicate. Christopher Nolan made extremely successful Batman films with DC Comics while daring to be smart and challenging.
Selma director and indie darling Ava DuVernay was close to directing the Black Panther film before Ryan Coogler, of Fruitvale Station and Creed fame, signed on to direct with Michael B. Jordan starring in it as well. Both directors have made strong pictures with strong political points of view, so one can hope for that film, as well as for Deadpool 2.
Steven Spielberg commented that these films are a trend in popular culture, just like westerns in their own time. Now we have films following that genre and subverting it, like Django Unchained. Here’s hoping that there will soon be stronger subversion of superhero films in the not-so-distant future.