Matthew Rozsa has one thing to say about superhero movies: Enough!
To celebrate this 4th of July, let’s talk about one of the most American art forms out there: the superhero movie.
“There’s only so many uniquely American art forms—Broadway musicals, abstract expressionism, jazz,” explained Michael Kantor in an interview for fastcocreate.com about a PBS documentary on superheroes he executive produced. “I asked everyone, ‘Why didn’t superheroes spring up in Australia or France or Germany?’ This brand of superhero—that taps the cowboy myth, with a value system of might is right, helping the underdog, making sure corrupt politicians don’t get their way—is an interesting American story, with lots of layers.”
Personally, I’ve been a fan of superhero films ever since I bought a pre-teen novelization of Batman Forever in 1995 (the book was so much better than the movie, which considering that the film came first, is pretty sad). Occasionally I’ve read some comic books – Frank Miller’s Batman series, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the first few editions of Spider-Man – but for the most part, I’ve been a celluloid consumer when it comes to the superhero genre.
And it is as a superhero moviegoer that I have to say – enough is enough.
There are three reasons why I feel this way:
1. The superheroes in these movies have become dispensable commodities.
While I understand that alternate universes and remakes are a dime-a-dozen in comic books, in the world of cinema excessive remaking tends to diminish the intangible “magic” that comes from being introduced to a definitive version of a certain character.
This isn’t to say that remakes – or reboots, as we tend to call them these days – should never be produced. Certainly the egregious campiness of Joel Schumacher’s final two Batman movies, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, was such that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy was subsequent warranted. In that case, however, there was more than simply a series of bad movies to justify rebooting the franchise. Nolan also had a distinct creative vision for the Batman character and universe that had never been seen before, one that was not only dark and gritty but also aimed for realism and philosophical depth.
By contrast, most of the reboots we’re seeing today exist solely to cash in on popular properties. For instance, The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t reboot Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy because it had a unique vision for the characters and stories; indeed, the Raimi films weren’t even discontinued for financial reasons (although Spider-Man 3 was generally unpopular among nerds, it was the highest grossing film of 2007). The Amazing Spider-Man movies were produced for the sole reason that Sony was worried it would lose the rights to the character because Raimi (who was also disappointed by Spider-Man 3) wanted to make sure he’d have more time to get Spider-Man 4 right.
The end result was a movie that, for all intents and purposes, was a plot beat-by-plot beat remake of the original. The Amazing Spider-Man distinguished itself from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in only two meaningful ways: (1) It had The Lizard instead of The Green Goblin as its chief villain and (2) It had Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane Watson as Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s love interest. That was it; if you’ve seen Spider-Man and have been on the fence about taking two-and-a-half hours to watch the remake, bear in mind that those are the only two changes you’re really missing.
Unfortunately, the positive trend set by The Dark Knight trilogy (or more specifically with Batman Begins, the first installment) seems to have been overshadowed by the negative variation established with The Amazing Spider-Man. Since 2012 we are also seeing “reboots” of the Batman character, the Fantastic Four, even yet another Spider-Man, who will be introduced in Captain America: Civil War before getting his own film. By not even waiting a respectful eight years between reboots (as Christopher Nolan did), producers are making it increasingly difficult for viewers to develop any meaningful investment in a specific storyline. That problem is then exacerbated by…
2. Superhero movies aren’t being made for the titular superheroes anymore.
Just as The Amazing Spider-Man set the negative trend for turning the superheroes in superhero movies into commodities, so too did The Amazing Spider-Man 2 set the negative trend for superhero movies screwing up universe building. Like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was motivated by a film that had done this right – i.e., The Avengers, which came after five separate movies had established their characters within a shared universe (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger). After that movie became a smashing success, DC decided to create its own shared universe off of Man of Steel… which was, in turn, a reboot of the Superman franchise after a partial-rebooting in 2006 (Superman Returns) had failed.
Before we got to see Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, we were first treated to Sony’s attempt at creating an entire shared universe around The Amazing Spider-Man. As a result, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has a story that can best be summed up in its description on RottenTomatoes (a website that compiles movie reviews):
While the cast is outstanding and the special effects are top-notch, the latest installment of the Spidey saga suffers from an unfocused narrative and an overabundance of characters.
The reason it had an unfocused narrative and overabundance of characters was simple – that movie wasn’t made to tell a decent story, but rather to set up new characters for spin-off films that would turn The Amazing Spider-Man into its own independent cinematic universe. Without having seen a single frame, it’s fair to guess that Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is going to make the same mistake. Hell, even the title of the movie sounds unfocused and cluttered. Given that the movie plans on introducing new characterizations of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Lex Luthor, what are the odds that it can do all of that effectively and simultaneously tell a focused, compelling story?
Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe is beginning to creak under the weight of its own mythology, as evidenced by the various plot threads in The Avengers: Age of Ultron that existed only to establish narrative developments in future non-Avengers films.
This brings me to Point #3…
3. We need to start enjoying the superhero movies we have instead of flocking to the box office whenever film studios release a new one.
Before you dismiss this call as naive, bear in mind that I’m predicting it will happen regardless of whether anyone reads this article. As Mike Stoklasa at RedLetterMedia pointed out in his review of The Amazing Spider-Man, there is evidence that moviegoing audiences will only take so much of the same thing before a fragment of them – perhaps not all or even most, but certainly a sizable number – grow weary of the redundancy and simply stop revisiting the genre. This happened with Westerns after the ’60s and overblown action films after the early ’80s, so there is no reason to think that churning out superhero film after superhero film – often simply remaking the same character over and over again – won’t have a similar effect.
In short, profit margins WILL start to drop on superhero movies. It is not a question of it, but when… and, of course, once that happens, the genre will fade into the background of our cultural zeitgeist, much like Golden Age Westerns and ’80s actions flicks before them.
That said, even if we disregard why this genre is destined to collapse from a business standpoint, there is also the fact that people don’t go to movies simply to escape from their reality – they do so because they wind up picking certain films as personal favorites. That kind of emotional attachment is very hard to establish, and even harder to make last through the years after countless other films have been seen, digested, and disposed of. Until we stop seeing superhero movies churned out of studios like so much sausage, however, we won’t be able to really gauge which of the films in our era were truly great works of art, which ones were simply entertaining and/or otherwise okay, and which ones were overrated.
Personally, I predict that only one superhero movie from the early-21st century will be regarded as a legitimate masterpiece – The Dark Knight, which has the distinction of being voted the Fourth Greatest Movie of All Time by IMDB users (after The Shawshank Redemption and the first two movies in The Godfather trilogy) and of being the only superhero film to garner an Oscar win for its acting (namely, Heath Ledger’s terrifying performance as The Joker). Re-watching it again for this article, I noticed that it holds up remarkably well, working as a gritty crime drama and deep-dish political commentary as well as a superhero genre flick in its own right.
The rest, alas, are likely to be forgotten, much as we have forgotten all but a handful of the great Westerns or ’80s action films. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man may be recalled for its iconic kiss scene, or The Avengers for being the high watermark of how a “fun” superhero movie can be made, but the odds are the rest will fade into obscurity, including two that I regard among my personal favorite movies (Spider-Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The days when a movie like Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman or Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman became instant classics simply because we hadn’t seen many decent superhero films before them are long gone. Now a superhero movie needs to earn its right to be remembered, and aside from The Dark Knight, there aren’t many recent entries that self-evidently make the grade.
None of this is to say that I dislike the recent wave of superhero films. As a little boy, reading Spider-Man comics and that Batman Forever novelization (which is seriously leagues and leagues better than the movie it was based on… if only I could find the darn thing!) helped inspire me to believe that good can triumph over evil. That may sound like a quaint, even corny concept, but it means a lot to me back in those days… and I suspect it will mean a lot to boys and girls in the future as well.
Assuming we stop bombarding them with the genre, that is.