It’s becoming a frequent complaint that there are “too many” superhero films. When Green Lantern crashed and burned last year, there were a rake of articles lauding it as “superhero fatigue.” Even before this summer kicked off, people were asking if “fatigue” had kicked in. Ignoring for a moment that The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises are the two most successful films of the year, I’ve never quite understood that argument. There were, after all, three (or four, if you count the dire Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) superhero-themed blockbusters this year. Do audiences get “period drama fatigue” if more than four high-profile period dramas are released in a year? Are there widespread cases of “cop movie fatigue” if more than half-a-dozen movies feature a law enforcement official in a lead role? Is there a cap on the number of films that Ryan Gosling can produce, lest he inspire an epidemic of “Ryan Gosling fatigue”?
There are fifty-two weekends in a year. Truth be told, multiple movies open each weekend in that vast majority of cinemas. No matter where you are, unless you live in a village with a one-screen cinema, you are likely to have access to more than one movie at a given moment. Even if one factors in low-budget “indie” explorations and deconstructions of the genre like Super or Chronicle, I reckon that there’s at most ten films that could be classed as “superhero films” in a year. Maybe five that will get a major wide release. Last year had four superhero films of the 141 films to get a wide release. That’s less than 3%.
I’m going to be honest. I quite like superhero movies. So, obviously, I have a vested interest in them. That said, I will freely concede that this year’s crop wasn’t as a strong as it could have been. I adored The Dark Knight Rises, but felt a little bit disappointed with how messy The Avengers happened to be. It was still an adequate film, if you ask me, but it was thematically inconsistent and rather haphazardly constructed. That said, it was a lot more fun than Battleship or Snow White and the Huntsman. I disliked The Amazing Spider-Man, if only because itwasted time on an origin we already knew and seemed to rather consciously ape Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
So, I’ll concede that the harvest this summer hasn’t been that great. And, I’ll concede, that – at their most generic – there are points when it seems like these films were produced by rote, in the style of a soulless Katherine Heigl romantic comedy. Captain America: The First Avenger was far too generic for its own good, for example, to the point where I struggle to remember the finer details – save for the superb supporting cast. These are all problems with the individual films. However, I don’t see how this is inherently a problem with the genre itself.
There are, after all, dire examples of all types of films out there. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a terrible “awards bait” film, but does that mean that audiences might get “awards season” fatigue? Such a rush to judgment would have, in the past year, deprived us of The Artist and The Descendents, two very fine films. New Year’s Day was an abysmal romantic comedy, so does it induce “romantic comedy” fatigue? That would mean, in the past few years, audiences would have been deprived of (500) Days of Summer or Crazy, Stupid, Love.
If you ask me, a good film is a good film, regardless of genre. A bad film is a bad film, regardless of genre. I can’t help but think that arguments about “superhero fatigue” are rooted in some form of cultural elitism – the idea that these films and these characters are inherently idiotic and their very presence offends the rich cultural landscape of cinema. It’s a notion that I really dislike, if only because it speaks to genre preconceptions. It suggests that there’s no way to produce a truly iconic film working within a particular medium.
It also seems like the kind of thing that critics should be wary of doing. Other genres have also been subjected to the same practice of elitism and exclusion. There’s a reason, after all, that it generally takes about ten to fifteen years longer for a science-fiction or horror film to be recognised as a classic. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Alien were all rudely dismissed on release, only to be reappraised years later. The work of director Alfred Hitchcock was written off, until he was reappraised by French critics.
The notion was that such films were – by nature of their genre or origin – inherently inferior or not worthy of attention or study. The best that they could offer, a serious critic might suggest, is a bit of light entertainment in an exceptionally gaudy manner that has nothing much to say about anything of real importance. It’s easy to imagine critics in the past complaining about the shameless glut of horror films released, producing classics like The Exorcist or The Shining, wondering when audiences would outgrow such nonsense.
Of course, it’s perhaps a bit much to construct such an argument around superhero films. I would argue that Richard Donner’s Superman is a cinematic milestone, and that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy represents perhaps the peak of modern blockbuster film making. Of course there’s a lot of films out there that don’t quite measure up. After all, Sturgeon’s Law assures us that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”However, the problem with those films that fail (and fail spectacularly) isn’t anything to do with their genus or origin. It’s simply due to the fact that they are bad films.
I think that the superhero is a distinctly American pop culture mythology. Superman is, after all, the ultimate immigrant. Spider-Man is the “little guy” who can make a massive difference. Batman is the survivor of anonymous urban violence. The Hulk is a parable about anger and power. To suggest that these stories are inherently pointless because they feature men in tights or giant green rage monsters feels just a little bit snobbish. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis featured a robot a soul. Murnau’s Nosferatu featured an undead vampire. Neither is more or less fantastic than anything within these modern superhero films.
Is it possible that audiences will tire of bad superhero films? Of course it is. But they’ll tire of bad comedies, or bad action movies, or bad dramas. The operative word in “bad superhero films” is not “superhero.”
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | Amazing Spider-Man, art, avengers, batman, Christopher Nolan, Dark Knight Rises, DarkKnight Rises, Fatigue (medical), Fritz Lang, green lantern, katherine heigl, Movie, richard donner, Ryan Gosling, superhero, Superhero film