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All This Flying is Making Me Tired: Superhero Fatigue…

Well, blockbuster season is really kicking into swing at the moment. Next week will see the release of X-Men: First Class, which will be the second major superhero movie of the summer, following Branagh’s superb Thor. There are two more due to touch down before the end of the blockbuster season, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s fascinating how large the superhero genre has grown in recent years, to the point where one might legitimately argue that it has subgenres. Part of me wonders if this particular blockbuster fad is approaching its climax – if the superhero movie might out-stay its welcome, and go the way of the Western.

Is the superhero genre's blackest night ahead?

In fairness, superhero movies have really existed for quite a long time. Consider the serials that used to run during the forties featuring Batman, for example. Even if you mark Richard Donner’s Superman as the starting point of the modern age of superhero movies, they’ve been around a long time. Well over three decades. However, the genre hasn’t exactly flowed consistently since then. These movies haven’t been flooding our screens for thirty-odd years.

Ignoring the four Superman films (and, in most cases, for good reason), the Supergirl spin-off, attempts at Captain America and The Fantastic Four that never made it to cinema, Burton and Schumacher’s Batman and the odd blip like Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher, superhero movies weren’t flooding out of Hollywood until the early part of the last decade. Suddenly Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man proved that you could transition these properties to the big screen could produce huge box office receipts.

Are superhero filsm the Bane of modern movie-goers?

And so, it seemed, it became a race for the major companies to flood the market with as many of these franchises as seemed humanly possible. In the past decade, not only have we seen major characters like Batman and Superman given new live on celluloid, but also a whole host of lesser-known characters, including: Daredevil (and Elektra) movies; (two) Punisher films; a Ghost Rider movie; and (two disappointing) Fantastic Four films. This ignores the fact that (as of next year’s Avengers) we will have had three different actors playing the Hulk in under ten years. Come next summer, Hugh Jackman will have appeared as Wolverine in five movies. Spider-Man and the X-Men are both receiving reboots in the wake of trilogies (and Batman might go the same way).

Those are a lot of superhero movies there, and they only really cover the major ones. That’s before you jump into films like Watchmen, Defender, Kick-Ass and Super, among others. In short, there’s been no shortage of films released in the past decade featuring people dressing up in funny clothes to fight crime. However, one might be forgiven for wondering at what point we might reach market saturation. Is it possible for audiences to simply grow tired of these colourful costumed adventurers?

Are too many superhero films making us blue?

After all, the Western enjoyed a huge and long period of popularity in Hollywood, before audiences simply lost their patience and moved on. Sure, there have been occasional attempts to revive the genre – the recent 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit remakes come to mind – but it’s clear that the genre has pretty much enjoyed its day in the sun. We are lucky to see one major Western release a year, which is pretty far from the volume produced at the genre’s peak popularity.

One might wonder if the spandex-wearing crusaders are approaching their sell-by date. After all, the genre has arguably been in mainstream consciousness since Marlon Brando introduced us to baby Kal-El back in the late seventies, and reached its zenith with Heath Ledger receiving a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work on The Dark Knight. Grand, sweeping and epic, smashing box office records and becoming a huge pop culture landmark, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece was perhaps the finest example of a superhero brought to the big screen – blending blockbuster action and serious drama, demonstrating that these films could be more than just mindless entertainment.

Time for the genre to be reflective?

I’ll confess that I have a soft spot for superheroes, if only because they represent something similar to an American pop culture mythology. America is a young nation, and so it never really got a chance to produce its own fairytales in the style of the Brothers Grimm or anything like that. I’d make the case that the DC and Marvel superheroes perhaps represent something of a modern myth, a fairytale of the mid-twentieth century. I think one can trace a clear evolution from stories of wizards and witches to those about power rings and alien babies. So, as such, they’ve alway held something of a fascination for me.

And, to be honest, in the past decade, one can sense cinema becoming a lot more comfortable with the idea of superheroes. Being entirely honest, can you imagine asking audiences to accept Green Lantern even eight years ago? Or a superhero period piece, like Captain America or X-Men: First Class. Even in the past couple of years we’ve seen deconstructions of traditional superheroics – from Kick-Ass and Watchmen through to elements of The Dark Knight, we’ve seen movie picking apart at our classic idea of heroes. Perhaps this sort of look at costumed avengers simply illustrates an enhanced curiosity with them, but it might also mean that audiences are growing tired of the conventional superhero plots – and looking to see them picked apart.

Can superhero films still be a smashing success?

To be honest, I’m kinda glad that all four of this year’s superhero films represent a bit of diversity from the standard template, something outside the norm. Both X-Men: First Class and Captain America are period pieces, while Thor is much more of a fantasy film, and Green Lantern appears to be a grand space opera. Each of these is just a bit different from the standard “put on a costume and fight crime” pattern that major superhero films have adopted.

However, the real test comes next year. Not only is Batman back, but so is Wolverine, a new Spider-Man, a new Superman and the gigantic superhero team-up of The Avengers. If anything can test audiences’ threshold for superhero-related action, I think that slate will be it. I guess we’ll wait see, but I’m already a little bit curious.

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12 Responses

  1. I have a fondness for comic book superheroes so it doesn’t bother me that there are a plethora of superhero movies these days. Still, I draw the line somewhere if the trailer doesn’t appeal to me (i.e. Green Lantern/Green Hornet). Yeah, next year will surely test the level of interest people have about them, I have high hopes for Batman, Spidey and of course Superman, but Wolverine is sort of in limbo now right since Aronofsky dropped out of the project?

    • It is, but Fox will push that movie out come hell or high water. Can’t let everyone else make money from their superhero properties, after all. And I can’t believe they would let Aaronofsky do what he wanted. He’s friends with Jackman, and he wouldn’t have screwed his lead over.

  2. I’ve been experience Superhero overkill syndrome for months now. I just can’t work up any excitement for them. Half of the ones we’ve had have all become this blurred spectacle of gibberish in my mind.

    • Same with all action blockbusters, I think though. How many generic cop thrillers do we get every year? But I do wonder whether the audiences are feeling a bit worn out.

  3. My general opinion about this is that the more Superhero movies that are made, the more “good” superhero movies will be made. I also think that the average superhero movie is much better now than even 4 or 5 years ago. The not-so mainstream superhero blockbusters like Fantastic Four or Hellboy are orders of magnitude worse than Thor or Kick Ass.

    I think this has a lot to do with the fact that directors and writers can see what works and what doesn’t. One of the worst parts of some of these movies (Fantastic Four and Hancock especially) is “slapstick” humor. Maybe it’s just me, but that kind of thing never seems to work.

    But yeah, I’m sure the amount of superhero movies will slow down, but they’ll always make more. Just because there aren’t 9 or 10 westerns released every summer doesn’t mean there aren’t new, good westerns produced. In many ways, westerns are in a better position than they ever were. It’s considered a “classy” genre, unlike when The Good, the bad and the ugly was released.

    • Yep, hopefully. I think that there are enough generic action movies out there that the subgenre is still enough to be a change a of pace. as you said, production will probably slow a bit, but I hope they don’t die out.

  4. Hello Darren:- loved the piece, agreed with your sentiments. I have no enthusiasm at all for the wave of movies heading our way, in that I can’t envisage ever wanting to experience that much of any one sub-genre on the screen. I’ll sample the ones which folks such as yourself give the thumbs up to and leave the rest to the TV.

    What worries me the most is that these movies are in many ways floating the Big Two publishers at the moment. I wonder how charitable the MNCs in charge of Marvel and DC will feel if the superhero suddenly fails to generate – or promise to – huge amounts of marketing income based on mainstream media products. I have no concerns about the superhero movie following the western., perhaps because there’s already so much that’s good and better being produced in any medium and genre we can mention that I’ll never want for enjoyable experiences. But I would miss the humble comic book if the market for the movies collapses and there’s no reason for big money to keep their sub-genre R & D lines open beyond a few Spidey and Supes comics.

    Good point about next year being more of a challenge to the sub-genre at the movie-palace than this. There could be blood on the celluloid then indeed …

    • Yep, next year’s gonna be incredibly viscious, I reckon.

      You make a very effective point with the R&D line. Somewhat ironically, given your upcoming book, I’ve actually heard the term cynically applied to Millar’s work. That would be my big concern down the line. The comics aren’t as profitable as they once were, and I can’t imagine Disney is rolling in bath tubs full of money from the sales of the superb Walt Simonson Omnibus or the latest event comic. I think that was/is my biggest fear of the corporate involvement. The by-products of the comics are successful enough that the comics remain an essential part of the business. I worry we’re past the point where DC and Marvel are viable as comic book companies, as opposed to multi-media property factories.

  5. I think it will be worse this year. Next year there are just as many comic book films, but they are the known commodities (Spider-man, Superman and Batman) so people won’t be frustrated as with the constant barrage of heroes like Green Lantern and Thor.

    • I’d actually think the other way around. I figured a Wolverine movie is something far more obviously superhero than Thor (a norse god) or the science-fantasy overtones of Green Lantern.

  6. As a huge film nerd and comic book fan alike, even I have started to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of titles hitting the silver-screen. Add on direct-to-video animated flicks and motion comics and you have a fairly supersaturated market.

    • Yep. That’s it. I wonder how long before it reaches breaking point. Still, I think I might enjoy it while it lasts. I think that it’s a direct successor to the Western, in those it’s an almost mythologic type of story about American identity. Much as the Westerns are about the fantasy of man taming (or trying to tame) the world around him, superheroes are man’s seemingly limitless potential.

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