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Superhero Movie Fatigue? I Tire of This Argument…

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”?

Twilight of the superheroes?

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.

Should we stop listening to web pundits? (My irony sense is tingling!)

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.

This thing, called love, I just can’t handle it…

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.

It’s hardly an alien sensation…

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.

A shining example of genre cinema?

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.”

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17 Responses

  1. Hear, hear, Darren. It’s a stupid point, one made by those who only are trying to appear wise and informed. And they’re neither.

    • Yep, I do feel that it’s just a little bit of cynical posturing. Cinema is large enough for all itnerests. If you can’t find something you like, you’re not looking hard enough, and it’s rather cheap to complain about movies that others enjoy.

  2. Even when you count straight to DVD and TV movie releases, there’s still never been more than a dozen superhero movies released in a single year. They are increasing, but not at a very big pace. And if anybody should get superhero movie fatigue, it would be me, but the whole argument is totally ridiculous.

    I think the argument is because from a non-fan’s perspective, all superhero movies seem too similar to each other, even though those same people will argue against how similar all romantic comedies are to each other. It’s also the fact that most superhero movies are billed as big-budget event movies, with a large fanbase that plasters it all over movie news sites making it feel more prevalent then it actually is. Nice write up.

    • Actually, that might be a fair point. Maybe the coverage is disproportionate. I mean, it does seem like every other day somebody is added to this or that adaptation. The thing is, that happens to every other film as well – it just attracts less coverage. The ironic thing is that quite a few people providing the coverage (presumably to generate hits and revenue) are the same people complaining about it. If you want to change the focus of film discussion, then the onus is really on you to do so. Stop posting every casting tidbit. Stop feeding into the hype machine you dislike. Or, if you must feed into that machine, it seem disingenuous to complain about it.

      (This is less a concern about superheroes than, for example, Twilight. I will admit that I am less than fond of that franchise, but I don’t cover each and every snippet to attract the attention of on-line fans and generate pagehints, only to sneer about how it dominates on-line debate. Let people talk about (and read about) what they like, and I’ll do the same. It just seems a little cynical.)

  3. Well, audiences haven’t tired of bad movies in general, considering that Hollywood keeps churning them out regardless of the genre. I think they see the superhero genre as a fad that will fade away, despite the fact that it’s been going strong now for a couple of decades.

    • Fair point. People like to cite X-Men, Spider-Man or Blade as the start of the boom, but the genre has been around in one form or another for over half a century. (If you are generous and count the campy serials, but it’s not that far off if you take Batman! as a starting point. Sure, there were fewer superhero films, but there were fewer films overall each year.)

  4. Like you said about Captain America, a lot of recent superhero movies seem to follow a generic pattern, with the same kinds of action sequences, the same kind of jokes, the same kind of character arcs. which I personally find pretty boring just because you know exactly what you’re going to get. I love a superhero movie that suprises, that tries to do or say something different.

    Like you said, there are bad movies in all genres and good movies in all genres. I think it’s definitely a elitist mentality, action movies or comic movies are considered childish, silly, or poppy. But as the ancient proverb states, ‘Haters gon’ hate’.

    • I agree to an extent. Captain America is perhaps the most generic of films, but I also disliked The Amazing Spider-Man because… well, we’ve done this before, haven’t we?

      And I like that proverb.

  5. The Dark Knight Rises is unlike most superhero movies. The TDKR ending is like watching three movies all-in-one. Iron Man is a good franchise.

    Green Lantern tanked because Reynolds was miscasted. He is better in comedy movies.

    Good work.

    • Thanks. I’m not sure any actor could have made that script work though. “You have to be chosen” is one of the worst lines ever written in a sueprhero movie. It’s exactly the opposite of the American superhero myth. Sure, there is an element of inheritance in characters like Batman or Superman, but the American superhero myth is basically that somebody in the right place at the right time can make a difference, and that anybody can prove themselves worthy of great power through character rather than through any rigid social status or class. (Batman is the exception, and Superman is a borderline case.) Hal’s character arc was “Hey, I found this super-ring-thing… let’s pick on that ugly science nerd guy!”

  6. Reblogged this on jolyndotme and commented:
    I agree with the above statement. This why I no longer go to the cinema. Cinema has lost its niche. It is all a bunch of poppycock

  7. Brilliantly put. For me a good film transcends its own genre. I don’t see The Dark Knight Rises as a comic book film – it’s a drama and a thriller. There’s much more to it than just the comic book hero.

    A good film is a good film and a bad film is just that.

    David Cronenberg recently had a go at comic book films – http://www.nextmovie.com/blog/robert-pattinson-david-cronenberg-cosmopolis-interview – I rolled my eyes.

    • I think there were two problems with Cronenberg’s argument.

      1.) He didn’t know what he was talking about. “3D! The kids use 3D now, right?” That immediately makes his argument dubious since it implies he hasn’t watched the film he’s discussing.
      2.) It seems a bit hypocritical for a horror director to diss another subgenre that attracts the same criticism that horror attracted decades ago; it’s easy to imagine some critics saying the same thing about The Fly. “At the end of the day, it’s just Jeff Goldblum in weird makeup, right?” I would have thought a director familiar with the elitist attitude towards genre cinema would have been a bit more careful in talking about another pop culture genre.

      (That said, I should confess that I do like Cronenberg’s films, and he was quite nice that one time I met him. But he is also quite outspoken. Which can be a bit of blessing, but also leads to somewhat awkward moments like this.)

  8. I admit, I am a sucker for superhero films. There are two types of trailers that get me really excited – superhero films and muscials, and it really annoys me when people dismiss any film simply because of the genre it belongs to. Superhero films just seem an easier target, because some think they’re just action films, or just for kids, or whatever.

    Great post.

    • Thanks Grace. I have to admit, I’m aching for a great musical. The Muppets is perhaps the closest I’ve seen in quite some time, and I think that was at least part of the charm.

      • I’m a huge fan of musicals anyway, but missed Rock of Ages when it was in the cinema. Saying that, Les Mis is released in December, and I’m worried because I have such high hopes for it. Like many adaptations, I fear it could just be ruined by being made into a feature length.And yeah, The Muppets was awesome.

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