End of a Cultural Era: Superhero Movies

With this Friday’s impending release of Iron Man 3, I felt that now was a good time to reflect on a film genre that has dominated cinemas since 2000. For the past thirteen years no other group of films has generated the excitement, or more importantly the dollars, as well as superhero movies. Three of the top grossing films of all time are superhero movies from the past thirteen years (The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Point is, the genre has been a juggernaut. Yet nothing gold can stay (except of course Ponyboy – weird reference, I know) and reflecting upon cultural trends, it is inevitable that superhero movies will fade from their height of popularity. I believe the process has already begun.

Let’s rewind the clocks to the year 2000 (that date still sounds futuristic). Director, Bryan Singer delighted audiences with his surprise hit X-Men. The film garnered a fairly favorable critical reception and went on to gross nearly 3oo million dollars at the box office. Not bad for a film that only cost 75 million to make. While audiences cheered and enjoyed themselves, Marvel Studios was watching. Turns out that X-Men was only the beginning: a trial run to test the waters and see whether or not there was an eager market for superhero movies. Turns out there was and since then we have been treated to 25 superhero films from Marvel alone (technically 20 but who’s counting Man-Thing?). Holy crap that’s a lot of superhero movies! Hope you’re still hungry cause there’s three more due out this year (still only counting Marvel films).

The film that started it all.
The film that started it all.

So here is the question: how many is too many? Answer: probably close to 25. The superhero genre has a formula that wears thin after repeated viewings. Stop me if you’ve seen this already: a flawed protagonist must overcome an internal struggle with himself (almost always a him). In doing this, he will find the strength to defeat a physical antagonist and save the woman/town/world from certain disaster. This story is nearly as old as recorded history. American mythologist Joseph Campbell actually wrote a book on this phenomena which expresses the ideas quite nicely:

Well worth a read to help understand the popular appeal of "the hero".
Well worth a read to help understand the popular appeal of “the hero”.

Point is: it’s a good story, people like it and its worked for thousands of years. So why don’t I think it will work anywhere? Several reasons. For starters, let’s go back one more time to X-Men. As I said before, that film only cost 75 million (I know right? just 75 million cause most of us I’m sure have that lost in our sofa cushions). While that amount staggers, it really is quite cheap for a blockbuster and is no longer the case for superhero movies. Want to guess at Iron Man 3‘s budget? A cool 200 million. And that’s not including the money spent on marketing and promotion. Wow these things cost money. Will they make it all back? Sure, this time.

When X-Men did really well at the box office, it was a nice surprise. Now, it’s a requirement. The Avengers (220 million), The Dark Knight Rises (230 million), Spider-Man 3 (258 million) – it’s a good thing these films were all blockbusters otherwise people would have lost their jobs.

The funniest face 258 million dollars can buy.
The funniest face 258 million dollars can buy.

So if a superhero movie under performs financial expectations by even a slight margin: it’s a big deal. Has that already happened: yes. The Amazing Spider-Man took in just over 750 million worldwide. Impressive chunk of change even when you minus the 230 million it cost to make (I’m not sure how much was spent on advertising and promotion but probably at least another 50 million right there). So it still made money but it made less than any Spider-Man film that came before it. This could be blamed on one of two things: confusion at the reboot (a lot of people thought it was a sequel) and leftover bad taste from Spider-Man 3 (the most profitable Spider-Man film ever made by the way). I have a different theory, however.

To me, The Amazing Spider-Man represents the beginning of the end. It was a good film, at least I enjoyed it when I saw it in theaters last summer. The cast was good, it had great effects and cool action scenes. It was a superhero film… that’s it. That’s all I can say about it. There was no greater commentary present in that movie (I’m not saying there should be, it’s Spider-Man after all). But really, did I need to see it: no because I had 25 other options of that movie to watch, many of them (Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man 2) that did that formula better.

Now they’re making another one. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes out next summer. And I am completely unexcited for it. Might it be good: it very well might but do I really need to pay 20 bucks to see Spider-Man web-sling around and kick Jamie Foxx (who has been cast as Electro) in the face? No, not really. Electro is a boring character to me. I’ve already seen Spider-Man grapple with his best enemies. The only webhead related experience I would like to see at this point is a movie with Venom in it that, you know, doesn’t suck.

Worth 20 more dollars to you?
Worth 20 more dollars to you?

And that’s generally how I feel about most superhero movies. Yeah they’re good but are they all worth seeing? For instance why pay to see Thor: the Dark World, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: the Winter Soldier when I can just wait for the Avengers 2? They’re all going to be cool movies about guys in costumes fighting stuff but Avengers 2 will most likely be the coolest (really excited to see what Joss Whedon does here). They’re all good movies but they’re good superhero movies. Really out of all the films that have been released, there’s only been three that have transcended into great cinema:

Without a doubt the pinnacle of the cinematic superhero era.
Without a doubt the pinnacle of the cinematic superhero era.

Christopher Nolan brought levels to his Dark Knight trilogy that are not found in any other superhero movies. It is awesome that I can watch The Dark Knight as a batman movie AND as a commentary on George W. Bush’s war on terror (I will explain this more fully in another blog post if people would like). The Dark Knight Rises: cool fights between Batman and Bane and really close examinations of growing class inequality in America. Point is: there were more to these movies… and they’re done now. There will never be another Christopher Nolan Batman film. There will be more Batman – Warner Bros. has already announced plans to reboot the character but really? I think I just feel bad for the unfortunate director given that task. Even if he/she does a movie that’s as good as say The Amazing Spider-Man, it will be the worst Batman movie by far that we’ve had this millennium.

Warner Bros. is clearly trying to continue the momentum on in Man of Steel, I’ve already talked about that in an earlier blog post (http://redringsofredemption.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/marketing-method-man-of-steel/) but what if it doesn’t work? What if Man of Steel is nothing more than another good superhero movie? Zack Snyder is not a director of the same caliber as Christopher Nolan. Really, it would be nice to have a good Superman movie (there isn’t one yet in my opinion) but you know we won’t get just one. There will be at least three and then there’s also Justice League if that ever get’s out of development hell.

Directors aren’t the only ones leaving as well. Robert Downey Jr., arguably the strongest superhero actor presence out there, has spoken publicly about ending his role as Iron Man: [Recasting] would probably be the best thing in the world for me. You know, ego…but sometimes ego just has to be smashed. Let’s see what happens. I take the audience very seriously – I feel bad when I see folks doing movies and the audience is like, ‘Don’t do that anymore.’ I don’t have to overstay my welcome…

So while he is not walking away, he is expressing the eventuality of it. There will most likely be an Iron Man 4, Marvel has indicated as well… but will we pay for it? When will audiences grow tired of their heroes? The directors are already tired, the actors are getting there. My feeling is that audiences will not be far behind. It’s been a good ride and it will end in a crash. These films have been too popular to not be run into the ground. Do we need a Flash movie? Ready to pony over your dollars for 25 more films? I don’t think so.

Would you really be so excited if it was someone else in the suit?
Would you really be so excited if it was someone else in the suit?

Crazes come and go in Hollywood. Comic book superheros are a strong intellectual property full of rich stories that benefit from the cinematic experience – but there are other such materials waiting in the wings. My prediction for the next ten years: move over Iron Man, it’s Master Chief’s turn in the spotlight.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.

2 thoughts on “End of a Cultural Era: Superhero Movies

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