The James Clayton Column: Superhero multiverse superfranchise overkill?

Feature James Clayton 23 May 2014 - 06:49

The arrival of X-Men: Days Of Future Past leaves James wondering: are we suffering from superhero overkill?

Superheroes. Superheroes. Superheroes and more superheroes. Oh, and supervillains as well. Superheroes and supervillains and some of the superheroes are teaming up with other superheroes and assembling superhero teams. Likewise, some of the supervillains are getting together with other supervillains to create supervillain supergroups.

And some superheroes are aligning themselves with supervillains in order to fight the really supervillainous supervillains though it may be difficult to identify just who is really the genuine supervillain or genuine superhero in some cases. Erm, S.H.I.E.L.D.? Hail Hydra?

All of these superheroes are encountering more superbeings and their names and superpowers are subsequently adding to the ever-expanding super-index. I think this is what scientists - like Bruce Banner or Reed Richards - call exponential growth. Significant proliferation has occurred and, as a result, we're seeing more superheroes than ever before. The curious thing is that I'm we're not even stood studying the shelves of a comic book store - we're looking at the cinema listings and the TV schedules.

There are now so many superheroes spread all over and around the mass media (super)marketplace, the 21st century rise to pop cultural dominance propelled by phenomenally successful franchise blockbuster films. And more and more superfolk are surfacing in these showcase super-series which, in turn, spawn spin-offs and synergetic brand extensions across an array of multimedia platforms.

Comics lore being a gift that can potentially keep on giving and giving, studios continue to reach right into the deep, ancient wells to retrieve even more superhero names to add to the costumed menagerie. We're going to need more films to fit all these extraordinary characters in.

Indeed, X-Men: Days Of Future Past has arrived and it seems to be embracing that kind of all-encompassing, super-squeeze attitude as a patent mission statement. Bryan Singer's new movie is something of an unusual crossover-convergence event, acting as it does as an X-nexus to several separate film series strands. 

A highly ambitious confluence exercise, Days Of Future Past is simultaneously a franchise reboot, a franchise continuation and a franchise merger as it joins the original X-Men trilogy and the two Wolverine solo outings to the world of X-Men: First Class. It's always felt like these diverse movies are taking part in the same universe - hello Hugh Jackman for a cameo cuss word in First Class - but the fresh spacetime continuum-defying delivery confirms it and, in doing so, defines the series.

Thus, thanks to some Kitty Pryde-facilitated time-travel action, we get to see the older and younger versions of Magneto and Xavier - respectively, Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy - in the same movie. The mythos is also unified and solidified after several divergent excursions, in case spectators were confused or not clear about the shared DNA of Wolverine spin-offs and First Class.

It also provides an excellent opportunity to stage a grand ensemble and bring back as many mutant icons as possible for an outstandingly overpopulated event movie. Days Of Future Past is so packed that Empire magazine's decision to release special edition variant covers to promote the film required 25 different designs. (As a subscriber I was fortunate enough to get the prestigious #1 cover - a power-trio tableau of Wolverine and the 70s incarnations of Xavier and Magneto - so I'm pretty damn pleased with that, Bub.)

To achieve a bold endeavour of this kind it requires clear vision, rigorous continuity checks, credible narrative mechanics and consistent logic. It also, perhaps most crucially of all, requires the good will of audiences. Positive early reaction to Days Of Future Past suggests that all involved have succeeded, but the creative brains and business heads behind the franchise were confidently cranking up plans for the post-Future Past future way before the new film's public debut. 

We already know that X-Men: Apocalypse is due in 2016. That movie is pitched as 1980s-set direct follow-on in the First Class sub-series and will introduce Channing Tatum as Gambit who will eventually get his own solo feature. At least one more Wolverine lone outing is promised, as is a Deadpool spin-off and an X-Force series, all co-existing and unrolling in the same cinematic multiverse.

That multiverse may also end up encompassing the Fantastic Four franchise that 20th Century Fox are currently rebooting so, in total, we're facing a mind-boggling escalation of movie mutant activity. I think this is what scientists - that scientist undoubtedly Dr Hank McCoy - call 'X-ponential growth'.

Sony have similar grand aspirations for their own Marvel Comics-based franchise - the recently rebooted Amazing Spider-Man series. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - still findable in theatres - is arguably the most overt franchise seeding exercise in the history of cinema. It's a sequel that both builds to a threequel and introduces all the necessary elements to set-up a Sinister Six spin-off film. All of these schemes, plus the development of an inter-related Venom movie, were publicly announced way before The Amazing Spider-Man 2's release date.

Meanwhile, Marvel's rival publishing house DC Comics also have their eyes on aggressive expansion in the movie sphere. When Man of Steel turned out to be a critical and commercial hit, Warner Bros. made the eyebrow-raising decision to turn the inevitable sequel into a Superman vs. Batman crossover event. Bringing two of the biggest superhero icons together on screen understandably generates a lot of hype, but things have been pushed even further with the recasting of Batman - Ben Affleck taking a role Christian Bale only finished with a couple of years ago - and the addition of Wonder Woman and Cyborg to the costume party. 

What's more, a Justice League movie directed by Zak Snyder is also in development and from there the notional 'DC Cinematic Universe' will unravel itself across a promised nine live-action films drawn from D.C. and Vertigo comics lines. Plus, three fresh TV series - Constantine, The Flash and Gotham - are airing in the autumn to join Arrow as small-screen serial attractions so, altogether, D.C. are definitely upping the ante. Even though some of the Vertigo-based properties aren't very superheroific, they're still relevant and are a part of Warner's the blueprinted super-scheme.

They and all the other aforementioned eager superhero hustlers are, of course, inspired by the Marvel Cinematic Universe which is itself evolving in astounding style. As Phase Two of the masterplan ends with Guardians Of The Galaxy and Avengers: Age Of Ultron coming to theatres over the next year, Marvel Studios will also be introducing the Agent Carter TV mini-series as a retro spiritual sister to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (renewed for a second season).

Then there's also the four incoming Netflix series - Daredevil, Immortal Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage - that'll be joining a roster crammed with iconic heroes to add to the already well-established MCU. Of course, further Avengers sequels and solo adventures (enter Ant-Man and possibly Doctor Strange) will advance Phase Three, Phase Four and phases beyond as the tentacles spread across Earth, the Galaxy and the Nine Realms.

I have now exhausted myself reeling off all those superhero shows and movie series because I don't have superhuman stamina. I'm pretty sure that it's going to take superhuman stamina and memory to keep up with all of these disparate multi-franchises as we move through a pop cultural milieu that's already saturated. Overwhelmed as I am and feeling a little claustrophobic in this costumed crowd of superheroes and supervillains, it's worth asking the question - is this too much? Have we gone too far with the whole superhero thing?

I don't wish to be contrary or cynical and - full disclosure and honest-as-Captain-America promise moment - I really enjoy superhero comics and movies. I'm asking these questions as a fan who cares about this genre and the state of cinema - both from the audience's position and in terms of the industry itself. 

My concern is that overkill could do considerable damage if moviemakers aren't careful as they ride the crest of this wave - a wave which may cataclysmically crash and even unlikely screen appearances from Namor the Sub-Mariner or Aquaman won't save the drowning souls because I'm speaking in metaphors and the lethal water is merely figurative.

"With great power comes great responsibility," as the Tao of Spider-Man (Sam Raimi cycle) says, and moderation and circumspection are very responsible qualities. Recklessness, excess and avarice are not responsible qualities and they're not very superhero-ish either (though it depends on the individual in question. Cough, Tony Stark, cough cough).

It's obvious that the Marvel Cinematic Universe phenomenon is the influential impetus that has galvanised other studios to action. For harder proof, consider a recent statement from X-Men franchise producer-screenwriter Simon Kinsberg - "Fox does understand that they are sitting on this massive universe with the X-Men, also with Fantastic Four obviously... they definitely have a sense of it and there's a real interest and appetite for how to explore and expand that world into other movies, into spin-offs, into different time periods, the whole gamut."

The same goes for all the other studios with rights to particular comic book properties and all the associated lore around them. Observing the huge popularity, profit-generation and creative vigour of the MCU, this 'follow-the-leader' strategy is easily understandable. Even so, I feel that those reactively aping Marvel Studios and attempting to apply a production model that mirrors the comics market - serialised interweaving superhero lines running interminably - may be very misguided.

I distinguish the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the exception that rules - not something exceptional that should become the rule. What Kevin Feige and his cohorts - A-grade filmmakers, excelsior crews and casts, Earth's Mightiest Heroes and so on - have done is nothing short of incredible. The sophisticated arrangements, deft mythos cultivation and gradual, consistent development across uniformly high-calibre - albeit intriguingly eclectic - event movies has shown exactly how this type of operatic multi-franchise can work and become something truly special if done right.

If it doesn't work out or is done the 'wrong' way, however, we'll be observing a slow-motion super-disaster of box office bombs with beloved icons experiencing upsetting identity crises while the loose, fraying threads of failing multiverses flail about in the bitter wind. True, that's a doomy and slightly melodramatic view of a worst possible outcome, but I reckon that it's a realistic prediction - especially when you acknowledge that these several super-multiverse multi-franchises are in competition with each other in an already overloaded blockbuster scene.

Even if the creators involved and the brains-trusts behind the machine are adept and amazing cinemagicians, I'm not absolutely confident that anyone can attain the epic heights of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and meet the set high standard. I'm also not completely convinced that the MCU approach is necessarily being adopted for the right reasons, cynical motives the main drive rather than sincere, creative ones. There's definitely a problem if the seeding of franchise spin-offs and commerce-driven multiverse expansion is top priority over the ultimate objective of making good cinema - especially if people's ability to make good cinema is compromised as a result.

What we're currently witnessing is Hollywood at its most hubristic and I can't help but worry that all the pre-emptive planning and ambitious schemes are all going to be exposed as grand follies in days of future to come. Not every idea or brand entity needs to evolve into an elaborate multiverse. Zack Snyder's solid one-shot adaptation of Watchmen is perhaps a good example and it's worth noting that the self-contained, finite nature of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy - the comic book movie magnum opus - contributed a great deal to its profound power.

It's also true that audiences are only going to feel superhero fatigue all the more acutely and superhero ubiquity is liable to diminish the potency of even the best releases. To paraphrase Pixar's superhero family picture The Incredibles, Dash's point that everyone being special is "another way of saying that no one is" resonates as we survey a scene replete with superheroes. Who stands out when everyone is outstanding and when outstanding becomes normalised and mundane?

The future is full of superheroes, but it feels more 'pea-souper' than 'super' from this perspective. Could we be Batmobiling into a brutal bloodbath of confused, bogged-down multi-franchises made of blockbusters that don't mean much aside from branding purposes and that don't move anyone or make anyone marvel?

Maybe we need to swap our superheroes for something or someone else. Erm, hail Hydra?

James Clayton is the hero you deserve, but he's not the one you need right now. Right now you need all the X-Men from various timestreams, the entire Avengers Initiative, Spider-Man and, yes, all the members and affiliates of the Justice League. Just beam the signal when you're bored of all these 'superheroes' and he'll save the mutant race or Gotham or the film industry or something. 

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