This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Minor spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse and Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice lie ahead.
At the start of the year, it seemed that the big comic book movie hits were relatively easy to call. Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse, and Captain America: Civil War were the safe bets (each, coincidentally, around the 150 minute mark, and major interchanges in their respective franchises/universes/whatever we’re calling them). Deadpool would make a profit, given that its budget was modest. Suicide Squad looked like more of a gamble, and Doctor Strange arguably moreso.
We’re four films into the superhero-infested waters of blockbuster cinema this summer, and already, it feels as though things have changed just a little. Batman v Superman has fallen just short of $900 million in worldwide box office takings, a disappointment against what was expected, as I discussed separately here. Captain America: Civil War? It didn’t tell a radically different story to Batman v Superman, but its accessibility, fun factor and a far warmer audience response has seen it comfortably soar above the $1 billion mark. The cash is still rolling in there.
And then there’s X-Men: Apocalypse. You can’t help but offer some comparison with the nimbler, riskier and fresher Deadpool, also spun out of the X-Men universe, but without the backstory baggage of the films before it. Apocalypse and Batman v Superman both also built up to a fight with an ultimately pretty bland and uninteresting CG creation, and both had run out of steam long before their running time was over. For my money, at least.
X-Men: Apocalypse, like Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice before it, isn’t going to leave red ink on the studio accounts, but it has again raised the argument of superhero fatigue, due to a mixed audience and critical response, and lower than expected (so far) box office. The argument runs that the superhero formula is running out of steam, and sooner or later, this bubble has to burst.
Studios certainly hope not. Already set for 2017 are The Wolverine 3, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, and quite possibly Gambit. Each of those, already, is costing well in excess of $200 million to make and release, and each has its eye on at least $6-700 million of box office cash. Over a billion, in some cases.
It’s because of that kind of investment, allocated a good couple of years before we actually see a finished movie by a studio, that the very idea of superhero fatigue gets well-paid Hollywood types a bit nervous. Rightly so, too.
I think it’s important here to draw a differential, incidentally, between comic book movies and superhero movies. Comic books have been the source of films as radically different as A History Of Violence and Road To Perdition, through to American Splendor and 30 Days Of Night. Comic books are nowhere near as constrained by genre as they’re sometimes reported as being.
Which, helpfully, leads us to what I think is both the problem and the solution where the so-called superhero fatigue is concerned.
The genre issue
The issue isn’t necessarily the number of such movies out there, or on the way (although that certainly magnifies the problem). But the fact that they’re not willing to stretch their legs a bit more, take a few more risks, and break away from the standard three act superhero story most of us can see coming even before the opening credits have rolled. That just because a film has a superhero in it, it doesn’t mean that pretty much the same road has to be followed.
Let’s take a sort-of parallel. For a good while, animated movies were being classed as a genre in their own right. To some degree, they still are. In the case of animated movies, classifying them as their own genre seemed more to be a shorthand for animated family comedy, with some optional music in it.
Yet in more recent times, animated movies have pushed against such bracketing. 2010’s Rango was one of my favorite westerns in years, Big Hero 6 was as much a family drama about loss, Inside Out was a heartfelt, insightful drama that dealt with the difficulties of growing up, and I laughed harder at Zootropolis than any other film this year. Now, when I watch an animated movie, I’m not as sure as I once was as to what I’m going to get. Things had to change to keep audiences interested, and they duly did.
And that, for me, is where superhero movies need to get to.
I can’t help but cite Christopher Nolan, who was pretty much willing to sideline Batman for the last film in his Dark Knight trilogy to explore the story he wanted to tell there. Also, in a different direction, Matthew Vaughn threw all sorts into the melting pot with Kick-Ass.
If you’re looking for directors pushing in the right direction right now, then the work of Joe and Anthony Russo surely deserves consideration. When they took on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they were insistent that they saw the film as more of a political thriller than a straight superhero fight. As Ryan wrote on this very site back in 2014, “what The Winter Soldier does is take the ’70s conspiracy thriller and bring it straight into the present.” Not for nothing was Robert Redford cast in the film (Three Days Of The Condor was one of many influences on the movie), and you can read Ryan’s full piece, here.
With Civil War, the brothers Russo again looked to see what kind of story they could tell. Sure, they knew they were going to have lots of heroes fighting, but they also looked to weave in parts of horror (as Sam Raimi did in his Spider-Man trilogy), and to put together a movie they saw more as a psychological thriller. Sure, they put in the trailer moments, and made sure that the action – the cinema currency that travels every corner of the globe – was good. But they also took in genre turns that they weren’t necessarily given full credit for. Not massively overt ones, but enough to nudge at the boundaries of what we’re usually told a superhero movie should be.
I get the sense that the Russos, like many filmmakers, share a frustration with films that build up to a third act CG fight that decreasing numbers of people are actually interested in (Joss Whedon basically ruined that for everyone with his first Avengers movie).
It’s not just audiences, I should note, that are a little more critical than they perhaps once more. A growing number of filmmakers seem discontented with the current make-up of blockbuster and event cinema, and the reliance on what’s been dismissed as capes and fighting.
But then I come back to the same point. If we continue to regard a superhero movie as a genre in itself, then little will change. Some films will be good, some bad, some will have something to say, some won’t. Ultimately, though, they’ll boil down to some variant of here’s the genesis of the hero, here’s the genesis of the villain, the villain looks like they’re going to win, the hero scrapes a victory, damage is taken, a credits sting sets up what’s next. Buy some action figures when you get home.
Even Deadpool, widely credited as subverting superhero movies, followed a pretty familiar template at heart. That it was a funny, and had a radically different central character than we’re used to, made it feel like a genuine breath of fresh air. But it was still, at heart, a fairly conventional action-comedy. A very enjoyable one, too.
However, there’s little reason why Deadpool can’t be a stepping stone away from convention, and an important step in the evolution of superhero cinema. Its R-rating, and its willingness to have a character at its heart that’s not about action figure sales is a healthy step forward. Now, though, might it be the time for a few more to take on the mantle of risk? Maybe a Batman detective story, done in the style of a police procedural? Or a genuine Spider-Man coming of age tale? For me, the horror undertones of Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange suggest a step in the right direction. Marvel takes more risks than it’s sometimes given credit for.
One more thing: I wonder if we need studios now to gamble on cheaper superhero films. Much has been made of the fact that Deadpool‘s R-rating has proven it shouldn’t be a barrier to big box office. Yet Fox still mitigated itself by keeping the budget relatively modest (somewhere around the $60 million mark, we’re told). In days of old, studios were willing to take bigger gambles with mid-priced cinema, and if we’re looking for superhero movies to push into other areas of film, then it strikes me that making the films a little cheaper is potentially giving filmmakers the extra latitude they need. Not micro-budget – there are a growing number of films for virtually non-existent price tags (and I’m absolutely not slighting those) – but enough to give some scale to the stories that filmmakers want to tell.
I come back to the action point a minute: when you’re spending $200-300 million on a movie just to make it, you need it to hit big worldwide, and nothing sells easier than action. As someone who longs for blockbusters that don’t just end up with another boringish fight, I don’t mind fewer action sequences and effects in the superhero films I watch, if the trade off is a few more gambles, and less money spent on them.
We’ve already seen that in the world of DC movies at least, things are changing a little behind the scenes. But with Warner Bros, Disney, Fox, and a little bit of Sony banking hard on superhero films to be the backbone of their blockbuster slate for the next few years (well, Disney has Star Wars too, of course), then I’d suggest the onus is on them right now to find slightly different ways to keep us interested. Superhero movie fatigue may be an overhyped problem, but there’s certainly something to it. And by digging into the rich variety of sources found in comics for a start, then there’s a lot more to say and wildly different stories to tell.