Superheroes, or The Future of Film

I absolutely adore superhero films and invest incredible[1] amounts of time in knowing what’s coming up and following the latest rumors and buzz, watching trailers as soon as they are released, usually at least three times to fully get a grasp on it. My borderline obsessive attitude isn’t limited to superhero films and extends more broadly into the film world, but given the growing interconnectedness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe[2] (MCU) it is easier to have something set in stone to follow than with standalone films from studios or independent artists.

Anyway, that’s all mostly besides the point. There has been and continues to be a smattering of articles about superhero movie fatigue and various issues with the genre. Some of this is undoubtedly due to the reboot/remake/sequel heavy film culture that is pervasive throughout Hollywood today. It doesn’t seem likely that superhero films are going away anytime soon[3], and as a fan, I don’t really want them to. I do however want them to get better. I won’t deny the lesser quality of most superhero films and readily admit that there are huge gender disparities that need to be addressed[4], but there have been some excellent films made that happen to be about superheroes (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy[5], The Dark Knight, and X2: X-Men United[6] come to mind).

Yet, with The Avengers: Age of Ultron, some of the issues with the current strategy of an ever-expanding and complicating interconnected cinematic universe are becoming apparent. I thoroughly enjoyed Ultron. I felt like it had much of Whedon’s characteristic wit and appreciation for the characters (I’ll probably need a second viewing to fully decide how I feel about it). The film was edited to a breakneck pace, leaving some plot points unexplained and characters feeling less developed. Not to mention the oodles of threads that the film was picking up AND (perhaps more importantly) needed to put in place for the next five years of the MCU. This left some feeling a bit disconnected from what was happening and made a lot of the film feel inevitable. The sense of danger and unknown was gone. I knew more or less what was going to happen because it needed to happen, given the storylines that are coming up[7].

If Marvel wants to maintain their dominance and to grow artistically, then some things will have to change. I don’t know exactly what, but here are some thoughts.

  1. Stop Revealing Film Titles/Actor Contracts. Like I mentioned up above, I think one of the major problems plaguing superhero films is that the have no sense of danger. NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE. They have eight billion more movies to make. It is incredibly difficult to make a compelling film when there is no real sense of conflict. Sure, there’s a bad guy, but he’s pretty generic and is going to lose. Not to mention that if you follow any semi-spoilery news leaks, you have a decent idea about the framework of upcoming plot-lines, so you can predict what’s going to happen. Winter Soldier shocked me by totally dismantling SHIELD, so props for that, but there should be some shock involved all the time. So, I think Marvel should wait to release the info about upcoming films until the previous films have been released (obviously there are some complications given the closeness of some of the release dates, but as a general rule).
  2. Embrace the Interconnectedness. The MCU’s straddling an increasingly thin line, trying to play up the interconnectedness of the universe, while creating stand-alone films that could be appreciated by any viewer. I think it’s about time to ditch that strategy. I mean, there is value in incorporating narrative arcs that play out over the course of a single film, but I think they need to embrace the interconnected nature of the MCU and just go with it. Sure, some people will be lost, but most of the audience are probably watching most of the films anyway. I’m not saying each film needs to become increasingly lost in the black hole of comics, but that being overly concerned with appealing to an audience that has no idea what’s going on harms the narrative.
  3. Don’t be Afraid to Use Cliffhangers (Lessons from Daredevil). On a similar note, I think there is value in blending the films into one another more. There seem to be gaps between each character’s film and then the next team-up, with sometimes inexplicable absences or changes (why is Tony Stark Iron Man again? When did that happen?). I was quite impressed with Daredevil and the longform, TV, binge-friendly narrative that was developed. Perhaps treating the MCU more like episodes of the same TV show would help bridge those dots. There are some efforts to do this, but I think it could be done better.
    Maybe Marvel just needs to get out of the movie game and only make TV shows (Agent Carter is also amazing). I don’t know. There’s definitely ability to build up villains more and explore characters more deeply than seem typical of superhero films, but I don’t know if that needs to be the case.
  4. Be Quirky. The focus here is that to aid in making superhero films fresh, they should diversify the main characters. The best thing about this is that they don’t need to worry about fabricating characters or switching genders/races whatever to increase the diversity (although that’s not a bad strategy and could result in some interesting stories)—the MCU just needs to better utilize it’s cast of characters that are already in place. Make a Black Widow film, for heaven’s sake. Like, really? That hasn’t happened yet? 1. Everyone loves Scarlett Johansson. 2. Her back-story would be like the best of the Bourne films. 3. They could tie in Dottie from Agent Carter. Not to mention the enormous and diverse supporting cast that is being created. Black Panther is in the works, which will help some. I mean, they’re films about super-people. There’s no reason that should be restricted to predominately white men.
  5. Kill Characters, Main Characters. This may just be my bias toward having tragic deaths coming through, but I feel like the MCU needs to be ok with killing off major characters. It’s getting pretty crowded. And, to help with #1, filmmakers have to show that they’re willing to take big risks and that even your favorite heroes are never safe from the axe. I’m holding out for Captain America: Civil War to bring this to fruition, with either (or both!) Captain America or Iron Man getting killed in the end. Unless we start seeing some death happening, the MCU will be overcrowded and no one will care about the movies. How much more exciting will superhero films become when there’s a real possibility of the hero giving his life, either as a necessary heroic gesture or in failure? All sorts of dramatic possibilities open up then don’t they?
  6. Tell a Great Story that Happens to be About a Superhero. I think that superhero films have become stuck in genre traps that aren’t necessarily inherent to the idea of superheroes. It makes sense that they have adapted a fairly standard hero’s journey sort of approach along with action movie conventions, but they could be so much more. The greatest superhero films are the ones that function as great other sorts of movies. 70s-esque political thriller or heist movie or sci-fi-musical-comedy. I am still waiting for the Batman series that treats Batman like a detective, going back to his roots[8]. Or a Superman film that looks at the psyche of a man who is more powerful than everyone around him, in unbelievable ways and isolated because of it. Man of Steel, in its best moments, captured some of this and then tossed it out the window. Tsk tsk. Let’s have him confront poverty or disease, rather than some supervillain that he levels an entire city fighting. Focus on the story and the narrative of the characters involved, rather than cool effects. Superheroes are still people and need to seem like people for the films to work.
  7. Make Awesome Villains. One of my biggest complaints with superhero films in general (and the MCU in particular) is the poor quality of villains. The Iron Man films are particularly awful with the same trope of angry, embittered scientific rival turned supervillain. And almost inevitably, they get killed or otherwise permanently incapacitated at the end. The villains could practically be interchanged between the various films with almost no change to the plot. That’s a bad sign. Loki is one of the few shining examples of a villain done right. Or Doctor Octopus from Spiderman 2. Ultron wasn’t bad. Without an interesting and compelling villain, the film can only do so much. There needs to be something else there to help build momentum or everything is going to fall to pieces. Not killing off the villains at the end of every movie would help establish them and make the story compelling. Or tease villains earlier on and bring them in from various parts of the MCU. Lots of possibilities.

BONUS: Thoughts on Remakes/Reboots/Sequels Generally. I think there’s value in rebooting old franchises and providing a new spin on them. Particularly when they are done distinctively from the source material. It says something about a time to look at the treatment of one character throughout different historical moments, and I think that film has a role to play in that, so I’m on board with reboots at the base. Specifically with superhero films however, I think that the temptation to re-tell the origin story is strong and should be avoided. First of all, most origin stories are remarkably similar, so it doesn’t seem to add much to the character. The Amazing Spiderman is probably the most recently egregious offender in this category. The movie was practically the same as Spiderman. I fear that Fantastic Four is going down the same path, retreading material that doesn’t need retreading. As long as a compelling story can be told, I think sequels and other things are on point. Retooling old material isn’t necessarily a sign of a lack of creativity—it can be a homage to the work of people that inspired you or something along those lines.

The Future of Film?

Maybe one day all we will have will be superhero films. A diversity of genres, but all about superheroes. I don’t really think that’ll happen, nor do I think that’s a good thing (but maybe all humans will be replaced with superpeople, so naturally, all films would be about superheroes).

I think that exciting things are coming and that flexibility in form could lead to some cool innovations in how we consume stories that may help with the interconnected nature of the MCU. And may bleed over into the film world generally.

I love movies and I don’t really know what sort of changes will take place or how superhero films will impact the rest of the film industry, but I think some of my ideas are applicable in a broader sense.


 

[1] Some would probably argue (fairly) that incredible is a bit too kind of a word to use and that to accurately paint the picture I should say something like obscene or obsessive, but that’s all in the eye of the beholder, so you can judge.

[2] The DC Cinematic Universe is growing and has the framework in place to begin to join the MCU as an occupier of my time and attention, but has yet to fully earn it. We’ll see. Batman vs Superman—I’m looking at you. You’ve got a lot riding on your shoulders, so don’t blow it.

[3] I mean, Marvel and DC have slates announced through 2020 (with 30 or so films in the pipeline, creating an average of 6 superhero films a year for the next five years) and seem to have no problem absolutely dominating at the box office, in domestic and foreign markets.

[4] Let’s be clear that this is a problem throughout most television and film and is by no means limited to superhero films. Not to excuse superhero films, but to realize that the problem is more systemic than that.

[5] A sci-fi, musical comedy featuring a rag tag team of superheroes, including a talking, gun-toting raccoon and a tree with a 3-4 word vocabulary? There’s no way this should have worked, but it did.

[6] Yeah, I know it’s not part of the MCU, which is the focus of most of the post. It’s still a great superhero film.

[7] Yes, this is 100% my own fault. BUT, it reveals an interesting problem for Marvel (and one day, DC). And, they announced everything publicly, so it’s not like I’m digging up secrets, I just have a large store of geeky, superhero knowledge, and other random trivia facts, to be fair.

[8] Batman was inspired and partially based on Sherlock Holmes. Given that, why does he do so little actual detection? Let’s portray a hard-boiled sort of detective type Batman. That’d be awesome.

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