The formula for superhero films is thus: Well-meaning but flawed heroes battle against their emotional demons whilst trying to take down nefarious (yet ultimately incompetent) villains who are hell-bent on taking over the world. Along the way there are lots of CGI-heavy explosions and destruction of cities with death counts in the thousands as collateral damage. And it has proven to be a mega money-making formula. But the more the film studios churn out these films, the more quickly the merge into on amorphous blob of mediocrity. This year alone we’ve already had Deadpool, Batman V Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad. And we’re not done yet; Doctor Strange is still coming. From 2017 to 2020 there are 16 projects due for release from Marvel and DC alone; including beloved fan-favourites we’ve all heard of, like Aquaman, Shazam and the Inhumans.
The latest DC film, Suicide Squad, opened to a strong box office performance (spoiler alert: it’s shit). DC’s other film this year, Batman V Superman, also enjoyed a successful first week (spoiler alert: it’s even more shit). Despite negative reviews from critics, people are still flocking to see them. Even the two better superhero movies to come out this year; Deadpool with its attempted dark humour and Captain America: Civil War with its focus on antagonism between the heroes rather a super villain; still share one common flaw:
Superhero movies are essentially just long, predictable and expensive commercials for the next film.
When Avengers came out in 2012 it was something we’d never seen before. It was the pay off for what five movies had been building up to it, and for the most part it was good, dumb, goofy fun. But more importantly it made a lot of money; so much in fact that every other studio has been floundering to imitate its success even since. As a result we now have Marvel Cinematic Universe owned by Disney, the Warner Bros. DC universe, Fox’s X-Men universe (which is also a Marvel comic but not part of the Marvel universe). Oh, and Sony has the rights to Spiderman which is also a Marvel comic but wasn’t originally part of the Marvel universe except now he is after making a cameo in Captain America: Civil War. Confused yet?
You only have to consider some of the latest superhero movies, like Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spiderman 2 or Batman V Superman to notice how rushed these films are, with the studios obsessed with setting up connected universes and throwing in unnecessary cameos. As a result these movies feel more like homework requiring you to have knowledge and investment in the previous films. Captain America: Civil war was a good film, but it felt like sitting through two hours of explosions just to see Spiderman’s cameo – which would have actually had an exciting impact had I not seen him in the fucking trailer for the movie anyway. What’s worse is knowing all the actors have contracts for multiple films means that I never once actually had to fear for the safety of any of the characters involved. War Machine might be plummeting to the earth at 100km per hour, but he’s contracted until 2020 so he’ll come out just fine.
If the studios want audiences to keep paying for exorbitant ticket prices then they are going to have to lift their game. A film like the mess that is Batman V Superman is clearly just trying to pander to a fan service by throwing the two popular characters together just for the sake of it. And that’s all well and good, but it isn’t the comic-book fans who have made these movies a box-office success: it is the general movie-going public. And whilst the studios pump hundreds of millions of dollars into producing these films, the reality is that majority of these people have never actually read a comic in their life. Especially not ones about talking raccoons or ant-men. It’s reasonable to suggest that what the audience wants, and deserves, are quality movies that are fun on their own merit. Otherwise how else can you make people excited to see Doctor Strange?
I’m not suggesting that every superhero movie has to be entirely bleak and depressing like The Dark Knight to be considered a worthwhile film. The Dark Knight was exceptionally well-made, with clever dialogue, unique characterisation, an emotionally-gripping plot and realistic action sequences that didn’t over-rely on CGI. But on the complete opposite spectrum is a film like Guardians of the Galaxy. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all but still offers a (relatively) cohesive story whilst having fun characters, a great soundtrack and cool action sequences to keep it entertaining. But more importantly what Guardians has that many of its peers don’t is an entirely self-contained plot that can be enjoyed without the need to have invested in other films.
Hey, if I don’t enjoy superheros movies then I don’t have to watch them, right? But what other blockbusters is Hollywood offering me right now? Lowest common denominator trash like Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or some other brand name that can be commercialised. Speaking of exploiting nostalgia for shameless name recognition, don’t even get me started on that new Ghostbusters film – the whole basis for which is that it is just like the original but this time the genders have been swapped. The original Ghostbusters is a great film but it is also a product of its time that doesn’t warrant a whole franchise being created from it.
So with Marvel releasing Doctor Strange at the end of the year – continuing the trend of scraping the bottom of the barrel to find another character to make a film with – the question is whether I will actually pay to go and see it. I really want to enjoy it and I certainly hope that Marvel can buck this trend of making predictable profit-oriented business products instead of making great films. But it’s hard to be overly optimistic.