With the opening of The Green Hornet upon us, the time has come to address the future of the veritable superhero film. By definition, a superhero film carries the ilk consistent in an action, fantasy, or science fiction based movie, while predominantly focusing on a superheroes superhuman abilities—in a heroic effort to thwart a grave danger and protect the greater good.
The superhero genre has long been dominated by Saturday serials and comic books; a trademark of DC and Marvel Comics. But the birth of superheroes in the feature film arena began with Richard Donner's seminal hit, Superman from 1978. A smattering of other successful entries into the comic book genre soon followed, including sequels to Superman. Ultimately, the classical take on comic book-based superhero flicks peaked with Tim Burton's Batman in 1989.
Consequently, major studios mastermind a new model for the genre by providing darker, modernized action-based entries, such as Blade in 1998. From a contemporary standpoint, the period of the 2000's ushered in a burgeoning and wildly profitable market that allowed the superhero franchise to thrive—though an endpoint or transitional period is imminently approaching.
In the last ten years, the linkage between the American public and many of the best superhero films of all-time has reached an untenable and feverish pitch, as an unsustainable list of critical and commercial hits have exploded into the mainstream moviegoer's mind: Bryan Singer's X-Men, Sam Raimi's Spider Man, Hulk, Watchmen, Spider Man II-III, Brad Bird's The Incredibles, Superman Returns, the continuation of the Blade series, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man I-II. I may have failed to mention some other noteworthy superhero films of the post-2000 era (and feel free to interject), but I am sure you can grasp the overall gist. In the voice of Conan O'Brien, "in the year 2000," a turning point has arrived, as American moviegoers have been inundated with an over-saturation of superhero films. When will it end? Such a lofty goal may be unattainable, but I will carve out some answers.
With such a varied and impressive resume of films emblazoned in the American movie-going conscience, how much longer will big studios, such as Warner Brothers and Fox, continue to reap massive profits from the mainstream film-going public—for spewing out banal and vapid incarnations of super-heroic ideas? The release of The Green Hornet may give us an early indication. Currently, The Green Hornet is enjoying a robust (insert sarcasm) 44% rating on Rottentomatoes. But it is also well on its way towards a strong $30-$40 million dollar opening weekend run. So, will 2011 foretell the doom of the superhero film? Matthew Vaughn, the director of X-Men: First Class, certainly thinks so, as he predicts gloom for the superhero movie And here's the kicker...I agree with him.
In order to gain further insight into my thought process, I will spotlight Vaughn's scathing rebuke of the superhero genre. For those unfamiliar with his work, Matthew Vaughn is a promising director with such films as Layer Cake and Kick-Ass under his belt, as well as producing credits for Snatch, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Vaughn writes, "It's [superhero genre] been mined to death and in some cases the quality control is not what it's supposed to be. People are just going to get bored of it." Vaughn is firing off some incendiary remarks to those who staunchly stand by the sanctity of the superhero genre. More importantly, he is articulating a commonly held, though often under-espoused belief, which I will piggyback. Vaughn goes onto to say,
"I've always wanted to do a big-budget superhero film and I think we've kind of crossed the Rubicon with superhero films. I think [the opportunity to do one], it's only going to be there two or three more times. Then the genre is going to be dead for a while because the audience has just been pummeled too much."
Vaughn's contention above is as compelling as it is damning for passionate superhero movie going fans, who will undoubtedly interpret this piercing critique as inflammatory fodder Today, movies exalting trite characterizations, unprovoked violence, and overt unoriginality are becoming the minority for the ardent moviegoer. What nurses the movie industry's ascension into the future, and dispenses the creative celerity unique to our film appetite, is the fact that the filmmaking industry—the lion's share of writers, directors, and producers—must reach for the highest point to which the creative spirit can soar. Ultimately, Hollywood cannot sustain itself if it continually reverts back to the well, churning out confounding, incoherent, and threadbare superhero films.
The last time I checked, America is a Democratic Republic governed by a Constitution. Therefore, when it comes to the sacred medium of film, we shall strive to produce films that are representative of a uniquely creative, unfettered spirit. In the twenty-first century, Americans have both their eye and pulse on the communications landscape—for instance, social networking. Thus, we are the authoritarian overseer of the visual offerings available to us. If a person deems a film unsatisfactory, then that person can instantly broadcast their dismay to a growing audience over the Internet. If growing numbers heed the call of said person, then Hollywood will be forced to take notice of the mass cyberspace—which one hopes will lead to an eventual decline in the middling and jarringly bad superhero films viewable on big screens across America.
The American movie is one of our countries greatest economic assets. Free competition provides a marketplace for originality to foster. Therefore, the entire arsenal of filmmaking—from directors, writers, actors and producers—necessitates an opportunity to provide compelling cinema. The many movies based on characters in superhero comics are increasingly terrible though: Fantastic Four, Wolverine, Daredevil, Catwoman, and Ghost Rider, etc. The method of appraisal, in terms of discerning what constitutes a good comic book film vs. a not so good comic book film is often blurred. This problem leads to an unwieldy disconnect; comic book fans tend to apologize for the genre, as if the merits of the latest big budget superhero flick are exclusively tied to a defense of the comic book's honor (as opposed to the superhero film adaptation). This blatant confusion leads to bickering debate.
The inexplicably poor quality of superhero films that 2011 provides will likely lead to its ultimate demise. Although, I expect Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises and Aronofsky's The Wolverine to be exceptional works of art; this observation has more to do with the extreme competence of these aforementioned filmmakers than any genre specific development—and is thus, an exception to the rule. A new crop of potentially lackluster offerings that spell doom and gloom for the genre include: Captain America! Thor! and Green Lantern!. With such a dearth of any new riveting cinematic feats to boast, a self-fulfilling prophecy awaits the major studios. The enormous successes of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are owed to the success of their mega successful forerunners, such as Spider-Man (as well as the supremely talented direction of Christopher Nolan). The problem that is inherent in today's superhero landscape is there is no Spider-Man—to catapult, imitate, or ride the coattails of. The audience's patience with the genre is morbidly dwindling and will grow to an intolerable state. As long as Fox and Warner Bros continue to put forth fewer objectively good superhero movies, so too will the audience put forth robust box office numbers.
This doom and gloom scenario will persist until the superhero film performs a critical self-examination and undergoes a face-lift of sorts (as it has throughout its past). Until this happens, Americans will routinely be subjected to an albatross of putrid superhero renditions. We can only hope for a scenario that will produce more meaningfully imaginative, compelling works of comic book magic—the kind of cinematic magic that Aronofsky and Nolan are capable of conjuring. Unfortunately, I do not envision the big studios relenting from their short-attention span hysteria and keeping the genre faithfully intact. For every Nolan and Aronofsky quality rendering, there's a Joel Schumacher Batman & Robin style incarnation, which will surely disappoint, and drastically fall short of satiating our immense superhero film appetite.
*As always, you can judge for yourself and take a look at a mildly positive review of The Green Hornet, from the iconic Rolling Stone film critic, Peter Travers: Travers Film Review, The Green Hornet.
*Additionally, below is an informative YouTube video showcasing many superhero films.