Superhero Movies: Too Much of a Good Thing?
Even Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can’t save us from all these sequels, prequels, and reboots.
As you have no doubt noticed, the weather is cooling down, the breeze is picking up, and Batman and The Avengers aren’t in theaters any longer. This can only mean one thing: Fall is well under way, and with it, so comes the end of the superhero film season, better known as summer. With more than a few superhero movies having come and gone this year, now seems to be a perfect time to reflect on the genre as a whole. A genre that has been prevalent in theaters worldwide ever since Christopher Reeves donned the red cape of Superman, oh so many years ago.
There is something about superheroes that ignites a childish fervor in the minds of the masses. Something about the lore behind our favorite caped crusaders and men of steel that brings audiences back to a time in their lives when things were much more simple. A time when good and evil were as clear as night and day. These characters, who have been an integral part of American- and certainly, global- culture for the better part of a century, illustrate the most pure values that our society holds. Right must always triumph over wrong. The underdog will always rise to the occasion, even against insurmountable odds. And when the fate of humanity is staked on the efforts of a few good men (and women), we instinctively know where to place our bets. Without question, the undeniable appeal of endless strength and moral fortitude brings us back again and again, in droves, to witness the protectors of the earth on the big screen. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this hero worship, is there a point when the genre is so overworked, so drawn out, that it begins to falter under the expectations it has set for itself? Taking a look back at the past decade of cinema, I’d say so.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I certainly love a good superhero flick just as much as the next guy, and the guy after him, too. But of late, it seems that with each new entry into the genre, something is lost. The luster of unstoppable justice and caped escapades have begun to lose their impact, and I find myself ready for a reprieve from the Green Lanterns and Wolverines of the comic pantheon. This is not to say that the stories surrounding these characters aren’t compelling-surely the entertainment factor in these types of films will always be present-but there are only so many ways you can play out the adventures of Superman or Batman before they all start melding together. A superhero soup, if you will, becomes the result; the lines between one film and the next are blurred.
How better to illustrate my point than to observe two marquee hero franchises of the past decade. First, is Tobey Maguire’s interpretation of Peter Parker and his alter ego Spider-Man, which swung on to the silver screen in 2002. This initial blockbuster hit was followed by a pair of sequels that brought the trilogy to a controversial close in 2007 (save yourself some pain and just view the first two films). Now, only half a decade later in 2012, the series has already been brought back to life, being retold by a younger, more upbeat cast lead by Andrew Garfield. This begs the question: is five years time all that really needs to pass before we have collectively forgotten about one interpretation of a story, and deem a reboot appropriate? Hell, five years time does not even constitute a generational shift, so the target audience in question here can’t have changed much.
Likewise, Hugh Jackman’s X-Men have endured the same treatment. Their first outing came to theaters in 2000, and eventually became a similar, yet consistently more celebrated trilogy, ending in 2006. Fast forward three years, and the mediocre prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine was released. And then, just when audiences thought the X-Men series may have been dying down, 2011 rolled around and the entire franchise got a facelift as X-Men: First Class retold the tried and true comic story with a younger cast (I’m noticing a pattern here). For those of you counting, that amounts to five X-Men films being released in the span of 11 years, with a surefire two more on the way by the time the 2014 summer season rears its head! Add that to the fact that the inconsistent chronology of these films is confusing at best, and it would be almost expected of a viewer to be completely overwhelmed by the series.
But make no mistake, it isn’t just the reboots of still-breathing super hero franchises that gets to me; it’s the tidal onslaught of the genre in general that seems almost outrageous. With visual effects reaching new plateaus since the turn of the century, it’s not too hard to imagine that these dazzling spectacles should be created in well thought out batches. But instead, it seems like somewhere in tinsel town there must be a film factory that mass-produces superhero movies on an assembly line and sells them off to the highest bidding distributor.
Now, I will admit, I myself didn’t quite realize how much the superhero genre has saturated the American film industry, until I took a quick stroll over to the semi-reliable Wikipedia. If the site is to be believed, then history tells us there were only four superhero films released in the 41 year period from 1936 to 1977. However, in the 34 years since Richard Donner’s Superman was released in 1978, 103 other superhero flicks made their way onto the big screen. That’s an astounding 3 spandex-clad hero movies per year since Christopher Reeves became Clark Kent, compared to just 1 of these films per decade in the forty years before hand! Now I know some of this can be attributed to the aforementioned exponential improvement in special effects and computer-generated imagery the film industry has experienced over the past few decades. Also, the meteoric rise in popularity that Marvel Comics, and more specifically the comics of Stan Lee, experienced in the mid 60’s and onward has certainly contributed. However, when considering the Golden Age of comic books, which captivated the hearts and minds of millions, came well before 1960, it’s hard to imagine why the films inspired by these heroes didn’t gain traction until much, much later.
I suppose the point I’m making here, if you couldn’t already tell, is that I’m getting burnt out on hero flicks. Perhaps because I’m getting older, each year making me less and less enchanted with the subject material. Or maybe some part of me feels distraught over the champions of my childhood being rung through a Hollywood system that doesn’t see these empowered men, women and off-worlders as heroes, but instead as dollar signs and bottom lines. Regardless, I know one thing for sure: I’ll be sitting there right next to you when the Zack Snyder Superman reboot Man of Steel hits theaters next year, but I’ll be sitting there with an air of reluctance. Sitting there in a seat I’ve been in one too many times, watching a film I feel as if I have seen before. But I’ll be there nonetheless, which is all the big name studios and distributors really care about.