Last week I wrote an article explaining why the modern superhero film succeeded, and now here I am telling you the exact opposite. A bit hypocritical, right? But as much as the genre has wowed audiences and raked in the cash for studios, there’s always been a question mark over how good the films actually are.
With the benefit of hindsight, rewatching what Marvel, DC and co. have to offer elicits a critical reaction that’s little more than a shrug. For example, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was rapturously received on release, but today it feels lightweight, melodramatic and too comic-book in tone to a jarring degree. Only the final half hour or so with the maniacal Green Goblin performance from Willem Dafoe (and the ever-joyful web-swinging) is truly great. How about Singer’s X-Men – again heralded as a resurgence of the genre, but again, a bit of a mess. It comes across as half origin story and half obscure B-plot about mutant registration, and although Rogue and Wolverine in particular are great, elsewhere the characters really struggle to find their feet.
Both franchises improved with their sequels before bombing with their threequels, but even these ‘highpoints’ in the series are riddled with flaws. All in all, the best efforts of the genre tend to add up to a handful of great moments rather than any one definitive film. There’s the famous kiss in Spider-Man, Bobby’s ‘coming out’ scene in X-2, Magneto’s “Never again” in First Class, the barrel of monkeys skydiving in Iron Man 3 and beyond that…not much. There are only two films from this modern era of superhero films that will stand up as complete and timeless classics several decades from now: The Avengers and The Dark Knight.
Neither is perfect, but they achieve a rare cohesion and dramatic power that is absent from most rival films. The Avengers follows the same formula as every other superhero blockbuster, but it does so with the aid of Whedon’s quick-fire wit and a cluster of bombastic action sequences that for once, feel like they mean something. The Dark Knight, meanwhile, is memorable for the titanic clash of wills between Bale and Ledger and a series of moral dilemmas that hold genuine weight and drama.
To be honest, critiquing these films is little more than nit-picking, because really they’re the best of the bunch – and that’s the worrying thing. Few of them deserve more than 4/5 if you’re a superhero fan or 3/5 if you’re not, so what about the real dregs we like to forget? What about the Daredevils and the Fantastic Fours and the Last Stands and the Catwomen and the Ghost Riders and the Kick-Ass 2s and I could go on… Outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy few succeeded with any consistency, and even then the majority of their output was mediocre.
But does this even matter? Should superhero films even try and push for a more intellectual or ambitious output beyond the world of explosion quotas and lurid spandex? Am I nothing more than a snobbish critic for attacking a genre so clearly beloved by global audiences? The superhero genre can do so much better, and to its credit, it’s getting there, with fewer flops in recent memory, but you have to ask if that’s good enough to justify the billions of dollars spent on these films to the detriment of smaller, more creative productions. Would you rather have Iron Man 4 for $200 million or ten original films that bring something new to the table for $20 million each? To make the comparison less extreme, it’s also worth pointing out that you could afford two Gravitys for the same price. I know which I’d prefer.
The problem is, these big-budget blockbusters are financially successful safe bets for studios. They’re established properties so they come with a pre-awareness for the audience, cutting down on marketing costs. Characters like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are embedded in the global consciousness so firmly that half the work of promoting the film is already done the second the film is green-lit. The growing importance of global rather than US box office takings also encourages studios to homogenise their output even more to appeal to the widest possible audience. Nuanced dialogue and small-scale plots with depth aren’t as universal as a fireworks factory full of explosions and some angry robots – that’s the Hollywood consensus at least.
Mark Kermode wrote about this phenomenon excellently in his 2011 book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, explaining how the continued success of blockbusters (and for the last decade superhero films and blockbusters have been almost synonymous) is a result of three things. One: if a film costs a lot of money, audiences will watch it just to witness the sheer indulgence – let’s call this the Cleopatra effect. Two: if a film is full of special effects spectacles then people will flock to see it for the shock of the new. People have been acting opposite each other on screen in largely the same manner for the last century, but CGI explosions look slightly more realistic and impressive year on year. It’s the same impulse that spurs people to upgrade their smartphones every twelve months and the same impulse that made Avatar the highest-grossing film of all time.
Lastly, if a film is full of marquee names then audiences will want to watch it regardless of what they hear about it from critics. The modern superhero film bypasses this rule to some degree with the relatively low-key casting of people like Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans, but the marquee names here are really the superheroes themselves. If these basic ingredients guarantee profits for the studios then there’s no need to give undue thought to simple things like a good script or an intelligent plot. Chuck enough money at a popular superhero, follow the formula, and your work here is done.
So will any of these relics from the ‘golden age’ be remembered in twenty, or even ten years’ time? This era is one to live through, not one to revisit. It’s in the very nature of the franchises. They’re designed to transition seamlessly from one film to another, each production linking to the next in a predictable sequence that kills any sense of jeopardy or creativity. This is epitomised by the familiar stings that arrive at the end of every single superhero film. They’re a welcome novelty, but people forget that they serve one purpose, and one purpose only: to sell the next film in the production line.
It’s hard to say the modern superhero film has failed in the face of huge global box office takings and audience appreciation, but it’s definitely not as successful as everyone likes to think. No film ever is when safe profits are prioritised over creative risk-taking. The genre’s hit-and-miss origins at the turn of the millennium held it back for a while, but with Marvel’s recent dominance providing increased stability, perhaps a more innovative and adventurous brand of superhero is appearing on the horizon…
Part three coming soon: The Future of the Superhero Film…