The future of the superhero film suddenly looks a whole lot shakier. This article was going to begin with all the exciting ways the genre is branching out with more niche characters and directors like James Gunn leading Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Chronicle’s Josh Trank directing the Fantastic Four reboot (2015). Instead, we have the sudden news that the most exciting of these upcoming films has lost its director. Edgar Wright and Ant-Man have parted ways due to creative differences, leaving many people’s most-anticipated superhero film floundering. On top of all that, in the last 24 hours Drew Goddard has left Netflix and Marvel’s Daredevil miniseries which he was scheduled to write, direct, showrun and executive produce and he’s been replaced by Spartacus showrunner, Steven S. De Knight. Details are still scarce on the reasons for both splits, but the one certainty is that this has been a bad weekend for Marvel.
The gradual expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was seen as a great way to move the genre beyond its safe confines and give some exciting alternative directors the chance to make their mark. In short, it was an answer to the kind of criticisms I levelled at the genre in my previous article on why the modern superhero film failed. Now we face the kind of clash of wills that should’ve seemed inevitable from the moment Marvel began spreading its legs into the backwaters of the superhero world. When you hire an independent and ambitious director like Wright for a studio blockbuster there are going to be differences of opinion and corporate demands to meet. Let’s not forget, after all, that Marvel is now owned by Disney and is as much of a merchandise machine as it is a film production company. The question is whether the innovative directors you hire are willing to compromise their artistic vision to satisfy the studio. Unsurprisingly, the answer is no.
Make no mistake; this is a cataclysmic blow to the future of the genre as a force for quality over profits. At the end of the day, superhero films will always be about the bottom line, but here there was real hope that they could make money while offering something genuinely new and exciting. Edgar Wright is a man born to direct comic book films, as demonstrated by his perfect take on the medium with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and it would’ve been fascinating to see what he did with Ant-Man and its lead Paul Rudd. In place of this potential gem we’re left with the clearest statement yet that when it comes to that breaking point where creative freedom meets box office receipts, the studios still have the final say.
Despite this fault line in Marvel Phase Three’s foundations, there is still plenty to look forward to in the near future. Guardians of the Galaxy continues to deliver on its promise with every new trailer, although it’s worth remembering it’s hardly as out-there as many like to think. Yes, it’s an oddball space opera featuring furry creatures with guns and hulking aliens… but so was Star Wars. After the roaring success of X-Men: Days of Future Past, that particular franchise looks fully rejuvenated and everyone is suddenly excited about what to expect from X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016. There’s also the long-overdue arrival of a female-led superhero film (let’s forget Elektra and Catwoman, for our own sanity) with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, although personally I’m still campaigning for a stand-alone Black Widow film.
On the other hand, we have the continuation of the underwhelming Amazing Spider-Man franchise to ‘look forward to’ which continues the sad trend of rebooting a franchise while its predecessor is still warm. Worst of all is Zack Snyder’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice which looks set to be less Dark Knight and more black sheep of the genre. Any title that begins “Batman vs Superman” is bound to grab attention, but everything beyond that has been underwhelming at best. Snyder’s Man of Steel divided and infuriated fans and critics alike, while his adaptation of the ‘unadaptable’ Watchmen was faithful to a fault and ultimately, just quite boring. The signs are not promising. At least Baffleck’s status as a black hole of charisma will be less of a problem when he’s hidden in his fat suit Batsuit for most of the film.
Increasingly the real excitement is to be found in the TV miniseries adaptations of superhero franchises. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was hampered by a dull cast and glacial plot that took far too long to get going, but its real-time tie-ins with cinematic releases were the kind of bold experiments you can only applaud Marvel for. Arguably these series only succeed because of their relationship with the bigger franchise, which leaves Agents struggling when it’s forced to survive on its own, but that should be less of a problem for Batman spin-off, Gotham.
It looks particularly intriguing because it has a much stronger world in terms of what can be portrayed easily on TV. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is just that, a universe. It’s too disparate and high budget to translate well to the small screen, but Gotham is a city. It’s mostly cloaked in darkness and it’s full of heroes and villains that are just humans with money or psychological defects, not space aliens or mutants. It’s a far more manageable concept and one that could almost survive on its own without the Batman associations.
We’re facing a moment of truth for the superhero genre. Will audiences grow tired of reboots upon reboots, in the form of new Spider-Man, Superman and Batman films? Will they resent being given another take on the same world, just in a different medium, in an increasingly shameless push for profits? To be honest, as long as the resulting films and series are decent, people will quickly get over the fact they saw the same franchise five years ago. If anything this cyclical production style is perfectly suited to the superhero film. The comic books they’re based on have countless versions of the same characters with alternate timelines and absurd levels of retconning. If there’s any genre that can survive its films being recycled every five years, it’s the superhero film.