Bartlett: The Gilded Age

The current state of superhero films is unsustainable.

by Nicholas Bartlett | 4/12/18 2:05am

I remember an era — albeit barely — in which superhero movies used to be the spectacle. This was a time when even the most iconic titans like Batman or Iron Man would very seldom (if ever) make their way to the silver screen. At the theater, suffering through uncomfortably itchy and deformed seating was the price to pay to bear witness to the spectacle. Today, in light of the upcoming release of “Avengers: Infinity War,” I realize that this reality around superhero films hardly seems to hold true anymore. The superhero genre –– Marvel in particular –– has, in large part, been devalued by the rate at which the films are released.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I have eagerly consumed, and will continue to consume, almost every comic book movie to produced here in the USA. But if I enjoy them so much, one might ask, what do I have to complain about? To that, I answer that although I’m fine with the current state of the medium, I fear for what its future. Genres in Hollywood have historically been almost fireworkesque in nature: coming in glorious (depending on whom you talk to) but short bursts. Take the zombie movie, for example, which only a few years ago pervaded every box office around the country; the genre, which once saw around ten releases a year, has diminished to little more than one or two — with even its flagship TV show “The Walking Dead” decreasing in popularity. It was immensely popular for a time, but it eventually outstayed its welcome. Superhero films most definitely at risk of following such a trajectory, as we’ve seen them increase in proliferation from a rare occurrence, to an annual one, to now an expectation of two or three movies in any given year.

But if “Avengers: Infinity War” can shatter records for early ticket sales and “Black Panther” can sneak onto the list of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time, how does this in any way suggest that trouble lies on the horizon? The issue lies in the fact that Marvel has done too well for itself. The company monopolized a genre, generated an absurd demand for their films and then eagerly met (and somewhat surpassed) it. From a business standpoint, it’s near exemplary. Yet in the process of realizing so many unique characters and worlds, Marvel has run into a notable roadblock: they have near exhausted the number of original stories that they can tell. This exhaustion has led to a prominent complaint that Marvel movies (and by extension, the superhero genre as a whole): that they are completely and utterly predictable. Sure, patterns and idiosyncrasies always exist existed within the work of a specific film studio or director, certainly, but a more infrequent release schedule makes it far more difficult for the average viewer to spot, much less complain about them. However, the sheer abundance of Marvel movies has rendered the normally invisible underlying themes and motifs of these films both highly pronounced and frustrating to moviegoers like myself.

Don’t believe me? Let’s dust off the old magnifying glass and take a look at “Iron Man” and “Dr. Strange” — two of Marvel’s more successful movies. Which film, pray tell, is the following summary referring to:

An eccentric yet cocky genius dedicates nearly all his time to his work and neglects the important people around him, only for a tragic and unforeseen event to force the hero to discover a new and powerful ability — one which eventually catalyzes a positive development in his character as he selflessly battles the main antagonist to protect the people he has realized matter to him.

Odds are, no one can’t tell the difference, because they’re essentially the same character thrust into an identical plot structure. Sure, the individual components may shift as Dr. Strange trades the world of robotics for that of magic, but the overall concepts remain largely the same. This holds true for a great many Marvel films. It’s a highly entertaining story structure, but it doesn’t sustain the same impact with each passing film; one can only watch a hero put it all together and defeat the villain so many times before the message begins to lose its charm. After all, when the audience knows that the hero is going to come out on top, the struggle upon which the entire narrative is based begins to lose its luster. Heck, this convention has grown so notorious that the few Marvel movies that diverge even slightly from this standard (e.g. “Black Panther”) are lauded purely for their status as a “change of pace.”

The reality that divergence from the formula warrants such praise worries me as a superhero aficionado, because it means that the general public is slowly catching on to the genre’s potentially fatal flaws. For as predictable as they may be, I love watching the characters that I grew up reading about within the tattered pages of old comic books (adeptly “borrowed” from the library) come to life. But if things don’t change, if the industry is content to continue upon its current, repetitive, ever-expanding course, I fear that general audiences will eventually tire of the same old superhero stories in much the same way that it bored of zombie flicks and Westerns. And as much as the lucrative nature of the current market, I doubt Marvel, DC and the like will endeavor to change their course of action. As much as it pains me to say, it’s probably not a matter of whether Captain America and Superman will ever disappear from movie theaters, but of when. 

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