December 4, 2015

MEDIA STOMP | A Brief Look at Superhero Films Part 2: A Flood of Tights

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By MARK KASVIN

In my last post, I went over the relatively brief history of superhero films starting with the 1974 release of Superman. Now, keep in mind that superhero films had been relatively successful before 2008. Films like X-Men established superheroes as a reasonably popular and profitable cinematic subject, but they were not as ubiquitous as they are now.

The year 2008 was saw the lighting of a powder-keg. The release dates for Iron Man and The Dark Knight were close and both were adaptations of properties from competing rights-holders. The Dark Knight was the second installment of a series already begun by the reasonably popular Batman Begins and went on to make more than one billion dollars of box office revenue due in no small part to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker. It was the kind somber and dark take seldom seen before in the genre, and was praised for the gravitas with which it approached its themes.

Iron Man, on the other hand, was a miraculous shot in the dark.  Whereas The Dark Knight featured Batman, who was and is an American pop culture icon, Iron Man’s titular hero was barely blip on the cultural radar beyond comic book circles. It was a film with a troubled production history stretching all the way back to the mid-90s with a staggering number of directors, producers and actors signing on, then dropping shortly thereafter. When the film starring Robert Downey, Jr. and directed by Jon Favreau was slated for release, there was a heavy air of pessimism surrounding the project considering its pre-production woes and its release close to The Dark Knight Rises.

Yet, something clicked. Audiences were dazzled by Downey, Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark, and films about other Marvel heroes (the Hulk, Thor and Captain America) were slated. Superhero films suddenly became massively popular. Then there were the rumblings of a possible shared universe implied by shared elements and characters between the films.

2012’s The Avengers, released after Disney bought out Marvel Entertainment and its film production arm, had an explosive impact on the market. Not only were superheroes able to move billions of dollars, but they were able to do so within the context of a shared universe similar to that in the comics. There was now a sense that if you watched one movie, you had to watch the rest.

And so we have our present situation. With Disney electing to release roughly two Marvel films per year, one would think that the consuming public would have its fill of cape films.

Graphic Courtesy of comicsalliance.com

Graphic Courtesy of comicsalliance.com

Look at that. Roughly five superhero films per year. Warner Bros, producers of adaptations of DC Comics superheroes such as Batman, is also making a push for its own shared universe, starting with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and next year’s release of Batman v. Superman. In addition, Fox is still releasing films set in their X-Men franchise and Sony is slated to reboot Spider-Man (again) with Marvel’s blessing.

It’s a lot. That’s a lot of superhero per year. It does not help that Marvel’s films tend to fall within a certain formula. I am inclined to say that this might even be too much, but I think it is a bit too early to say that we are about see the bursting of a bubble similar to that of the Western last century. Though there is a definite sense of fatigue around shared-universe superhero movies, I think it is partially because Marvel has had a relative monopoly of the genre and little inclination up until now to change up the formula. It definitely does not help that these films tend to have dozens upon dozens of individual characters vying for the spotlight. Next year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier features roughly a dozen or so superheroes alone.

However, it is important to remember that these films still make hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, in revenue. People are still willing to go see these films and are still invested in this shared universe.

There are two films coming out next year that I think will be a good litmus test for the sustainability of the genre: Marvel’s Dr. Strange and DC’s Batman v. Superman. The former is an adaptation following a character from the Marvel Universe who is less known for superheroics and more for dealings with the weird and the otherworldly. Especially with high-pedigree actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman and Tilda Swinton, it is a chance for Marvel to prove that it can change up its increasingly stale formula.

Batman v. Superman marks the start of a second shared cinematic universe, one that would compete with Marvel’s own. This means that audiences will be following another massive pool of superpowered characters. Being presented with two choices means a splitting of consumer base, and it remains to be seen if moviegoers, as a whole, would be willing to shell out money for films from both franchises, one franchise or neither.

Mark Kasvin is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. With his blog, Media Stomp, he hopes to introduce all the lovely readers out there to the wonders of comics, games, films, and other things he also likes. He is current Editor-in-Chief of Rainy Day, a student-run semesterly literary magazine, and co-hosts a CornellRadio.com talk show called Weekly Runnings, airing every other Thursday. Media Stomp appears every other Friday. He is also alive and well and a pretty cool dude, I hear, and can be reached at mk853@cornell.edu. Check him out! Ha ha!

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