Despite the recent standout successes of films like Spotlight, La La Land and Moonlight, the past several years have been dark times for cinema. Last summer, droves of Americans willingly spent a collective $176 million to see a movie titled Ant–Man, not because of any particular affection for either ants or the second-tier superhero who obtains their powers, but because we were compelled to do so as a part of Walt Disney Studios’ master plan. See, a standalone film about a man who can shrink himself to the size of an ant probably wouldn’t do so well, regardless of how unassuming and charming the actor playing him was (and Paul Rudd is about as unassuming and charming as they come).
But a film about a man who can shrink himself to the size of an ant that happens to be part of a larger so-called “cinematic universe”? Instant blockbuster. Indeed, Ant-Man is like Thor 2 and Iron Man 3: all average films in their own right, propelled to the top of the box office because they are parts of a greater project, structured around The Avengers and their various cinematic escapades. All it took was one endearing performance by Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man and one entertaining Avengers film, and audiences were hooked on superheroes. Disney realized this, and now, if you so choose, you can find online a release schedule for a dozen superhero films over the next five years. And that’s just from one studio.
The other studios are all trying in vain to catch up. During the aughts, Warner Bros. put out perhaps the greatest superhero trilogy ever with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, Fox kicked off the century of the superhero with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and Sony redefined the genre with Sam Raimi’s often entertaining, occasionally terrible Spiderman trilogy. All three of those were decent series, even if there were some slip-ups (looking at you, Spiderman 3). The Dark Knight trilogy went as far as to transcend the superhero genre and earn acceptance as one of the best movies of the 00s. It’s important to note that all three of those trilogies had definite beginnings, middles, and ends, and each concluded with varying but definite degrees of closure.
Now, in the light of Disney’s success with Marvel products, the rival studios have trotted out their old properties in an attempt to cash in on the superhero fervor, with fairly bad results. Sony rebooted Spider-man with an apathetic Andrew Garfield, and it took them two films and a bevy of lukewarm reviews to realize audiences were uninterested. Fox rebooted their Fantastic Four series, which resulted in a two-pronged failure. First, it reminded us all that the terrible Jessica Alba-helmed Fantastic Four from 2005 actually happened (and even got a sequel!) and second, it was a terrible movie in its own right. And Warner Brothers, who at one point looked to be the one bright spot in an increasingly uniform universe of superhero films, has decided to leverage Christopher Nolan’s success with Batman on a new Justice League-themed series of films that kicked off with last year’s incredibly disappointing Batman v. Superman.
So far, Disney has been the only one to make it work. Audiences will continue to converge on the average films they put out — The Thors, Iron Mans (Iron Men?) 2-3, Ant-Man — as long as they’re eventually treated to something special like Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America: Winter Soldier. The other studios have yet to be able to replicate the “special” superhero films, and so what we are left with is a glut of overhyped, underperforming costumed capers that serve only to burn holes in our wallets. Moreover, looking forward to the coming films of the next five years, it is hard to believe that even Disney can continue to keep its ratio of average to special films at a level that appeases audiences. Sooner or later they’re going to screw up, and in their pursuit of easy dollars they will forget the level of quality they once produced. Cracks will begin to form in the façade.
If you don’t believe me, take a closer look: the cracks have already begun to form. In their frenzy to expand and develop existing, proven material through sequels and reboots rather than to pursue original ideas, Disney is going down a very dangerous path.
In 2014, Disney announced that they would produce Toy Story 4, and a little part of me died inside. There is no series more perfect than Toy Story. There is no way to improve upon Toy Story. Each individual film is heartfelt and sincere, and together, the three movies chronicle an emotional journey far more moving than a story about sentient plastic has any right being. But the arc ended with Toy Story 3. It ended in the best possible way it could, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t cry at least twice in the last half hour of that movie.
There is no need for a fourth film. The fact that it is in production is a clear signal that sequel frenzy has infected Disney beyond superheroes. It has infected one of the most beloved franchises in the history of film, and if it can get that far, then nothing is safe. The studios took well-intentioned, self-aware superhero films and turned them into mindless cash-printing workhorses, and Toy Story 4 shows that they won’t hesitate to do it again, this time with films that have no business being resurrected. You may not see it now, but just wait. We’re one gritty Zack Snyder-directed reboot of Casablanca away from the end of cinema as we know it.
Jacob Rubashkin is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. The Jacobin appears alternate Tuesdays this semester. Jacob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.