In his essential post-mortem on this blockbuster season, Mark Harris at Grantland notes that “2015 was always going to be a strange year in the Project Spandex timeline… a summer of throat-clearing and tying up loose ends and, despite the presence of three new movies, expectancy.” With many more Marvel and DC projects slated for the coming years, this was the deep breath before the plunge.
I agree fully with Harris that the three major superhero movies of the summer – Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and Fantastic Four — “arrived with a kind of weariness, shadowed by a sense of lost possibility,” and I believe that’s because audiences are ready for different kinds of superhero stories – a readiness created partially by genuine excitement and by resignation to the reality of superhero movie dominance.
That’s not to say that we aren’t going to be getting a lot more of the same, but there are at least some small signs that the environment is changing – that the major superhero studios are tying new things.
The most obvious, and maybe the easiest, change is that we’re getting female and minority superheroes as stars (relatively) soon. Wonder Woman is set for Batman v Superman next year and her own standalone movie in 2017; Captain Marvel has her own film in 2018 and might be seen earlier in one of the intervening Marvel projects; one of which is Black Panther, which hits in 2017.
None of these projects promise anything in the way of a style shift, but it’ll at least be refreshing to see different faces in major roles.
On the tonal front, Deadpool and Suicide Squad both offer a change of pace from the grimdark/Marvel-ous dichotomy. The former should act as a fourth-wall-destroying blast of sarcasm aimed at the genre, and it’s my firm hope that Ryan Reynolds and company aggressively mock the tropes we’ve come to love and loathe about standard superhero blockbusters. The latter, while lacking any self-reflexive critique, looks like joyful anarchy, a twist on convention where the fun version of crazy people (sorry, Bruce) get to run the asylum. With David Ayer at the helm, it may be the first modern superhero movie to mug its audience.
This obviously won’t be the first time that filmmakers have used the genre to push back against the genre. In fact, it seems like a necessary palate cleanser made even more important now that the genre takes up so much screen space. Neither “Watchmen” (the book) nor Watchmen (the movie) did anything to abate the popular flow of superhero stories, and the ultra-violence and mockery of the Kick-Ass movies stand out simply as exceptions that prove the norm.
So, it’s not right to call the styles “new,” but it’s still encouraging that “alternative” superhero movies will be available in the sea of sameness.
Difficult to categorize and even further down the spectrum is LEGO Batman, a conflation of two successful franchises that, by nature of its title, will look like no other superhero movie out there (read: exactly like The LEGO Movie).
Age of Ultron was a big success. Even saying that it’s not as big a success as The Avengers comes with a giant asterisk that symbolizes the difference between $1.5b and $1.4b worldwide gross and the gap between an A+ and an A CinemaScore. There’s no way to seriously consider Age of Ultron’s reception as a sign of fan fatigue, but it’s not without its fault lines.
The first was borne out by Ant-Man, Ultron’s follow-up act and one of the lowest-grossing MCU movies to date. The second test of Ultron’s success/fan fatigue will come with next year’s Captain America: Civil War, which seems more in the vein of Marvel’s huge team-ups than the other Captain America movies. We had three years between the two other massive omnibus movies, but only have the luxury of a winter break this time.
Still, Civil War itself hints at Marvel’s willingness to shake its own foundations. They’ve stumbled through Weak Villain Syndrome for years and are finally having their biggest heroes genuinely face off against one another. They aren’t getting together for shawarma anymore, and this is a tacit admission that they can’t simply keep saving the world from lame bad guys.
Of course they’ll leave everyone alive and generally in the same place where they started (gotta get ’em back for Infinity War!), but it at least attempts a shift in story structure with the potential for a more overt political subtext. It’s silly to assume Marvel would change its formula right now, but there’s a great opportunity here to freshen up and surprise, and we won’t know what chances they take/don’t take until it comes out next summer. At least they’ve set themselves up to take the swing.
On a similar front, X-Men: Apocalypse looks like the end of a period piece era as the plot threatens to merge with the very superhero movie that started the modern obsession. Fox is pushing individual heroes more, now, with a third and final Wolverine in 2017 after Deadpool and Gambit in 2016, although we’ll see how that changes after Fantastic Four’s failure. There are rumors that the studio is sticking with a sequel for 2017, which is absurd. They’re also developing a new X-Men TV series, and while the film franchise future is unclear right now beyond standalones, they may push harder for more ensemble movies since it’s the only team they own that works.
Again, I’m not saying that we aren’t getting mostly more of the same, but we’re getting some different flavors, and that’s reassuring. This isn’t Superhero Movie Era 2.0 so much as it’s Superhero Movie Era 1.2, so the incipient weariness toward superhero projects will either prove real when interest at the metric ton of them wanes or prove imaginary when Marvel, Fox and Warners all maniacally laugh on even bigger beds of money.
However, the superhero era is old enough now that it can and should evolve. It should expand its horizons. Offer us more than what we’re getting. It’s large enough that it should support different kinds of stories, and my gut tells me that while a general audience might not want a wholesale revolution, they at least want greater doses of innovation to avoid a repetition-fueled boredom that seemed evident after the reboots of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four.
Even Further Out
If you’re willing to look at the wider range of comic book adaptations (which can sometimes be conflated with superhero movies), we’re on the cusp of things getting interesting. This year saw The Diary of a Teenage Girl pushing forward with Fables. Many of these titles are perpetually an inch and a million miles away from existence.
They also prove that there are filmmakers working to use comic book momentum to give us more than heroes.
I also recognize that nothing being developed right now is all that radical, and no one should expect studio products to willfully break the mold. The most we’ll get is nudges against the walls of the formula until the formula no longer works (however long that may take).
Captain America: The Winter Soldier received a lot of notice for being just a little different by injecting a few spy tropes into the mix, and it represented a leap in box office for the character, so the kind of shifts that are currently planned (if at all) may follow that lead.
But I still firmly believe that audiences are ready for the new phase of comic book and superhero movies. We’re getting small tastes of change within the mainstream, maybe some bigger bites when we broaden our view to include all comic book adaptations, and while there’s an appetite for the standard for at least the next few years, every studio that makes superhero movies should consider what they can do to evolve to the next level.