Will Cinematic Universes be the end of superhero movies?
In just six years, Marvel has transformed the blockbuster landscape, using previously second-tier superheroes to build a billion-dollar empire, and going by the unlikely success of Guardians of the Galaxy, it seems that everything they touch now turns to gold. They’ve succeeded in their ambitious plan to carry over a comic book-style continuity to movies, and now that they’ve shown the way to hook in viewers for the long haul, every studio with the movie rights to a superhero is jumping aboard the shared universe bandwagon.
This year, Warner Brothers/DC, 20th Century Fox, and Sony/Columbia have all taken a cue from Marvel and announced long-term plans for cinematic universes to link together their superhero properties. DC is of course building towards a Justice League movie, while Sony has announced an interlocking series of movies based around Spider-Man’s supporting cast. Fox wants to spin off more X-movies, and while they have yet to confirm any sort of X-Men/Fantastic Four crossover, it feels all but inevitable.
As a result, the number of shared-universe superhero movies due out in the next four years alone is simply staggering.
2015 brings us two Marvel films (including Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot.
2016 brings us another two Marvel films, two movies from Warners/DC (including Batman V. Superman), an X-Men movie from Fox, and Sinister Six from Sony/Columbia.
2017 brings three more Marvel movies, two more from Fox, and two more from Warners/DC.
And finally, 2018 promises two Marvel movies, plus at least one movie each from the other three top players, including Amazing Spider-Man 3.
That’s twenty-one superhero films in just four years. And that’s not even accounting for upcoming TV spinoffs like ABC’s Agent Carter, Fox’s Gotham, the CW’s Flash, or Marvel’s plans for multiple Netflix shows for characters like Daredevil and Luke Cage. So it’s no surprise that much handwringing has commenced on blogs and social media, wondering if we’re about to reach peak superhero. For over a decade, these movies have been seen as a license to print money, but could 2016 be the year where the genre finally implodes, becoming a victim of its own success?
It seems unfathomable that the superhero movie bubble could burst, or that there could come a day when people won’t line up for a Spider-Man film. But fifty or sixty years ago, it was unfathomable that the western, which completely dominated movies and TV at the time, would ultimately become a niche genre with maybe one or two movies being produced every year. Or for a more recent example, just look at the disaster movie cycle of the 1970s: Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake were among the highest grossing movies of the decade. Then came a rush of lackluster imitators attempting to cash in on the craze; Most of them flopped, and just like that, the genre was over (despite Roland Emmerich’s ongoing attempts to bring it back).
Recently, Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada addressed these concerns himself in an interview, saying, “We’re not the western… As long as people want action-adventure blockbuster movies, comic book movies will be here.” But there’s a major element to this current crop of superhero movies that westerns and disaster movies never had to contend with, which is the same thing supposedly driving their current popularity: the shared universe concept itself.
I used to read a lot of comic books as a kid, but by the time the ‘90s came around, I was done with them. There were a few reasons for this (cover prices creeping up to the $2 range, the whole trend towards angst and exxxtreeme violence), but the most frustrating aspect of collecting comics in the late ‘80s (which I assume is still the case today) is how once or twice a year, publishers would trot out yet another company-wide threat to the entire planet/universe/multi-verse/fabric of reality that would span every title and force you to buy random issues of crap like Quasar or Animal Man or Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld [!] to understand the whole story.
These issues would rarely stand on their own, and ultimately had no reason to exist other than making readers spend hard-earned cash to assuage their fears of missing out on crucial parts of the larger story. It got pretty tiresome, and it’s somewhat worrying that this mentality is now being carried over to movies.
Right now, things aren’t so bad. Marvel’s movie continuity is presently limited to three or four members of the Avengers, plus the Guardians of the Galaxy. But we’ve seen a few instances where Marvel’s films have leaned on the larger framework instead of being quality stories in their own right. Look at their biggest misstep so far: Iron Man 2, which suffered greatly from having to introduce SHIELD and Nick Fury and the Black Widow. Look at the first Captain America, which had to forgo an actual ending because of a need to show Steve Rogers getting frozen in the ice just in time for The Avengers.
And as the Marvel movies continue on for another five or ten years, and as other studios enter the Cinematic Universe game, it’s only going to get worse. We saw it happen this year with Amazing Spider-Man 2 having to cram in way too many characters and plot points in an effort to set up the Sinister Six movie. It’s not hard to see a shared universe severely hampering these movies as the years go by. Eventually, directors and screenwriters won’t be telling stories—they’ll be filling out studio-mandated checklists: Introduce this character, set up this plot point, give us a cliffhanger ending to set up the next movie. The universe will become the whole point, and the individual stories themselves will become increasingly beside that point.
It could also become a major storytelling crutch; After all, it wasn’t that long ago that DC was giving us lackluster adaptations like Catwoman and Jonah Hex. What happens if one of their shared universe films gets well into production and the studio realizes they’ve got another Green Lantern on their hands? Why, they’ll just jam in a cameo or two from Henry Cavill or Ben Affleck or Gal Gadot, and suddenly, a substandard film gets elevated to essential viewing to understanding the big picture. (Perhaps this is the reason why there are so many extraneous characters due to show up in Batman V. Superman; there may already be a lack of confidence in the film working on its own terms.)
And with directors and writers of dubious talent (Zack Snyder, David Goyer, Kurtzman and Orci) at the helm, it’s only inevitable that we’re going to get a lot of uninspired films that only exist to drive a larger story, just like readers have been enduring in comic book crossover events for decades. When 2017 rolls around and audiences find themselves being forced to see seven different movies (all within a four-month window) just to keep track of everything going on in multiple universes, we may see a real backlash.
Already, the Spider-Man Cinematic Universe is on shaky ground. Despite making $700 million, Amazing Spider-Man 2 was seen as a disappointment, and there are already whispers of a Spider-Man reboot. Yes, another one. And if one or two more movies with $250 million budgets “underperform”, we could easily see Sony scale way back on their shared universe plans. It wouldn’t be much of a shock if they went back to just putting out an obligatory solo Spider-Man movie every few years to hang onto the rights.
And Warner Brothers? They could just as easily go back to releasing solo Batman movies and solo Superman movies, and maybe throw in the occasional Batman/Superman team up every few years. (Which, truth be told, doesn’t sound all that bad.)
In the rush to put together shared universes, Marvel’s competitors may be taking away the wrong lesson from their success. Sure, the initial round of Marvel films generated a lot of excitement and buzz because of the newness of a shared continuity. But Guardians of the Galaxy just did huge business without any strong connections to other Marvel films. Sure, there were scattered references to the larger universe, but no pre-established characters appeared in that film. So if the very concept of a Cinematic Universe is what’s driving Marvel’s success, why did Guardians do so well?
It would seem that by this point, people now trust the Marvel brand more than anything. I’m no big Marvel booster; I find most of their output to be rather disposable, but they’ve achieved a remarkable amount of consistency with their films, with only a couple of outright failures. It’s not the universe driving their success, but rather the perceived quality of the films. And instead of a “shared universe”, perhaps Warner Bros. should focus on making the DC name equally synonymous with quality entertainment. I know, I know—much easier said than done.
So will the drive towards larger comic book movie universes kill the genre? Superhero movies, particularly those from Marvel, have probably built up enough goodwill to where they can weather a few flops and still coast on past successes for years to come. The Cinematic Universe, on the other hand, may have a very short lifespan. We may be about to witness something similar to what proved to be the downfall of disaster movies: After the initial huge successes, here come all the lackluster imitators ready to make audiences hate the whole concept.
If that happens, we might have to go back to the days where individual superhero films had to succeed or fail on their own merits. The horror!