161 How 2011 Could Mean the Death of the Superhero Film
In a recent response to the Alan Moore/Jason Aaron non-controversy, Air writer G. Willow Wilson had a lot to say about Moore and the times in which he wrote his comics versus the times in which we live in now. Wilson’s point ostensibly seemed to be that Moore would never be able to get away with the comics he wrote now, because we live in a much more conservative society where views like his would be frowned upon and/or censored. I have my own thoughts on that topic, but that’s not really what I’m focusing on today. Wilson cited the V for Vendetta film as proof that, as a country, we don’t respond well to films in which leftist or counterculture views are portrayed prominently.
“Look at the reaction to the V for Vendetta movie, set against Bush-era issues,” Wilson tweeted. “It was a universal ‘meh’. We have no balls.” Wilson continued, saying “the box office returns were dismal, and the comics community at large pretty much abandoned the film.”
First, I completely disagree with her last point– I seem to remember a whole lot of comics people raving about the movie, and that’s one problem I want to touch on today. That leads to my second point, and what I think is the deeper issue here as it pertains to comics culture and films based on comics properties, and that’s the false equivalency Wilson places between American audiences’ feelings about the movie’s importance, and Americans’ politics as a whole. The problem with V for Vendetta was not that the American public is not ready for revolutionary politics on film, it’s that the film in question wasn’t very good.
I want to try and segue that into the topic of superhero films, because it got me thinking. Movies based on characters in superhero comics are, by and large, terrible. I would say the vast majority of films based on a Marvel or DC property are downright unwatchable. Fantastic Four, Wolverine, Superman Returns, Daredevil, Catwoman, both versions of Hulk, Ghost Rider– I’d venture a guess that for every good superhero movie there are at least two terrible ones that have come out or are coming out. Yet comic fans tend to be apologists for the genre, as if arguing the merits of the latest superhero blockbuster is equated with defending comics’ honor.
Comics don’t need that, and they don’t need bad superhero action flicks giving them a bad name. The superhero movie is an awful trend and, if 2011 pans out the way I think it will, it’s also a dying one.
While the quality of superhero films decreases steadily, 2011 finds us with a new crop: Captain America! Thor! Green Lantern! Hooray! Yet there’s an inherent problem with banking on a fad: pretty soon audiences get tired of whatever it is you’re peddling, and the wave you’re riding crashes. Warner Bros. was able to make Batman Begins because a movie like Spider-Man did so well. Those sequels could be made because the originals also performed well. Movies like Watchmen could be made because of quality films in that genre that came before.
We are now in the post-Watchmen, post-Losers, post-Jonah Hex age. Audience patience with the genre is growing thin, and the buzz of superhero movies is dwindling as the months move on. As fewer objectively good cape movies are being produced by Fox and Warners, the type of audience who would be willing to see said films is shrinking. Marvel and DC, it seems, approach filmmaking the same way they approach comic making: just churn out whatever lazy work you can, as fast as you can do it, and watch people consume it. Rather than aim for best work possible they opt for pandering to a tiny subset of movie fans. It’s a short-term plan at best: catering to a group of rabids in their niche publishing world totally works, but catering to that group in the cinema world is an idea set up to fail. No one (read: normal people) will want to see cape movies anymore, and you’re left with the same size audience going to see your movie as you are people who read your comics. Serious Adults™ who went to see Watchmen learned their lesson and won’t continue to go see Ryan Reynolds be an Abercrombie & Fitch model for two hours. Studios will see the sun setting, and the writing will be on the wall: superhero movies no longer work.
If 2011 is truly the end of the superhero film there are undoubtedly pros and cons. This could be a disaster for DC: the comics company’s future, as evidenced by the appointment of Warner Premiere President Diane Nelson to president of DC Entertainment, has been tied directly to the success or failure of their future cinematic endeavors. Marvel’s safer, but there’s no denying that, for both publishers, losing the steady stream of cash that they’ve been used to seeing is going to be a loss no one’s really prepared for. Hopefully it will lead to better comics being made, at the very least.
A loss of selection is also a problem artistically. By definition more kinds of films being made means more variety, and “more” can be a good thing. But it doesn’t mean much unless what’s being produced is of a certain quality. If it isn’t being done right it shouldn’t be done at all. The folks who would argue for superhero films do so because they think that these films’ sheer existence is proof that comics have earned some measure of mainstream respectability. I’d argue that, if done incorrectly, they accomplish the exact opposite. They portray themselves as over the top and ridiculous, and peg comics as “this one kind of thing,” instead of a medium full of diverse work and tremendous history. All this despite the fact that bad superhero films say more about the state of Hollywood than they do about comics.
This isn’t to say superhero films can’t be good, just that they haven’t been since about 2008. I’d be more than happy to see Green Lantern become not only a financial success but a truly enjoyable, well produced film. Ryan Reynolds is hardly Heath Ledger, though, and Martin Campbell is certainly no Christopher Nolan. However you might feel about the quality of comics in the last year there’s no denying that the state of comics as a whole is better than it was, say, 15 years ago, and the mainstream has already taken notice. So enough superhero movies. Go away, and don’t come back until you’re ready to put in the effort.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch The Cape.