Comic book movies might still be all the rage, but are they destined for extinction?
In 2015 Steven Spielberg made a bold prediction about one of the most popular movie genres of today by way of historical remembrance. “We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.” Westerns, one of the most popular movie genres for roughly 50 years, faded into obscurity in the 1980s. “I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture,” Spielberg added. As with the Western in its day, the mere existence of a superhero movie translates to near-certain success. It presents a safe path for movie studios to walk on. After all, comic book movies are churned out in droves only because theaters keep filling up.
While Spielberg’s comments suggest movie genres fall from public interest inevitably, the Western fell not only because of oversaturation and the end of a long-lasting cycle in the American psyche, but because Westerns became formulaic to the point that they could no longer deliver memorable experiences.
The comic book movie enterprise is in its heyday, but crowded output and the disproportionate ratio of underwhelming films to quality films has put the genre on its cusp. Whether we realize it or not, invincible superheroes teeter dangerously toward a downward spiral into oblivion with each passing year. If the collective doesn’t stop missing the mark, their stay in the limelight could burn out quicker than it was lit.
In 2016, five out of the top 10 grossing films were superhero movies, a record high. In every year since 2010, at least one superhero movie has earned a place in the top 10. There’s no denying the popularity of the genre, but an argument can be made, as Spielberg said, for superhero fatigue. And despite the immense string of success the genre has had at the box office, the last truly great superhero movies arrived back in 2008: Iron Man and The Dark Knight.
Yes, sure, this is a subjective and likely unpopular opinion. Many people would point to recent additions to the genre, such as Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool and Doctor Strange. But superhero movies are given passes when other films must adhere to certain standards to be deemed great. A great superhero movie is a rarity, and that has as much to do with the source material and form as it is does with execution. The genre as a whole is inherently difficult to translate to film, and here’s why.
Most superheroes originate from comic books, a tricky and peculiar medium. Comprised mostly of story panels with few words, meaningful narrative in comic books is a slow burn. Yes, the accompanying pictures help tell the story and are central to the form, but generally comics ask readers to fill in the blanks from panel to panel, from issue to issue, from volume to volume.
At the same time, though, against traditional storytelling practices, comic books often introduce new characters (particularly villains) and subplots before current characters and their plots have had time to fully reveal themselves. Often these tributaries — new villains, new grand adventures — are taken at the expense of narrative fluidity. It’s an odd combination of sparse details and superfluous tangents that makes the form chaotic but endlessly appealing for its fans. This is merely a product of the medium’s core identity.
Furthermore, comic book series often change hands, jumping from writer to writer, from artist to artist. They are also constantly rewritten, with certain arcs existing outside the original narrative and new origin stories spun to introduce a new generation of fans to classic superheroes on a rotating basis. A comic book hero can die by the hands of a villain, only to be reincarnated in a future run. Friends can become foes, and foes can become friends without logical reasoning, other than that the comic book universe is vast and sprawling and ripe for retellings.
Depicting the chaos on-screen is particularly challenging for the very same reasons.
Unlike adaptations from novel to screen, comic book adaptations pull from multiple arcs that aren’t necessarily sequential. Add in various interpretations of heroes and the tricky dilemma of which characters will live inside the condensed adaptation, and the difficulties only multiply. In theory this means there is much more to pull from in comics. For instance, the original Spider-Man comic book series The Amazing Spider-Man ran for over 400 issues before it was adapted successfully to film in 2002. While the first two Spider-Man films, Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, were great, if not excellent, the third, followed by the rebooted The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, fell completely off the map, failing to deliver on their initial promises. Why is that?
Well, Sam Raimi’s first two films were tightly focused character-driven stories that upheld the standards of traditional action dramas. His third effort felt more like a comic book, as it included too many characters and subplots, opting to drive home spectacle and sensationalism in a medium that largely fails to do that in its finite space. And the reboots starring Andrew Garfield failed to say anything meaningful because the territory had already been covered effectively. Comics excel at telling new origin stories, but films largely do not. Comics thrive at continuous action and exceedingly prevalent twists and turns. Films, especially comic book movies, fall apart when action substantially supersedes characterization. We already know the heroes are super, and we already know the villains are awful. The question is, why should we care?
We should care only if characterization is envisioned with an acute eye and if pacing is handled with steady hands. Masterful characterization in comic books is a continuously dwindling and obscuring lens, and pacing is rarely on cruise control. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight elevated the film to a work of art, and Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of the flawed and charismatic Tony Stark, in combination with methodical pacing, made Iron Man exceptionally effective. Spider-Man gradually ramped up and showed us an origin story worth paying attention to.
These atypical examples transcend the genre as a whole. They remain authentic to their source, while conforming to the lens of film. The Dark Knight, Spider-Man and Iron Man turn impenetrable and over-powerful heroes and villains and inject a dose of fragility and humanness rarely seen in the genre. But most of all, they paint a whole picture with a fine brush, rather than attempting to enlarge the scope with broad, hapless strokes.
That is not to say most superhero movies are bad. No, they just frequently try too hard. They attempt to cover too many panels but fail to fill in the details in between. What’s left behind, when the frame skips to the next exhilarating sequence, is the heart that would propel many superhero movies from middling status to truly great movies.
We have become complacent in our analysis of movies and perhaps even of entertainment in general. But the superhero movie, in particular, is falling behind. Even critically acclaimed comic book movies like The Avengers miss the mark. Perhaps it’s as Spielberg predicted: a cycle destined to come to an end. Since Spider-Man, 36 Marvel movies have hit the silver screen, with 10 more due for release by the end of 2019. DC has released 15 since that same mark, with four more scheduled to release by the end of 2019. We’re in the midst of a superhero renaissance, and the cycle could carry on for many more years — if the movies are handled properly.
Look closely at most superhero films of the past decade, and you’ll find that a large percentage of them are incoherent and jumbled but could still be described as fun. Fun is what you get when a comic book movie is visually appealing, the stakes are always high and the action flies at break-neck speed. Fun does not equal great, though, and great is what makes movies in general last long after the credits. Great is what happens when the space between the panels is filled in carefully, when the subject matter is focused and the superheroes balance otherworldly powers with a distinct resemblance of the human condition.