What is the future of Comic Book Movies?
The next few summers promise a glut of comic book based films. Could this mark the beginning of a glorious new age in cinema or the beginning of the end of our beloved favorite genre? What needs to change in order to see that CBMs live long and prosper?
In the past I have made comparisons between the modern day CBM and the western genre of old. The comparison is based on the fact that in their heyday the western was the one breed of film that was guaranteed to put butts in the seats at theaters, just as modern CBMs do, but one day the movie going public simply said enough was enough. What was it that killed the western as the king of the box office? Could this same fate be waiting in the near future for comic book movies?
There were several reasons westerns died, the major factor was simply oversaturation. For every great film released there were ten hack jobs. Second there was the fact that the films became formulaic, each film was basically a rehashing of the one before it. This can be credited to the good old Hollywood idiom of unoriginality. If one story makes money you can safely bet that ten more will be made just like it. This gives the chance for the market to be flooded with mediocre films simply because they follow the same general guidelines as other better films, yet are delivered in a mass produced and roughshod fashion. Those films that may look on the subject matter with fresh eyes are simply cast aside in favor of the tried and true plots and themes that made money for the studios the year before. The result: creative stagnation. The third, and most difficult to define, factor is the change in American culture and how it can affect the audience.
The western had a long run as America’s cinematic indulgence of choice. It reigned from the earliest silent films all the way to the early seventies when it simply sputtered out of the theaters, returning only occasionally in the form of homage films and truly unique reimaginings of the genre. This era spanned sixty years. Can the CBM last so long?
The key to this level of longevity will depend on Hollywood heeding the factors listed above. One built in defense comics have in regards to becoming formulaic is the wide variety of hero archetypes. The white knights such as Superman, the dark avengers like Batman, the comic jesters such as Spider-Man, the social crusaders like the X-Men, the science fiction adventurers like Green Lantern, the supernatural protectors like Doctor Strange, and the antiheroes like Wolverine and the Punisher. Because CBMs can pull from this pool of subgenres it makes it more hopeful that they may last the duration, but as Hollywood has already put out one, if not several, of each of these films we can already see that at their deepest core they all have a common end. The good guy always wins. This was a problem shared with the western and the sameness of the triumphant hero riding off into the sunset became an American icon. The problem, however, with icons is that with that iconic status comes a status quo. When the audience gets tired of the same outcome they will walk away.
The cultural factor is key as well. America goes through phases. Sometimes we truly need a hero. Sometimes the hero simply comes to represent authority and every thirty years or so America seems to rebel against authority. The idea of the upstanding citizen standing up for truth justice and the American way fails to enthrall an audience that has come to see such aspects of self as hokey. I think when times are good we love our heroes. When times are bad we turn on them. Whether this paradigm shift is here yet I will leave to you to decide. I simply hold up the shift in culture that we saw here in the late sixties and early seventies and its effect on the western and cinema in general as a benchmark. The culture became economically pressed, the loss of trust in its leaders, crime rates soared, and in general the people became more jaded. In response to this the films became grittier, more realistic, and more pessimistic. There was no more room for heroes. In some cases in films such as the Godfather the villain was the main character.
I think in the end the cultural changes could be the hardest thing for any genre to survive.
How can CBMs avoid this fate of irrelevance, formulaic stagnation, and oversaturation? Mix things up; allow more diverse characters to come to life for one. This too can be tricky as we have seen certain films which have tried this have either failed or underperformed at the box office. Watchmen and Kick-Ass were under performers and Scott Pilgrim was a downright bomb by Hollywood standards even though all of them were solid films. This may the result of poor marketing or simply show that the public isn’t ready to see CBMs in a form that breaks the formula they are comfortable with. This circular logic and fickle nature on the part of the audience may simply be an unavoidable aspect of our nature that may doom the CBM. Hollywood will only make films that they can make a profit from and if “different” doesn’t sell; “different” won’t be made.
One thing that may prove interesting is a look through the eyes of an established villain. A Doctor Doom film, or Magneto movie. Another is the mixing if genres like SciFi and CBM; Green Lantern is a prime example of this opportunity. The novelty of team films could prolong things a while, but if the element of real danger is shown by actually killing off a hero or two, that may further extend the success of certain films
Above all the CBM must be adaptive. As the times change so too must the CBM. This can be accomplished in a few ways. Bring in characters that fit the zeitgeist, or attempt to adjust the existing character for the times. The latter option is the least favorable and most dangerous as some characters have become iconic in and of themselves simply cannot be altered too much without severe backlash from not only the core fanboy community, but the American public as a whole. Characters like Superman fall into this category. Characters like Spider-Man can be made edgier by simply making a few films based around storylines that made the character himself edgier, say three films with him linked to the symbiote each taking him progressively more toward the darkside. Other characters like Batman can remain the same while simply surrounding them with darker storylines and rogues.
One thing that may be supremely beneficial to the longevity of CBMs is to do away with the notion of trilogies. I and others here have always been of the mind that CBMs should be treated more like Bond films than Star Wars. This means each film can have its own director and feel depending on the story arch to be tackled. Sure, you may have liked the Raimi Spider-Man films, but imagine a film directed by David Fincher with Venom as the antagonist or Batman against Black Mask. Michael Mann helming a Punisher flick, JJ finally getting his shot at Superman, or Spielberg’s take on The Avengers, or Peter Jackson directing a JLA film. Imagine the story dictating the director; rather than one director being able to turn one character into his own personal fiefdom for a decade. I think the infusion of creativity could be beneficial to keeping the CBM a viable genre for several more decades. Each film dictated tonally by the story it attempts to tell rather than the whim of a single creative force. One essential change, I think, is that the properties all be handled by a single studio as Marvel is attempting to do or DC’s exclusive agreement with WB. Also, a moratorium needs to be implemented on the needless slaughter of villains in CBMs. An entire rogues gallery can be culled within the span of three or four films, so to allow each film to climax with the death of a supervillain, though satisfying, is simply a poor choice for serial storytelling.
Can the CBM survive the Hollywood system or the fickle nature of the general public? Can it survive itself and its own limitations? One day we will wake and find that the era of the CBM has passed, but take heart in that if there is one thing we have proven to be a universal fact: everyone needs a hero. Even if one day they fade away, take heart in the fact that they will return again when the need arises to be inspired, to be awed, to know that the good guys can win, to know that we need heroes, and we rediscover the need to believe that a man can fly.
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