Friday, June 16, 2017

The Superhero Film Gets a Makeover

As regular readers of this blog (all two of you, unless I'm miscounting by two) know, I have been watching the superhero movie bubble for years expecting it to pop. Of course it hasn't, so far--this, seventeen summers after Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) (which in turn came a decade after 1989's Batman became the biggest hit of the year, and its franchise the most successful of the 1989-1995 period). And the conventional wisdom seems to be that this longest-running of action movie fashions can go on indefinitely.

I'm less sure of what to think than before. The studios have slates packed with superhero films through 2020, and by now probably beyond it as well, and at this moment I wouldn't care to bet on their shelving those plans because of an untoward change in the market--still less because of three approaches which are proving commercially viable.

R-Rated Superhero Movies
Of course, there have been plenty of R-rated superhero movies before--like the Blade movies, and Wanted and Watchmen. The difference was that they tended to not be made about first-string characters, or given first-rate budgets, with the expectation justified by their small prospect of first-rate grosses.

So did it also go with Deadpool, who was not a first-string character (Deadpool reminds us of this himself, rather crudely, in the early part of the film), and who didn't get the really big budget (Deadpool gabbing endlessly about this too). Rather than original or fresh or subversive (it had nothing on Watchmen here, or even the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four) it struck me as a mediocre second-stringer, notable only in how heavily it relied on tired independent film-type shtick. Still, the film exploded at the box office ($363 million in North America,nearly $800 million worldwide--a feat the more impressive for it not having played in the ever-more important Chinese market), and has already had a sort of follow-up in a genuine first-stringer--Wolverine--getting an R-rated film, Logan, earlier this year. (The budget was, again, limited next to the full-blown X-Men movies at under $100 million, but the character and the budget were a bigger investment than Deadpool represented, and with over $600 million banked it seems likely to encourage even bolder moves of this kind later.)

What's going on here?

One possibility is the change in the makeup of the market. It seems that R-rated films (and not just raunchy comedies), while far from where they were in the '80s and even '90s in terms of market share, have done better recently than at any time this century, and superhero films have reflected the turn. (In 2014, American Sniper topped the box office and Gone Girl also did well, while 2015 saw The Revenant and Fifty Shades of Grey become top 20 hits at the American box office, and Mad Max: Fury Road claim the #21 spot.) I might add that reading the Box Office Guru's biweekly reports, I'm struck by how much the audience for recent films has been dominated by the over-25 crowd--younger people perhaps going to the movies less often. (Living life online, while having less access to cars and less money in general, I suspect they don't go to the theater so much as they used to do.) This might make an R-rating less prohibitive than it used to be for an action film producer, perhaps especially in this case. By this point anyone who is twenty-five probably has little memory of a time when the action genre was not dominated by superheroes. They grew up on superheroes, are used to superheroes, and so R-rated films about people with unlikely powers dressed in colorful spandex seem less silly to them, and so not such a tough sell as they would have been once upon a time.

Woman-Centered Superhero Movies
Just as we have had plenty of R-rated superhero movies in the past, we have had plenty of superhero films with female protagonists. The difference was that, as I recently wrote here, while there were movies with female superhero protagonists (Elektra, for example), and first-string superhero movies prominently including female superheroes in their casts (Black Widow in the Avengers), the flops of the early 2000s left Hollywood discouraged about presenting really first-string superhero movies centered on female protagonists. The grosses of YA dystopia films like The Hunger Games, Lucy and Mad Max have made the studios readier to go down this road, however--and the success of Wonder Woman is reinforcing this. And I suspect that at the very least the trend will endure for a while, if not prove here to stay.

Where the decision to make big-budget films centered on female superheroes is a case of the superhero movie following trends set by others, in this case the superheroes have led the way. The Marvel studio gambled big and won big with a larger Marvel Comics Universe, which regularized Avengers-style grosses to such a degree that even an Iron Man or Captain America sequel could deliver them. Inspired by this course Warner Brothers gambled (but has not yet won big) with a comparable Justice League franchise. Since then Disney (Marvel's current owner) has given Star Wars the same treatment (and so far, won big again), while Universal, not to be left behind, has decided to do the same with a film franchise based on its classic movie monsters. (The first effort, the recent reboot of The Mummy, is a commercial disappointment, but as the WB demonstrated in plowing ahead with its Justice League despite the reservations about Man of Steel and Superman vs. Batman, the project is too big to be shut down by a single setback.)

A credulous postmodernist might gush at the possibilities for intertextuality. But the reality is that this is of principally commercial rather than artistic significance--as is the case with the other two trends discussed here. Indeed, by upping the commercial pressure (studios now want not a series delivering a solid hit every two or three years on the strength of the built-in audience, but a hit machine delivering record breaking-blockbusters once or twice a year) the greater synchronization, the higher financial stakes would seem likely to tie the artists' hands to a degree those who still lament the decline of New Hollywood can scarcely fathom as yet. Still, superficial as most of this is (we are not talking about a reinvention of superhero films here), the success of Deadpool says something about how little it might take to keep the boom going longer than the decades it has already managed.

Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Movie Actually Happening
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2015)
Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2005)
Reconsidering Watchmen
The Enduring Superhero Boom
Have Superheroes Taken Over the Box Office?
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Star Wars: Another Marvel Movie Machine
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
The American Box Office, First Half of 2015
The Decline of the R-Rated Movie
The Decline of the R-Rated Action Movie
Man of Steel Part 2, Wonder Woman Part 0?
A Note on Independent Film
My Posts on Superheroes
Give the Superheroes a Rest?

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