Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Give the Superheroes a Rest?

Alan Stanley Blair recently penned a piece at Airlock Alpha on the boom in movies (and television) based on superhero comics titled "Enough With The Comic Books Already!: Comic Book Adaptations are Ruining Movie Theaters and Network Lineups"--which pretty much says it all about his position on the phenomenon.1

That boom, generally regarded as having begun in 2000, has already been more sustained, prolific, robust and qualitatively impressive than just about any other (like cyber-themed movies, or space-themed movies, or historical epics, or film versions of fantasy novels) I can think of in recent decades, with Bryan Singer's X-Men movies (2000, 2003), Sam Raimi's first two Spiderman movies (2002 and 2004) and Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (2005 and 2008) generally seen as leading the way.2 Even the movies regarded as comparative disappointments, like Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil (2003) or Ang Lee's Hulk (2003), still frequently did big business (each breaking the $100 million mark at the North American box office), and reflected the newly sophisticated approach to the material. In their eagerness to capitalize on the trend the studios have gone far beyond the list of D.C. and Marvel's most venerable characters, and even newer classics like Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (2006) and Watchmen (2009), to pursue projects based on "B-grade" superheroes like Marvel's The Punisher (2004) and Ghost Rider (2006). And of course, there are original movies using similar elements, mostly parodies like The Incredibles (2004), Sky High (2005), My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), Zoom (2006), Super Capers (2009), Kick-Ass (2010), and the new Super (2010), though the blockbuster Hancock (2008) played its material fairly straight.3

After a decade the films are still attracting audiences and making money. The more profitable franchises are still chugging along with new movies in the pipeline, and the franchises that have disappointed are frequently continuing in their own way too, the studios apparently reluctant to give up on any such property. While there was little potential for a Daredevil sequel, Warner Brothers nonetheless produced a more modestly budgeted spin-off, Elektra (2005). In other cases they quickly proceeded to reboots of their misfires, like the 2003 Hulk and 2004 Punisher films-brand new, unconnected Hulk and Punisher films promptly appearing in 2008. The Incredible Hulk was a comparative success, but Punisher: War Zone flopped even worse than the first film, and may get rebooted a second time. Even more surprising, given that Spiderman 3 (2007) was still a huge commercial success, that franchise too is going back to the drawing board--as is the case with the next Superman film after the ambivalent reception of 2006's Superman Returns. Meanwhile, whole new series are being prepped for launch.

As things stand, Captain America and Green Lantern and Thor are already well on their way to the big screen. Other movies, like the long-delayed Wonder Woman film, are being developed. Some of these may never get out of "development hell," but others will no doubt make it to the screen. In all likelihood some of them will make big money, some will at least be fun, and a few may even offer more substantial entertainment than that. However, it seems unlikely they can revolutionize the genre at this point, and I suppose that freshness and thrill have both faded. I've certainly enjoyed the boom--but like Mr. Blair I think the time has come to back off and give the superheroes a rest for a while.

1. There has been far less effort to bring superheroes to the small screen, and much less success in the attempts (no doubt because the spectacle that is a large part of the appeal of the movies cannot be replicated within television's constraints, especially as the vileness that is reality TV threatens to swallow up everything else). Still, there are some noteworthy efforts, in particular Heroes (2006-2010), especially during its highly praised and widely watched first season (since which time interest withered until the show was canceled without a fuss earlier this year), and Smallville (2001-), which never commanded the kind of audience Heroes had or approached the pop cultural impact that show enjoyed at its height, but which is now entering into its tenth season. Still, some interest continues with the series' The Cape and No Ordinary Family premiering this year.
2. It should be remembered that the films of the 2000s could also be seen as a continuation of the wave that Tim Burton's Batman got started, which included such successes as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), The Crow (1992), Men in Black (1997) and Blade (1998), and all their associated sequels--one which never stopped, even if it was on the whole less productive or successful than the rush of the 2000s.
3. Movies based on comics and graphic novels not featuring superheroes have been rather rarer, though a couple of notable commercial successes came out of Frank Miller's work, namely Sin City (2005) and 300 (2007). There was also Alan Moore's From Hell (2001), the Alien vs. Predator franchise (2004 and 2007), and even some more "highbrow" fare like Road to Perdition (2002), American Splendor (2003) and A History of Violence (2005).

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