Feature

Have we reached Superhero Saturation?

3rd August 2016 | by | 1 Comment

“There are too many comic book movies these days!”

It’s an increasingly common refrain, particularly around this time of year, when the SDCC hype campaign leads to an absolute glut of Marvel and DC movie-related publicity material. While movies based on comic book properties continue to be among the most popular and highly-regarded of modern blockbusters, there’s a growing sense of dissatisfaction among some moviegoers that they simply dominate the industry to too great an extent, stifling and ultimately harming it.

As people who make a podcast and website based around the subject, we at Cinematic Universe are obviously going to disagree with this notion. But I see it voiced so often that I felt it was about time I got down my own thoughts on it. Because I can sit here all I like and simply say “No, you’re wrong, I don’t think there are” – but it won’t change that sense of either jaded ennui or outright hostility that some people have towards the genre.

I’d rather look at the argument in a careful way, considering all sides, before offering my conclusion that no, there aren’t too many of the things and that they’re actually a pretty good thing to have around, thanks. So with that in mind, I’d like to run through ten truths that I, personally, believe to be the case. You’re welcome to disagree, and positively encouraged to debate it with me. But these ten points, I think, break down my feelings on the whole thing pretty comprehensively…

1. There are not “too many” comic book movies

Actually, let’s just get this one out of the way to start with, shall we? Based purely on numbers, there really aren’t too many comic book movies. There just aren’t. In 2016, we have seen or will see the release of the following movies based on superhero comics: Captain America: Civil WarBatman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeDeadpoolX-Men: ApocalypseSuicide Squad and Doctor Strange; while, as far as I can see, there haven’t been any non-superhero films whose source material comes from comics.

That’s six films. One, on average, every two months. And, based on best estimates of the average number of movies released (by Hollywood/US studios alone) being around the 600 mark, it’s only one per cent of the number of films that will likely be released in 2016. One per cent. Is that really too many? By comparison, plenty of other genres – including horror, comedy and fantasy – have their totals going well into double digits, in some cases even into the 20s. Do people constantly ask if there are too many of those films being released?

Six movies a year is nothing. Six movies a year is possible for you to ignore entirely.

Now, if you were to look at a list of planned upcoming films for the next few years, things would start to look a bit more crowded. Even as a fan of these things, I think some of the mapped-out schedules are a bit excessive. But the point is, these are plans – and going by past form, many of these films won’t be released in the years that they’re currently slated to, if they even ever are at all.

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Graphic by Comics Alliance

Things get slightly different if we look over at television, where there are currently no fewer than six major superhero-related series – each broadcasting over twenty episodes a year – on U.S. network TV alone, with more to come; and by the end of this year there’ll be at least fifty episodes of various comics-adapted shows that you can see on on demand services, too. But that’s television, where there’s simply a lot more space generally – the number of superhero shows/episodes still pales into insignificance compared to the number of soaps, crime dramas or game shows, for example – so to the disinterested, it’s still entirely possible to keep your distance.

(But personally, I think TV is an area where someone who feels like they have to try and keep across of everything in the genre can start to feel a bit fatigued. I know I certainly am, as much as I love a couple of those specific shows.)

2. Nevertheless, many people think there are too many comic book movies

I mean, that much is obvious from the very premise of this article, so much so that it probably shouldn’t have been a distinct point on its own. But I wanted to acknowledge that it’s a legitimate argument that people make, and to that end I opened up the floor to my Twitter followership to let me know if and why they thought this to be the case.

(I haven’t included any of the replies from people who disagreed with the hypothesis – and therefore agreed with me – but many people made similar points to the ones I make elsewhere in this piece, and I thank you all for the replies)

This is a relatively small sample size, but it’s worth noting that for the most part I have a particular kind of Twitter follower, and people I know on there are on average more likely to be interested in this stuff. And even then, some of them feel as if things are starting to go a bit too far. That, I think, is telling.

3. Coverage of comic book and superhero movies is excessive in proportion to that of other movies

Even as someone who loves the genre, I would find it hard to disagree with this notion – and I think, in fact, that it’s this that really gets to the heart of most people’s problem. I remember the days when it was quite exciting for a particular superhero movie to be on the cover of Empire – nowadays, it’s unusual if one isn’t.

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(And that’s not meant as a dig at Empire – they put on the covers what people want to see on the covers. But I can imagine that a lot of people who don’t like superhero films may well have stopped buying the magazine some time ago as a result of this.)

It’s clear that there’s a disproportionate amount of time given over in magazines and online coverage to these films. It’s particularly acute when SDCC is going on – but then, let’s not forget that nerd culture in general is big at the moment (and that’s a separate conversation, really), and SDCC is (a) the biggest single promotional and social event in the nerd cultural calendar and (b) the San Diego Comic Con.

But the very fact that SDCC is the biggest source of movie-related publicity and excitement these days speaks to something wider about comic book movies and fandom. These things just lend themselves very well to hyperbole. They always have done, from the days when they shouted their wares from crowded dime store newsracks, to the height of Stan Lee’s self-aggrandisement, to their appropriation as counter-cultural artefacts, to the speculator boom, and now in the arena of popular movies. Comic book fans bloody love to get needlessly excited about them – and when you have those same comic book fans on both sides of the fence (that is, both making the movies and being responsible for deciding which movies get covered) then they’re naturally going to get a bit more in-your-face.

A counter-argument, of course, would be that these movies get a high proportion of publicity because they’re so popular. And that’s true – but if you look at annual lists of highest-grossing films, then in general, superhero movies don’t have a lockout on the top five or ten. Other types of blockbuster get intense coverage at certain points in their production and release cycles – but superhero movies get it all the way through.

So yes, I would agree that movie coverage in general leans a little too heavily towards this one particular area. Does that make us part of the problem? I’d like to think not – we’re a specialist site and show, aimed at fans, rather than a general movie blog – but I suppose it’s not really for me to say.

The other part of the problem, of course, is the shouting of a certain corner of fandom that treats movie-making as a competition, and pulls this kind of crap. Personally, I feel this attitude and approach – taking sides, treating anyone who disagrees with your expectations of a film you haven’t seen yet as actively hostile – is actually a bigger threat to the perception of the genre than the volume of coverage that the mainstream media gives it. It’s a kind of culture that even drives away people who are actually interested in the films themselves, and completely at odds with the message that most of the movies are trying to put out. It reflects badly of all of us, and wears down the inclination of people like me to even defend this corner of the pop culture universe any more.

4. The success of comic book movies is a good thing for the movie/cinema industry

I can already feel some bristling at this one, so I should clarify that I don’t mean in every way. There’s a particular point I’ll come to later in which I feel that the superhero genre is partly (albeit not entirely) culpable in stifling the industry’s creative growth. But there are undoubtedly certain benefits to a certain type of movie being so popular with cinema-goers.

Now, I’m not somebody who believes that a film has to be big and spectacular in order for it to be worth making a trip to the cinema for. Sure, there are certain films where I’ll happily wait for the home release – but I enjoy the movie-going experience, and not just for blockbusters. I generally much prefer to watch a comedy with an audience, for example. So for me, the cinema isn’t just about scale.

But for some people, it is. For some people, big explosive superhero blockbusters are exactly the kind of film where only going to the cinema will do. So it’s a simple fact that these movies are the kind of movies that prop up cinemas and cinema chains. And while I don’t agree with the practice of adding a “blockbuster surcharge” to cinema tickets (nor indeed the thankfully dying trend for 3D movies and the premium that comes with them), it’s hard to deny that a cinema is more likely to be able to get away with doing it for Captain America than for The Nice Guys.

High ticket prices aren’t exactly good for punters, but they’re one of the only things – in this on-demand, movies-on-phones age – stopping many theatres and chains from going under. And hey, you’ve got to sell popcorn somehow.

Superhero films make lots of money. Any type of film that makes lots of money, ultimately, helps the industry in some way.

5. “Comic book” is not valid as a genre description

Of course, when people say “comic book movie” they can mean one of two things (or a combination of both): a movie based on a comic, or a movie about superheroes. While we have tended to cover some non-superhero movies on this very podcast, though, I would argue strongly in favour of “based on a comic” not being in any way a valid genre classification any more – not unless you’re going to start counting “based on a book”.

Comics are a form, not a genre. Certain movies like Scott Pilgrim play with the tropes of the form – and so in that sense, could certainly be called a “comic book movie” – but Ghost World is not Road to Perdition is not Persepolis. As such, I wouldn’t even include non-cape, based-on-a-comic movies in the debate about whether or not there are too many.

“Superhero”, by contrast, is a genre. It has certain tropes that are universally agreed upon and adhered to. But equally, I think it’s a wide enough genre, with enough distinct styles and subgenres within it, that it doesn’t automatically imply homogeneity in and of itself any more. Guardians of the Galaxy is a space-set superhero action-comedy. The Dark Knight is a superhero street-level crime drama. The Winter Soldier is a superhero espionage thriller. Thor is a superhero mythical fantasy. Deadpool is a superhero metafictional adult comedy. And so on.

And for that reason, while “superhero” is certainly useful as a grouping, and to distinguish a field of interest, it’s extremely reductive to simply apply it as a narrow genre classification. When the genre is as diverse in style and tone as it has been in recent years, then there’s even less justification for saying that it dominates the industry to excess.

6. Being based on a superhero comic is not in itself a good enough reason to make a film

Marvel Studios make movies solely about superhero characters because that’s what their business is. So too do DC Entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with other studios trying to get a slice of the action, either (especially when some, like Sony and Fox, were the ones who laid the groundwork for the Big Two even getting to do their own successful films in the first place). Indeed, if “superhero” is ever to truly be taken seriously as a genre then it needs to be one that can sustain successful new launches from anyone, not just the two companies that have a stranglehold on it.

(It isn’t, though, and that’s why the areas of comics that are driving the industry forwards and opening it up to new audiences aren’t the ones dominated by Marvel and DC. But that’s a separate conversation…)

However, it’s naive and facile for the movie industry to look at what Marvel – in particular – have done and assume that these movies are good and successful purely because they’re based on comics or set in the superhero field. They’re good and successful because they’re well-made films with interesting characters and a high entertainment factor. That’s the lesson that should be taken from them. Simply going “Well, superhero movies set in shared universes are popular, so we should do a Green Lantern film that promises several sequels and it’ll be a license to print money” isn’t enough; you have to start from a position of “I have a really good idea for a Green Lantern movie that will actually be good.”

The point at which the genre will reach a dangerous saturation level will be the day several different companies are just turning out huge masses of utter dross based on it. But I don’t think we’re at that stage yet, partly because…

7. The majority of modern superhero movies are of a high standard

Okay, the odd Fantastic 4 is still slipping through, and Batman v Superman had its many, many problems. But in general, Marvel Studios stands as a marker of consistent blockbuster quality like few we’ve ever seen before. There aren’t many major film series that could lay claim to a level of consistency that means that the likes of Thor: The Dark World and Age of Ultron are seen as low points.

And sure, it’s mainly Marvel that are doing the heavy lifting, but you’ve also got the X-Men series (not always consistent, but has arguably only delivered one real dud) and the associated, and highly-regarded, Deadpool. I was all set to add that Suicide Squad looked interesting, too – but reviews rather put paid to that just as we were about to publish.

In general, the modern superhero blockbuster is well-constructed and well-acted, with strong action and effects. They easily hold their own against the majority of other big-budget action movies, and in most cases comfortably better them. You know (for the most part) that you’re going to have a good time when you go to see one of these things.

8. The prevalence of the superhero genre is apposite for this point in time

Let’s face it, the world is pretty crappy at the moment. It might not be as crappy as it was in the late 1930s, when the superhero genre was born, but you can still draw a pretty strong parallel between the times that superheroes tend to be most popular, and what’s going on in the world around them.

Unless you’re Zack Snyder, superhero films are by their very nature optimistic. They’re about people who want to make the world a better place and do right because it’s the right thing to do. They’re about outsiders who might be feared and distrusted by an old establishment, but who ultimately prove that togetherness and honesty are what will keep us thriving.

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So when the real world is sorely lacking in heroes or much else to feel optimistic about, it’s only natural that we should retreat further into fantasy worlds that don’t seem quite so bad. To places where someone like Steve Rogers or Peter Parker or Kara Danvers actually exists.

Maybe when people stop voting for racist charlatans or beating up those who look a bit different out of misguided fear, then maybe we won’t need superheroes quite so much any more. But for now, I’m glad we have them. I’m glad we have something we can look at and say “This, this is how we can be better.”

9. There aren’t enough truly original ideas in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking

It’s undeniably the case that at the top end of commercial filmmaking, there’s a significant skew towards sequels, reboots, remakes or adaptations from another medium. And by their very nature, superhero films are a part of that.

When it comes to, say, putting Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man on screen for the first time, I don’t necessarily have a huge problem with that. But – and while I’m excited about Spider-Man: Homecoming – I can fully understand your average punter rolling their eyes at yet another interpretation of Peter Parker appearing on the big screen, the third such reboot in fourteen years. Or the annoyance at the apparent similarity in plot (even as they wildly differed in approach in just about every conceivable way) of Civil War and Batman v Superman.

I mentioned above that I don’t think “superhero movie” should imply homogeneity, and I certainly believe that can be the case. But to help shift this perception that one genre is excessively dominating the industry, I think it falls to the creators and studios making these films to give each one an individual and specific reason to exist, beyond simply “it’s a superhero film and superhero films make cash”.

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It’s hard to deny that without six or seven superhero films a year, the industry would feel slightly less reliant on existing material. But only, it must be said, slightly. All but one of the top-grossing films worldwide in 2015 were sequels or adaptations (the exception being Inside Out) – and only one of them was a superhero film. It’s a problem that this genre contributes to, but it’s certainly far from solely responsible for it.

10. The popularity of superhero movies will not last forever

As someone with a vested interest in their popularity lasting as long as possible, even I can accept that this is very definitely the case. It doesn’t bode well for our podcast remaining popular for several years and earning us loads of money (apart from those cheques we got from Disney for being critical of Batman v Superman), of course, but it is what it is.

These things always go in cycles, and while the superhero boom may feel like it’s lasted for a while longer than most (perhaps because we’re arguably well into the second or third separate boom), it will still come to an end eventually. There will come a point where the view that there are too many of these films is prevailing, or the creative well will dry up, or something else will come along that’s more popular.

So until that happens, where’s the harm – as someone who’s spent several decades loving these characters and concepts and wanting to see them brought to a wider audience – in just enjoying what we have? And those who think there are too many of these films – well, you can just look forward to that day, instead.

Or, you know, you could just try not watching them. It’s really not as hard as you’d think.

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