by Isaac Butler
Exhaustion. That's the response I've been hearing most often from friends and colleagues of mine when we talk about superhero films, particularly The Dark Knight Rises. Whether they liked the film or not, most people I know are just worn out by the prospect of "having" to see another 1-3 of these films a year for the foreseeable future. It seems that, for many, it was a nice run while it lasted, from the first X-Men film to the last Nolan Batman but it just feels played out. Too many origin stories, too many seemingly fresh tropes that have now calcified, too many shitty roles for women, thundering exposition, hints at large themes without really exploring them. Too much money spent, too many talented actors tied up for months on end, too much wondering Is this the best we can do?
A.O. Scott's now-needlessly-infamous review of The Avengers captures this feeling well:
It is not as if the number of movies featuring troubled guys wearing costumes and fighting evil has diminished since then. Quite the contrary. But the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.
Scott pinpoints The Dark Knight as "peak superhero," but the summer of 2008 already showed the crow's feet in the aging genre. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk seemed to herald an age in which every superhero film would end with its eponymous stars facing off against larger, more grotesque versions of themselves and we were already a year past Spider-Man 3, the less said about which, the better. Since then, the lack of good ideas in the superhero movie as a genre has become apparent. This summer saw a new origin story for your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Next summer will see a new origin story for Superman.
Today, superhero movies are facing a similar crisis to the one that mainstream comics have had to face again and again, and I think therein lies an answer for reinventing the Superhero film and making it more interesting.
When DC and Marvel faced similar creative crises over the last twenty years, they responded in three different major ways. One of them was to hire big name writers from other mediums to script comic book stories. This had some positive results (Joss Whedon's first Astonishing X-Men plotline) and some negative results (Brad Meltzer). The second was to embrace a kind of pop postmodernism as exemplified by Grant Morrison. The third was to hire a bunch of writers who worked in other genres-- most famously crime and thriller writers Brian Michael Bendis, Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker-- and have them work on superhero titles.
Those writers went on to pen some of the more interesting projects in recent mainstream comics. Bendis made Powers, which is a great idea (it's a police precdural with an office that investigates superhero related crimes lead by a detective who is a depowered superhero) with poor execution. Bendis also developed the much better Alias about a minor Marvel character who becomes a Private Eye. Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker then improved on the Powers idea with Gotham Central, which might as well be called "Homicide: Capes On The Street" and follows a homicide division that is trying to solve cases before Batman gets involved and shows them up. Darwyn Cooke and Ed Brubaker also collaborated on "Selina's Big Score," which plugs Catwoman into a classic hard boiled heist plotline straight out of the 1960s and features Batman in exactly one panel.
Herein lies a possibility for the fixing of the Superhero film. For the studios have always been trying strategy #1 with mixed results. Ang Lee, Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, Joss Whedon, Joe Johnston and Shane Black were all hired for their individual sensibilities but often these amounted to putting grace notes on a formulaic facade. Option #2, the pop-postmodernism approach would likely be an artistic disaster, although if David O. Russell or Soderbergh want to try their hands at an experimental meta-Superhero movie, I'd be all eyes.
But plugging the Superhero into other film genres-- particularly crime ones--and seeing what new territory can be mined seems to me an exciting direction for the films to take. Maybe we could Batman, the "world's greatest detective" actually do some detective work. Or watch Catwoman pull off a heist. Or see Hawkeye or Black Widow do some espionage. Or plug Power Man and Iron Fist into Lethal Weapon's multiracial buddy cop dynamics and see what happens. Or put Daredevil into a legal thriller. The guy is a lawyer for superheroes after all.
There are hints in these directions, of course. Joe Johnston clearly really wanted to make a WWII movie with Captain America, which made for some interesting tensions when he started replacing action sequences with montages. I doubt Edgar Wright's forthcoming Ant Man is going to be a straightforward Superhero origin film.
There's also a question of whether the Superhero Movie (a) is in any kind of trouble (financially it isn't) and (b) is something worth investing energy in trying to reinvent. But if we're going to have a handful of these things open every year and if they're the only kind of movies that can greenlit with substantial budgets and A-list casts these days, I'd like them to be a bit more interesting.