Marvel Superheroes Can Save Hollywood – Forbes
What if comic book superhero films aren’t hurting mainstream cinema but rather helping it by being a new high-end delivery method for a variety of cinematic genre film making, including the genres that we claim Hollywood no longer makes?
Warner Bros.’ (a division of Time Warner Time Warner) The Dark Knight got plenty of credit back in 2008 for transcending its comic book origins and becoming a Sydney Lumet/Michael Mann thriller that just happened to involve Batman and the Joker. 20th Century Fox’s Fox’s X-Men: First Class was hailed in 2011 for being more of a 1960′s spy thriller than a generic superhero sequel while the Marvel/Paramount release Captain America earned kudos for being a period-piece World War II adventure. As last weekend’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves that, if the superhero film is to survive, the key to its survival is not just a relative quality but a diversification of genre. Marvel Studios (owned by Walt Disney Walt Disney) is in a unique position by virtue of their copious product to eventually dominate big-scale blockbuster film making by offering a franchise for every genre. Their plan is to release more films each year, and their strategy is to offer films in wholly different, but explicitly specific, genres.
Almost every article discussing Captain America: The Winter Soldier has revolved (by Kevin Feige’s lawful decree, it would seem) mentioned the idea that it’s a spy thriller in the vein of Three Days of the Condor, just as this piece just did (also: Steve Rogers is the the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life). The first two Iron Man pictures were basically a character studies with a few action scenes sprinkled in. Expect to hear plenty of chatter this summer about how James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is more Star Wars than Avengers. Expect next summer to hear non-stop talk from Disney and the like about how Edgar Wright’s Ant Man isn’t really a superhero film but rather a caper picture.
Marvel and Disney are making the notion of how unconventional their comic book adaptations happen to be in comparison to other comic book movies a key part of their sale. They are not trying to placate those who claim to hate superhero films, but showing the key as to how they plan to thrive over the long term. It’s no secret Marvel desperately wants to be in a position to release a new film every quarter of every calendar year. Four versions of the same superhero adventure would be the very definition of overload. Four films from Marvel Studios that happen to involve their iconic characters but nonetheless live in wholly different genres is both doable and in fact serving the needs of nearly every potential mainstream moviegoer.
You want a 1970′s political thriller and/or a Tom Clancy-ish techno thriller? Marvel’s got Captain America. You want adventure in the Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons vein? Thor: The Dark World just came out on DVD. You want sci-fi action with aliens, spaceships, and interplanetary travel? Well, we’ll see if Guardians of the Galaxy fits the bill. Ant Man will allegedly fill your hunger for a big-budget caper film while the all-but-inevitable Dr. Strange will theoretically fill your need for a more Earthbound fantasy adventure. We have yet to see horror, mystery, romantic comedy, or bawdy farce, but give them time.
Under this scenario, Marvel Studios films aren’t just existing alongside more conventional genre films but rather replacing them. Since studios have less appetite for funding or distributing the moderately-budgeted star vehicle genre films that used to be their bread-and-butter, Marvel (and other studios should they chose) can fill in the void with superhero variations of such. Declare the death of cinema if you must, but considering how much better Captain America: The Winter Soldier was in every way than Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, I’m not sure how long audiences will miss the would-be genuine article.
We’ll still be getting varied genre film making with most, if not all, of the trappings associated with such, in potentially superior packages. Thor: The Dark World and Thor are arguably better fantasy adventures than the majority of would-be Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings cash-ins (think Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) to drop over the last decade. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is vastly superior to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Iron Man 3 is more successful in capturing the 1980′s action kitsch than would-be throwbacks like Sabotage or Escape Plan. The process that began 25 years ago with Batman, where comic book superheroes replaced the conventional action hero and eventually the movie star, is (for better and worse) nearing completion. Comic book adaptations can somewhat replace A-level genre film making by appropriating every conceivable genre.
We’ve seen this notion of comic book films being straight genre films in the past. The Dark Knight was a crime drama, Iron Man was a star-vehicle character study (and arguably the most real-world comic book film yet until its rock-em, sock-em robots finale). X-Men is basically a persecution drama with a few action beats while The Wolverine is a mostly small-scale character drama with a few big action beats. Man Of Steel arguably works better as a sci-fi “first contact” story than as a Superman origin story (you could argue it turns into a Kaju film in the third act, but I digress). Conversely, there was an initial attempt by Sony Sony to reboot Spider-Man into a lower-budget high school-set romantic comedy with webs before the decision was made to make The Amazing Spider-Man into another somewhat generic (and $230 million) superhero origin story.
We’ll see if The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and/or X-Men: Days of Future Past can transcend their would-be genre or whether they have to overcome a somewhat generic superhero template à la Green Lantern. That’s not to say that pure superhero cinema doesn’t have a place in our multiplexes, as the first Superman, the first Spider-Man, and Batman Begins are classically comic book in nature. Genre-specific comic book adaptations are not automatically superior to straight superhero adventures by default, as Cowboys & Aliens can attest. For this notion to succeed, Marvel (and anyone else who wants to join in) will have to make a real effort to craft films based in genres that aren’t typically action-centric, such as the aforementioned comedies, horror films (which are of course in no short supply) or romantic dramas, along with crafting films that are unafraid to end on a note other than uber-explosive action, a problem that marred Captain America 2 and The Wolverine.
But we may be about to enter an era where comic book superhero films are the (accidental?) saviors of multi-faceted genre film making. It will be not all-that different from how Steven Spielberg and George Lucas revitalized crowd-pleasers by offering A-level variations of would-be B movies in the form of Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Marvel’s ultimate goal is diversification because it will allow for more product without the feeling of overexposure, but there is no reason for Fox and Warner Bros. not to get into the act as well. As long as we get most of the trapping associated with mainstream studio programmers, including A-list actors like Robert Redford and Natalie Portman, strong production values, the mandated set pieces, and topically relevant subtexts, does it really matter that our capers, thrillers, and fantasies come wrapped in tights?
We may still yearn for more straight mid-budgeted dramas, and there needs to be room for films that aren’t comic book-based in multiplexes, but that’s not problem Superman can solve. If Marvel Studios, DC Comics, and the like really want to make sure comic book adaptations are more than just a temporary fad, they really will have to offer something for everyone, especially those someones who claim not to loathe superhero films.