I recently read that even though The Green Lantern hasn’t even been released yet, executives at Warner Bros. are so confident that the movie will be successful, they’ve already hired someone to write the script for the sequel. Of course I’m stating the obvious when I write that the film industry almost always prioritizes money over substance, but this is a shining example of that theory at work. When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of superhero movies in the theaters, but now it seems as though every comic book character, no matter how obscure, somehow finds his or her way onto the big screen. The problem, of course, is that this is a result of movie studios looking to capitalize on nostalgia and fanboy-ism (that’s a word, OK?), all at the expense of, you know, good film-making. The Green Lantern, Thor, and X-Men: First Class will all be generic films made by competent yet conservative directors, and – with a few exceptions – I do not see this trend ending anytime soon. There have been some great superhero movies over the past few years, but there have been far more awful ones, and I’m afraid the genre has long since peaked.
I don’t want to spend too much time on why most superhero movies suck – I certainly do enough whining on this site as it is – but I think it’s worth noting how formulaic most superhero movies are. Most (but not all) superhero movies follow a fairly simple formula: the hero’s origin is shown to the audience, he or she tests out his or her powers for awhile, and ultimately, the hero will be faced with a powerful villain who, of course, he or she will defeat. There’s usually not much to be said for cinematography or dialogue or, really, any of the other criteria by which we judge non-superhero films. Instead, there’s a focus on special effects and, outside the movie itself, merchandising. Again, this isn’t every superhero movie, but I think this pretty much sums up most of them and is likely to sum up upcoming superhero movies.
It seems as though it’s only when a talented director who isn’t afraid to stray from this formula comes along do we get a great superhero movie. Clearly, Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are amongst the best of the genre, and I can’t even begin to imagine the enormous pressure Nolan must be facing as he begins the process of conceiving the third Batman film. Say what you want about Shyamalan now, but he used to be a terrific director, and Unbreakable is the result of an original story and attention to tone and pacing. Raimi is another talented director that comes to mind and, Spider-Man 3 be damned, Spider-Man 2 is pretty damn good.
But these guys are the exception to the rule, and it’s unrealistic to expect Alfonso Cuaron or Neil Blomkamp or David Fincher to start directing superhero movies. Instead, it’s the Brett Ratners and Tim Storys and whoever the producers feel won’t stray too far from “the formula” we get directing, and the results are underwhelming. Of course, the producers have an interest in their investment, so it makes sense that they’d want directors who would appeal to as broad an audience as possible.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that superhero movies are doomed, as there are some talented directors attached to upcoming projects. Michel Gondry is excellent, as well as the sole reason I’m interested in The Green Hornet. I have no idea how Joss Whedon is going to approach The Avengers, but I’m happy that he’s been given a chance on such a large project. I’ve read that in Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds will break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. That’s a good start.
I do believe that a majority of films, regardless of the genre, begin and end with the director, and this is the primary reason I’m convinced that the superhero genre has peaked. However – and again, this is unlikely due to the conservative approach of many producers – I think another problem is that filmmakers go about making superhero movies the wrong way to begin with. For example, just because The Dark Knight was dark and gritty doesn’t mean that everything else has to be. Dark and gritty worked for Batman, but I don’t know that it works for, say, Superman. What filmmakers should do – and I really hate using this phrase – is think outside the box. Not everything has to be an origin story; not everything needs a serious tone. A superhero movie should play to its protagonist’s strengths.
For example, a Flash movie is inevitable. But how boring and lame would a Flash movie be if it was simply Wally West (or Jay Garrick, or whichever Flash you prefer) acquiring his speed, racing around the world, and ultimately defeating someone like Captain Cold? Sure, the film would probably make some money – mostly on merchandising – but it’d be largely forgettable. Instead, why not take a Speed Racer approach? Every time the Flash hits supersonic speeds (which should be quite often), why not create a dazzling display of lights and colors and really push the limit as to what can be processed by the human eye? Yes, you’d likely be making a cult classic for stoners for years to come, but I’d argue that that’s far more impressive and entertaining than making something like The Fantastic Four or Ghost Rider.
I don’t expect much to change in the way of superhero movies, due mostly to the understandable priorities of producers and movie studios. In a way, I suppose the superhero film is a lot like rap. At first, neither were taken very seriously as genres, but as time went on, both became more acceptable. Soon enough, both were considered mainstream, and each had standout examples that could be considered to have transcended anything that had been done in the genre before (like, say, The Dark Knight and Tupac Shakur). Eventually, though, both became formulaic and ultimately forgettable. When many consider the greatest rapper in the world to presently be Lil’ Wayne, as the great Nas once said, hip hop is dead. I fear the same may be said about the superhero genre of film.