The Superhero Movie Has Peaked

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.

Similar Posts


  1. Every single genre of film has more bad movies than good movies. So I don’t think it’s fair to single out superhero films just cause a majority of them are bad.

    1. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m simply saying that the genre has peaked and unless it somehow evolves, EVERYTHING is going to be underwhelming. There will not be a superhero movie as good as The Dark Knight again. The genre has peaked.

  2. While I do agree with you that this isn’t bloody likely, it seems to me that the best superhero films are made by those who have a special affinity for the genre, and the source material. To that end, it makes sense to me for the studios to start turning to comic book CREATORS, or at least fanboy directors (Guillermo Del Toro comes to mind, and Whedon will be a great example or both if Avengers is any good) to get rid of the formulaic approach you’ve succinctly captured.

    I’m also getting sick of the whole formula – origin story, discover powers, beat up bad guy who has your love interest in peril. To me, this was part of what made the Dark Knight great – we know the origin, we get Batman without his training wheels, and the love interest actually DIES! Even Spiderman 2 managed to circumvent (apologies to GOB Bluth) the formula by adding the Peter/Harry issues to the mix.

    Character-driven movies like superhero flicks have to rely on the relationships between characters to make the movie real, and good. When you get hackneyed, poorly acted characters with dead relationships like Fantastic Four or Ghost Rider, your movies are going to be crap. Nolan realized this with Batman Begins – it pretty much follows the formula, but you really believe the tension and gravitas in how Neeson and Bale, and Caine and Bale, and Freeman and Bale relate.

    I have to say, I’m worried about GL though. I don’t think Reynolds can put aside his comedic personality long enough to pull it off. He’d have made a better Barry Allen than Hal Jordan.

    1. Yes, exactly. The Dark Knight wasn’t about Batman, it was about a city and how it was affected by and responded to crime. Establishing relationships was essential to telling that story, and Nolan knew that.

  3. @Bert
    That’s exactly why they need to make Supermax the way it was originally screenwritten. Green Arrow in costume for the first couple of minutes. The rest is him trying to break out a supervillian prison. They would have had a license to print money…

    I think Daredevil came the closest to skipping the “origin story”.

  4. I vote for Joel Mchale for Flash.
    Have him go on his “cosmic treadmill” that transports him to different planets, different dimensions, even.

    If you watch some Justice League episodes, every time they get transported to a different time period or dimension, it (half the time) the Flash’s fault.
    Just make sure it’s Barry Allen and not Wally West.

    Batman once even said that “Barry is the kind of man that I would’ve hoped to become if my parents hadn’t been murdered.”

  5. Well let’s wait for the third Batman before we say a superhero movie can’t surpass The Dark Knight. As great a movie as The Dark Knight is, it too has flaws. I don’t expect, but would not at all be surprised if he and can another Batman movie which will surpass the Dark Knight.

    You are correct about the origin story. However, I have some reserved hope for Capt. America’s movie. Superhero Origin movie = pretty unoriginal. Origin story in the midst of WWII. Well, at least you have caught my attention. The days where superhero’s were punching Hitler in the jaw always interested me. I hope it will be a bit more original. I just wish the mainstream audience knew a bit more about comics so the origin story would not have to be explained every time. As for the Spiderman reboot, I have no idea what their excuse is. If you don’t know how Peter Parker got his powers, chances are you won’t be going to see the movie in the first place.

    I have an idea for the Flash movie. I liked how the Flash was introduced into Smallville. He was originally a small time criminal in the show. I have no experience with Flash comics, so I have no idea whether that is true to any source material, but I feel like a story of a young flash, not so much gaining his powers, but focusing more on becoming a hero could work.

  6. The original Batman with Keaton and Nicholson didn’t have an origin story (though we had a small flashback), and when it came out it was the biggest movie ever.

    Superman 2 (despite its flaws) was pretty big when it came out as well.

    Punisher: War Zone may have flopped, but I thought it was great. One of the best bad/good movies ever made (with Troll 2 in the lead and Riki-oh in a close 2nd). P:WZ was not an origin film either. Again, only a short flashback.

    Hell, even the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gave us only a brief flashback for how the turtles came to be. Not sure what the feelings on that one are now, but I was 6 when it came out and EVERY boy my age was a ninja turtle that Halloween.

  7. @Uncoolaidman – the second, and most popular Flash (Barry Allen) was a police scientist who got his powers in a lab accident. The two successive Flashes are family members of his. The original Flash (Jay Garrick) was a college student who got his powers in…A lab accident!

    I think the fandom would have a tough time swallowing any of them as a criminal. Especially Barry Allen.

  8. very well written article, and it makes some great points. I’m thrilled for all of the other Baman Begins movies of the super hero genre, but i worry that my favorite heroes will be wasted in the many shitty movies that will inevitably be made.

  9. Superhero movies are a travesty against comic books (as are hacks like Frank Miller). Comic books are supposed to be pulp fiction about unique individuals overcoming society’s inability to face its own problems. Instead, douchebags like Nolan and Alan Moore have turned it into some dumbass version of a James Joyce novel in tights.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.