The excitement surrounding the imminent release of Man of Steel shows that the wave of comic-book movies is still cresting, but can audience interest survive beyond this current saturation point?
Within the online community of comic-book and movie fan sites, excitement is building about Man of Steel, Warner Bros’ latest bid to “reboot” Superman as a cinematic icon for a new generation. Each fresh clip or TV advertisement is greeted with pages of excited comment from the so-called fanboys. At the time of writing, the film has an Audience Rating of 97% on movie-review-aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, corresponding to an impressive 81,641 people on this one site who have expressed an interest in seeing Man of Steel. This measure of excitement really would be impressive, were it not so commonplace.
There is, however, equally unrestrained anticipation surrounding just about every comic-book movie due to be released, and even a few that have not yet been officially announced: A clip of “test footage” for Ant-Man, shot by Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright, has had more than 100 thousand views on Youtube. It is fair to say that the comic-book-movie devotees, who currently form the hard-core audience for the big-budget films released during the summer months, are a receptive bunch. Indeed, their anticipation seems so unguarded as to override any possibility of approaching these films critically. This is an audience whose unshakeable enthusiasm is a testament to the ongoing triumph of hope over experience. So what if 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine was an idiotic shambles, a slapdash, joyless bid to appeal to the lowest-common denominator—This summer’s follow-up, The Wolverine, is bound to be great, even if its trailer suggests a thumping brainlessness on a par with its predecessor. Even this uninspiring prospect currently has an Audience Rating of 71 on Rotten Tomatoes! Similarly seemingly impressive figures are available for a whole slew of comic-book movies of questionable pedigree, including the upcoming sequel to 2010’s flaccid Thor.
Cinema has always flourished on the back of simple, recognisable genres such as the western, gangster film or horror, the story elements of which can be reworked industrially and endlessly, even sometimes to wonderful effect to produce masterpieces. For much of the 20th century, the western was a grab bag of components that could be forgivably reduced to cowboys, horses, Indians, cattle, covered wagons and John Wayne. Now comic-book movies are the dominant genre in today’s multiplexes, displaying a similarly limited menu of ingredients, including super powers, capes, secret identities, impossible love interests and supervillains. Each of the big studios has its own line-up of superheroes. Warners has D.C.’s big two of Batman and Superman, and is eager to produce a Justice League film, in which these two famous names and a number of lower-echelon heroes team up à la Marvel’s Avengers. Fox holds the rights to Marvel’s X-Men characters and The Fantastic Four. Sony has a lock on Marvel’s most beloved character, Spider-Man, while Disney is now the owner of Marvel itself and therefore has access to all the other Marvel characters (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America) not already under contract elsewhere.
The ascent of comic-book characters from a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy films to the industry staple has been slow and bumpy. The granddaddy of the current wave is 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Director Richard Donner’s thoughtful, elegant and amusing film did the heavy lifting of establishing the plausibility of a costumed superhero on the big screen, but, surprisingly, it did not instantly inspire a wave of similar comic-book adaptations. With its costly and elaborate production, involving complicated physical effects, large sets and location shooting around the world, it blazed a trail that others were unwilling to follow. Instead, the comic-book films of today take their cue more directly from the unexpected success of a minor Marvel character, Blade, in a 1998 film written by David Goyer, the writer of Man of Steel and cowriter of Christopher Nolan’s phenomenally successful Dark Knight films. Blade was a B-movie blend of vampire tropes and urban action, made with inexpensive stars and some rather ropey CGI. Its ratio of cost (a relatively modest $45 million) to revenue ($131 million) was far more appealing to the studios than all the craft and style of Donner’s earlier film, and it is this bottom-line success that has led to today’s comic-book blockbusters. Always seeking to hedge against failure, studios perceive in comic-book heroes a ready-made audience, material with built-in recognition and a wealth of existing stories and characters on which to draw. The audience in question is not exclusively children, with whom we associate comic books. In fact, the age profile of comic-book readers has been increasingly steadily, almost in lock-step with the maturing of the comic-reading children of the 1980s and 1990s, who have, at least in this respect, proved unwilling to put away childish things. An analysis of U.S. Facebook users who self-identify as comic-book readers found that most fall into the 18-30 bracket, with this cohort outnumbering below-adult- readers by 4.5:1 (771,340:168,280). For the studios, the beauty of having this older-skewing fanbase is that the material marketed to them is also perfectly suitable for children, allowing them to groom the next generation of consumers. This child-friendly imperative results in films rated, at worst, PG13. This detail is a regular gripe among fanboys who lament that cinema strips their favourite graphic novels of their most lurid material. Nevertheless, the audience still shows up for the next predictably dialled down of replaying of these adolescent narratives.
Some comforting nostalgia is obviously at the core of the success of these movies, but the repetition that occurs within the comic-book genre is now verging on the maniacal. Man of Steel comes just seven years after Superman Returns tried unsuccessfully to jumpstart the cinematic life of the last son of Krypton. Last year, The Amazing Spider-Man rebooted Marvel’s premiere superhero with the memory of Tobey Maguire’s incarnation of the Wallcrawler scarcely dimmed from his last outing in 2007. We have had three different Hulks in the space of a decade. At the fringes of this reigning genre, Star Trek Into Darkness offers the reheated ingredients of two earlier Star Trek movies—The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country. Rather than the booting it deserves, Transformers is being currently being rebooted by Michael Bay. Ignoring the obvious explanation for why the filmmakers chose to replay stories told so recently, why do we have an appetite to consume these same tales again and again?
This relentless recycling means that the thrill and effervescence of superhero tales are starting to dull. Whatever sense of wonder we first felt in reading a comic book—and later felt renewed seeing the illustrated panels come to life onscreen—is degrading amidst diminishing marginal returns. It remains to be seen whether Man of Steel infuses the genre with something fresh. The trailers so far might offer reassurance that Zach Snyder has restrained some of his annoying slow-motion flourishes, but they also offer more than enough signs of a story with which we are already very familiar. Is there really any great novelty in showing us a Superman coming to terms with his alien identity and his role on Earth? Remarking on Disney/Marvel’s latest billion-dollar-grossing film, Iron Man 3, filmmaker and writer Mark Cousins put his finger on what is missing from the current crop of comic-book blockbusters—ideas. “Cinema is so brilliant at so many things. It’s a multiverse. It can have action, explosions, comedy – and ideas. You watch so many Hollywood films with things exploding or morphing into everything else, and with all that ‘everything’ there is nothing.” The sheer repetition of characters, storylines and weightless spectacle is wearisome. Soon, the studios will have exhausted the enthusiasm of this most avid of audiences for a line of narrative that makes no forward movement. One way or another, comic-book movies will soon have to grow up.