The Superhero Movie Overkill – Abhishek, XLRI Jamshedpur

By all accounts, Batman vs Superman : Dawn of Justice was a two and a half hour long tedious, overblown, convoluted mess. Critics universally derided the film and the fans’ reaction was mixed at best. It was directed by Zach Snyder who, having desecrated the Superman mythos once before, did an even worse job this time. Despite all this, it made 872 million dollars. This is because there is no way a movie called Batman vs Superman won’t make a ton of money – and therein lies the problem.

Stage 1 – The Rise of Marvel

The new superhero era started when the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi Spider-Man became a smash hit. It wasn’t Spider-Man though, but The Dark Knight which changed everything – it provided a topical allegory of the War on Terror and successfully broached themes of order vs anarchy and the immense cost of incorruptibility. It also worked perfectly well as a good action/thriller movie. The biggest reason of all was Heath Ledger, who won an Oscar for playing a mentally handicapped anarchist up against a martial artist-billionaire with a saviour complex. It wasn’t a just a great superhero movie – it was a great movie. And then the floodgates opened.

While DC was busy was busy rebooting Superman in Batman’s somber-dark-gritty image, Marvel painstakingly launched the Avengers one by one over the course of five adventurous movies with a streak of comedy running through them. Three years later they tore the box office to shreds with the first Avengers movie, and DC have been playing catch up ever since. Nerdy movies with self referencing in-jokes were suddenly cool. Superhero movies became guaranteed cash cows. Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams (and a bunch of nobodies) were given complete creative control and hundreds of millions of dollars to reinterpret decades of source material. Hollywood has made 70 superhero movies since that first Spider-Man, and we’re just getting started.

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Stage 2 – Flooding the market

Once it was proven that reboots work, all major studios announced a ridiculously long list of titles under production. Marvel expanded to a ten year,-22 movie-innumerable TV shows master plan. All other studios are pretty much doing the same thing, expecting guaranteed blockbusters.

The sequel for Fantastic Four (2015) was announced before the first reboot in the series was released, but it ended up sucking so hard all talk died with it. The sequel is still coming – Fox will lose the rights to Marvel if they stop now. This is very similar to the Spider-Man situation. Sony bought the rights to make Spider-Man movies from Marvel, but had to keep making them non-stop to keep the rights. They thankfully stopped at two Andrew Garfield movies instead of the scheduled four, but as a result Spidey keeps getting rebooted every five years and Peter Parker keeps getting younger with each iteration.

Disney swiftly bought the Star Wars rights from George Lucas and will make a new Star Wars film every year, with separate franchises for Han Solo, Boba Fett and at this rate maybe even Jar Jar Binks and Jabba the Hutt. Harry Potter is easily the most profitable franchise of all time (after James Bond, but there are like 50 Bond movies). Therefore we are getting three movies on a book in the Hogwarts library. The full seven movie reboot is expected within the next few years.

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Stage 3 – Too big to fail

The franchises become a victim of their own success. They won’t change the formula that has worked so effectively. The budget bloats with each successive sequel, so it isn’t viable to take risks anymore. No Avenger will die in the Age of Ultron because all of the major actors have already been retained for the next two movies (Infinity War). The sequels stick to what has worked best so far, so each movie is a diluted and refined version of the previous one. The last movie to break out of this cycle was Guardians of the Galaxy, whose sequels are unfortunately likely to go back to being safe, tame and unmemorable.

With so much at stake, the studio starts interfering to protect its investment. The prime example was Spider Man 3, where Venom was a late addition by Sony, leading to three villains and loss of all momentum for the plot. The Hobbit was supposed to be one movie, and then grew to two and finally to three because more movies equals more money. This caused the budget to increase manifold, stretched the source material too thin and involved endless CGI to make it more kid friendly. The Hobbit series made nearly 3 billion dollars, but at the cost of ensuring it never reached the level of excellence of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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This is where movies differ from other products – a tight grip on quality and sticking closely to what went before only guarantees mediocrity. For superhero movies, however, even mediocrity is worth 800 million dollars. Hollywood is so good at making exactly what we want to such an extent that the audience isn’t thrilled anymore. All superhero movies are doomed to be formulaic, safe, and bland – until the next Dark Knight comes along.

 

About the Author:

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Abhishek Tahlan is a second year student at XLRI Jamshedpur. He is also part of the InsideIIM student team for 2016-17. He loves listening to music, reading and writing.

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