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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Was 2011 The Year That Killed The Superheroes?

Look!  Up in the sky!  It's a dying bird!  It's a plane out of gas!  No it's the falling box office results of the latest superhero movies!  Oh that's it?  Not interested.

Over the last three decades we have seen dozens of superheroes make their way to the silver screen - from Christopher Reeve as Superman to Michael Keaton as Batman to Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man - men in tights, capes and suits entertained millions and pulled in billions of dollars.  Yet this trend has not been invincible and after a year of lackluster instead of blockbuster box office receipts, we are left asking has the superhero movie met its match?   Regardless of how bloated the budget or the marquee value of the star, this summer's onslaught of superheroes resulted in less buzz than previous years and in the end lower box office results.

Sure, the studios create the facade that everything is just fine; commiting to sequels, as if that means anything - just as soon as they commit the projects are put on hiatus when the DVD sales don't meet expectations.  Hollywood treats the scenario like a followup to Weekend at Bernies in which the studios are played by Andrew McCarthy, the superhero fans are played by Jonathon Silverman and Bernie's corpse is played by the superheroes.  They act as if Bernie is alive while the whole time he is just being propped up on their shoulders.  "He's just fine," they say... but, it is obvious to everyone else that they are living in denial.  All is not okay.

Could this be the year that killed the superhero film?

Don't get me wrong there is still a pulse, but it is has faded.  Is this a temporary thing brought on by numerous variable, the perfect storm for mediocre box office or has a new trend started?  I fear the golden age of superhero films may have passed us.   The demise brought about by the following factors:

OVERSATURATION:  The most obvious is reason for the decline is simply the demand is less than the supply.  This year alone we were served five wide release superhero films (Thor, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, X-Men and Captain America) over the first eight months of the year, four were released within 3 months of each other.  That is a lot of money to shell out for a country with 10% unemployment and financial uncertainty.  If there was more time between openings there may have been a bump to ticket sales.  But how much time is needed to get these numbers where they should be.  When the event film of the summer - the one that has its own doughnut at Dunkin (Captain America), pulls in a measly $175 million ($77 million less than the original Michael Keaton "Batman" which was released 22 years ago - yep you're old) perhaps a little more time between opening would help.  We barely have time to buy the merchandise or get the superhero's emblem tattoo before the next film is ready for release.   The sheer volume of films is just incredible. Take a look at this stat:  In the last twelve years approximately 43 superhero films have made it to the big screen.  In the previous 22 years a total of 17 were released (and one of those was "Batman and Robin," if that counts).  We have had more superhero films in the last three years than the total between 1978 and the year 2000. These are shocking numbers unless compared to vampire films/TV shows which are released every Friday due to Hollywood's Overexpose It To Death Clause of 2005.  Compared to vampire films the sequel heavy Jason Vorhees of Friday the 13th, looks like a long lost relative.

2ND TIER SUPERHEROES: I am sure many people will disagree, but Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America are second rate super heroes.  The big three include Superman, Batman and on a good day Spider-Man.  This is not a opinion on the quality of their stories, the depth of the character or even their popularity -  in general, besides the big three the average joe does not know much about the characters, their history or enemies.  Mention Lex Luthor and the majority of people know who you are talking about and the connotations associated with the name - there is great name recognition, no learning curve - the same cannot be said for most superheroes.  Comic book fans may be running to the theater opening day, but my guess is their girlfriends were not.  The 2nd Tier hero stories are unfamiliar and generally less attractive to the general public.  This may explain why this year's superheroes came straight off the pages of GQ; the stories were less attractive, but the stars of the films were not.  Ryan Reynold, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth are not the biggest draws in Hollywood, but with a guaranteed male audience something was needed to draw in the female demographic.  Sorry, it didn't work.  Even the guys were provided eye candy in an attempt to boost ticket sales - you can tell yourselves whatever you want, but Natalie Portman, Blake Lively, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lawrence were not only chosen for their acting chops... if so, why no Mindy Cohn sidekick?   Some of the most popular superhero portrayals of all-time were from actors that did not exactly fit the mold, a virtual unknown Christopher Reeves as the 1980's Superman and Michael Keaton known back then as Mr. Mom as Tim Burton's Batman - not exactly door busting names, the heros' name recognition initially brought the crowds.

Iron Man broke the mold when it blew the doors off the box office, pulling in $318 million an unheard of amount for a relatively unknown superhero.  This, of course, got the studios salivating - if they could make over $300 million on Iron Man imagine what dough they could rake in with the full DC and Marvel lineups. This explains the $5 Billion purchase of Marvel Comics by Disney in 2009. 

Will the next incarnation of these lead to bigger box office results?  My gut feeling is no.  The hype is not there.  When it was revealed that Batman would face off against The Joker in The Dark Knight, people could not wait for the next installment which was a painful three years away.  I am not sensing anything close to that level of anticipation for this year's batch of super hero films - if they a one time thing I am sure many people would not give it a second thought. 

INCONSISTENT QUALITY:  These last couple of years have been tough on superhero fans - even before this last batch of underperforming films we had to deal with a monstrosity that shook the superhero universe to its very core, testing not only our loyalty but our tolerance to pain.  I am talking about Spider-Man: The Musical.  From the day it was announced until the day it closed (what?  it is still running???  Good heavens, someone get me a scotch) the film has been a punchline to many jokes that rumbled and shook the superhero faithful with great might.  Before the Spiderman Broadway show, NBC tried to release a "Wonder Woman" television show.  A show so bad that it never made it onto the televisions and instead lives on, being passed around on the internet in small doses to prevent vomiting.

These are just two high profile examples of some of the low quality products being pitched to viewers. Over the last decade we have suffer through numerous superhero incarnations, not every film could come close to The Dark Knight or Iron Man's audience approval ratings.  For every Spider-Man 2 we had to deal with everything from the lackluster Fantastic Four to the atrocious, they-that-shall-not-be-named Elektra and Catwoman.  When the trailer for The Watchmen was released the buzz lasted all the way to the $55 million opening (for a film with no big named stars, based on a 25-year-old comic - that's a big opening) , followed by a $17 million second week, a near 70% drop.  Audiences cannot be jerked around this way and expected to come back like a happy puppy.  We remember, once you have been burned you must regain our trust.

All it takes is seeing Spider-man: Turn Off the Lights - the Musical once to scar a potential audience member for life. This may explain why I heard whimpering as the Andrew Garfield Spiderman trailer was shown before Captain America.

NO LONGER EVENT FILMS:  This goes hand in hand with oversaturation, but it is different enough to address it separately.

As a young Snork, there are some memories made that will never be forgotten - one of them was the opening night, midnight screen of "Batman" - this night is burned into the brains because the incredible amount of hype surrounding the film... the movie event of the summer.  Unlike today, there was no Fandango.  If you wanted tickets you stood in line and bought them.  If you took your time and waited to buy your tickets until the day of the show you may as well have planned on seeing "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids."  Try explaining that one to your friends that bought the shirts, the drink cups & the Halloween costumes when you come to the Halloween party dressed as Rick Moranis instead of The Joker. Batman became part of who we are and to some degree still maintains there within us.  It was an event.  An event that will not be forgotten.

What was the event film of this summer?  The barely cracking the top ten in ticket sales, "Thor"?  Sorry, in terms of event films, that was barely a blip on the radar. Instead of putting out a three or four films a year, try putting out one or two very good ones.  If the summer was bookended by superhero releases it would have made sense, instead they were peppered throughout - taking the wind out of their sales before there was wind.

As these films crawled their way through theaters, news on upcoming entries of the big three was revealed - Superman, Batman and Spider-Man.  Christopher Nolan's final Batman film (what may be the saving grace of superherodom) is highly anticipated.  Then there's the new Zack Snyder Superman.  We barely figured out the convoluted plot of  "Superman Returns."  There are serious questions surround this one.  To top that, Sony is re-imagining Spider-Man - Tobey is out and Andrew Garfield is in.  I guess the sub par Spider-Man 3, put the kibosh on continuing the previous storyline.  It would have been a tough task any way, after they used just about every single story thread in S-M3.  But really, a reboot after five years?  Couldn't we just have a year with three superhero films?  Nah.

So, is the superhero film dead?  Are they fading away like Superman's powers after blowing his nose in a green kryptonite tissue?  What do you think is the problem?  What is the solution?  Sound off in the comments section.   As always, follow me on Twitter for the latest updates, reviews and insight - @filmsnork.


SkookMuse said...

By the time our children are in their 30's, and begin watching movies for the artistic value, how many re-makes of Batman, Superman, and Spiderman will there be.

Let's face it, there aren't many new movie plots to intrigue the psyche of mo...vie-goers anymore. With the comic book(epic novel)-to- silver screen transition, the stories are relatively all the same.

Attempts to produce 'pre-quals' and introducing unique villians often fail.

When 'The Spirit' came out, I applauded the filmography. That eventually began a series of yawns, as "Sin City", and "300" delivered the same effects, although not to suggest "The Spirit" was the first to show such.

But, for the fans of epic novels on the silver screen, they'll always want an 'edge of their seat'/thought provoking story - one that would make them want to see it again, minimally, 3 times.

Green Hornet had the opportunity to be an artistic and critically-acclaimed picture: The casting and "thrown-in" attempt at comedy made it into a $1.99 dvd that you'll soon see next to the supermarket tabloids at checkout.

Superheros aren't dead - their writers are merely uninpsired.

Norm Felker said...

@Mike Chrepta: "Sin City" came before "The Spirit".

@Snork: Over saturation is right! Not all of the superheroes are exciting. Catwoman and Elektra are the prime examples. Why would DC limp out a Catwoman movie when more people would be interested in a Wonder Woman flick? Because they could low budget it and say, hey we put out a female hero flick! I agree that they should stick to bigger or at least more interesting heroes. Save the off balls as characters for "Team Up" movies or just keep them as villains or side kicks to their respected heroes. He didn't need Ghost Rider and defiantly did not need Hellboy, let alone two of them (can you believe they are making another Ghost Rider?). Also, Captain America and Thor would have been 200 times better if they wouldn't have rushed a script out there just to get to "The Avengers" movie asap. Also Hollywood has trouble telling the stories too close to the mythos behind the heroes because "people already know the ending". Thats what also kills all video game movies. Here is a tip for Hollywood, we already know the endings to most films we just forget we do until after the movie is over. Name a film about to come out and I'll tell you the ending and I predict a 90% success rating.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree on a few points. While they may not share the same name recognition on par with your 'Big 3', Iron Man, Thor, and especially Captain America are certainly not 2nd tier superheroes. And they are not merely fanboy crowd pleasers. IMHO the greatest disservice to the superhero movies in the last few years has been the endless remakes and reboots. Are the actors who made the film a hit getting too expensive? No problem, let's hire someone cheaper and reboot.

I also blame part of the problem on studios trying to woo the Twilight crowd. "Let's make a Superman movie where he returns to earth years later and make everyone younger than the first films." Sorry, but I couldn't for a minute sustain any suspension of belief that a 20 year old Lois Lane won the nobel prize. Not everyone wants the entire cast to be straight out of high school. Superhero 90210 is not what most people are looking for. Rebooting has become such a staple lately that I refuse to see these movies in a theater and fervently hope that all reboots fail miserably at the box office simply so that maybe, just maybe, the studio execs will get the hint and quit making them.

Likewise, Seth Rogan as the Green Hornet? Thanks, but I'll take a pass. He may be a fine actor, but at least until he has proven his chops ala Robin Williams, I'll take my superhero without a dose of slacker/stoner humor thank you. And for those that mention Michael Keaton as Batman, I remember thinking the same thing until I saw 'Clean and Sober'. After that, there was no doubt that he could tackle the caped crusader.

Other problems include 3 films with 3 different actors playing the title role (Hulk anyone?), and mixing in a true 4th tier hero like the Green Lantern. Yes I'm sure he has a faithful fanboy base, but not nearly enough to justify a hope of blockbuster ticket sales. And making movies just to say you did, as in 'The Fantastic Four'. In some ways it reminded me of the first Star Trek movie in that it seemed as though the goal was 'just make it and they will come'. Studios and directors need to remember that almost all classics and a very large percentage of blockbusters are due to a great story and character development, not just how many special effects can we have and how many girls will the hunky guy draw in.

Anyway, just my 2ȼ worth.

Michael P said...

I believe the downfall started with X-Men 3, talk about shitting all over a great first 2 movies. They crammed too many characters with no background or time to develop them, and then expect you to get excited. X-Men 2 was done brilliantly, developed the character, got you inside his head, and it gave the movie a really strong story. X-Men 3 I felt like it was a stroll through a comic book storm on the big screen...."Look theres Gambit".. etc.

@Anonymous - I completely agree with your comment about The didn't work with the first two guys, it probably won't work 2 years later with a different guy playing The Hulk. Do the studios EVER think....maybe the story sucks?

Skyler said...

I don't think third-tier heroes are the problem, I think third-tier writers and directors are the problem. Blade basically brought us the hero golden age, after all. He was obscure, but a character that could be put to film in a way that easily fit into the Hollywood action films of the late 90's early 00's.

Green Lantern is another perfect example - he's a character that was tailor-made for post-Avatar CGI and he (well, "they" would be more accurate) has lately become one of the most popular and relevant superheroes in the actual comic world because he has had such excellent contemporary stories written around him the past few years. The fact that he can be made in space and his whole back story can be told in the first act also make him a good fit for a post-TDK audience.

Instead the studio basically gave us a CGI George Clooney Batman-like rendition of GL. Ryan Reynolds played him like a surprised fratboy and Martin Campbell put together a film that lacked every ounce of the darkness that so defines that character. It was like the only super hero movie he's ever liked were directed by Joel Schumacher.

In truth, not every superhero movie has to be built like a blockbuster. X-Men was practically a B-movie, but it has admirably stood the test of time so far. Watchmen probably would have been even better with a leaner special effects budget, too.

But the big picture: superhero movies are not dead because they still do very well abroad and they sell toys, t-shirts, and the like. Not until Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man have all had massive movie-star flops will Hollywood go back to the post Clooney action films that made guys like Brendan Fraser and Keanu Reeves action heroes for a few years.

FilmSnork said...

@Schuyler - The verdict is still out - when the box office numbers return for The Avengers movie, anything less than $400 million is a flop in my book. After rushing to market several Avengers related films to the purpose of setting up the foundation, it would be a shame if The Avengers is not the blockbuster.

You are correct about the third tier writing and directing. Any of these superhero filsm could have been stellar with the correct team - the characters are there, the storylines are there - you need the correct storyteller. Besides that, they did come in with one strike against them - all Avenegers related films needed to be origin films and also needed the obligatory Samuel Jackson cameo. My expectation for next summer's Avengers film, Robert Downey Jr. will blow the rest of the cast out of the water. The film has a lot going against it and not much going for it - luckily it has RDJ and Joss Whedon.

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