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Are Superhero franchises killing cinema?

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Alan Partridge: Right, OK. Shoestring, Taggart, Spender, Bergerac, Morse. What does that say to you about regional detective series?

Tony Hayers: There’s too many of them?

Alan Partridge: That’s one way of looking at it, another way of looking at it is, people like them, let’s make some more of them.

If you’re a lover of comic books, fantasy novels, or sci-fi, you should be in heaven right now. All of Hollywood caters to your tastes. Hell, if you’re under 20 years old, you don’t even remember what it’s like not to have Hollywood throw $2 billion worth of blockbuster movies at you every summer (while the rest of us remember that in 1994 they made a Fantastic Four movie so bad, it couldn’t even be released).

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While no one bats an eye today when The Avengers; Age of Ultron  pulls in a bajillion dollars at the box office, that would’ve been unthinkable just 15 years ago. In the ’90s, all of the major money-maker movies were Die Hard knockoffs (Con Air, Broken Arrow, Face/Off), sober explorations of tragedies (Dances With Wolves, Schindler’s List, Titanic), Adam Sandler being a dumbass, and Tom Hanks doing things that usually didn’t involve having superpowers.

The Amazing Spiderman wakes up on the set of Power Rangers?

This changed in 2000 and 2001 when X-Men, Spider-Man, and the first The Lord of the Rings came out. Remember that back then those geek-centric movies were all pretty risky investments for the studios. Not only was this the first time that either of those Marvel superheroes would be seen on screen, but the last superhero movie to come out at that time had been Batman & Robin, which, you know, we’d rather not talk about. As for The Lord of the Rings, the last attempt at an adaptation was a godawful cartoon that was made in the 1980s.

All of those movies opened at No. 1 at the box office — Spider-Man actually set the box office record at the time, and The Lord of the Rings has only just finished with its Hobbit prequels. Both were risky movies based on nerdy, obscure sensibilities that were given a big release and paid off enormously. Naturally, all the Hollywood money men had their minds blown, and today they’ll throw a quarter billion dollars at any project that involves a hero in a mask.

Next thing we knew Geek directors who truly loved the source material were suddenly getting the green light to make Superhero Franchise movies the right way. We’ve all seen Peter Jackson’s obsessive attention to detail while making The Lord of the Rings, but it’s also worth noting that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man contains tons of nods to the actual comics, like the fact that the climax is almost identical to “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” if you change Gwen Stacy to Mary Jane and, you know, don’t kill her.

Likewise, Bryan Singer’s X-Men was pretty faithful when it came to characters, pretty much only changing the costumes — and even that gets a nod when Cyclops suggests that Wolverine wear “yellow spandex.” The people who made these movies made it a priority to keep the geeks happy. Compare that to 1989’s Batman, directed by a guy who said he didn’t like comics and written by a guy who thought Batman’s origin story was too dumb to work in a movie. It was a new era. The geeks had ascended to the throne! For the first time Hollywood realised that even nerds had disposable income, and our response was to lose our collective shit and started dumping our wallets out on the movie studios’ front lawns.

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Remember when Christopher Nolan was announced as the director of a Batman reboot? Of course you don’t, because back in 2003 no one knew what a reboot was or what a Christopher Nolan was or why we should care about a new Batman movie because the last one had sucked. But, oddly enough, that’s probably why he was chosen: Nolan talked about being passionate about the character and he had a weird, borderline crazy idea for the new series: Batman would be gritty and realistic. That had never been done on film before, but Nolan was young, nerdy, and excited, so the studios gave the keys to the money castle, and holy reboot did it ever pay off.

So what started as a risky attempt to appeal to a nerdy demographic that was never seen as profitable before suddenly became the studios’ lifeblood. And next came the meddling. You could start to see the signs years ago. After the success of Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, the studio pressured him into including Venom because he was a popular comic book character — except Raimi had been concentrating on the Silver Age of comics, and the dark, gritty, ’90s era Venom didn’t fit into the world he’d created. When they greenlit a movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, they had such a limited idea of what a comic book movie could be that they turned Alan Moore’s love letter to 19th century prose into a movie with vampires where things explode and Sean Connery does hero things. When they made Watchmen, they cut out the self-loathing and moral complexity and replaced them with slow-motion action scenes. As other people have pointed out, this totally missed the point that Watchmen is about failure.

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Of course Watchmen made money, but that’s beside the point, because it made money in the same way all previous superhero movies had made money (by being an action movie) when the whole point of the comic book is that it’s totally different from other superhero stories. They were scared to take a risk and actually try something new, even though exploring this stuff in a new way is exactly what brought about success in the first place.

There’s just too much money at stake. Hey, wasn’t it cool how Nolan was able to tell a complete story arc with Batman that actually ended, with Bruce Wayne flying off into the sunset? That sure as hell didn’t stop the studio from rebooting him back into existence in a couple of years, inexplicably in the same movie as Superman. Studios long ago decided that that people will pay money to go see things they’ve already seen. After risk, hardship, and innovation brought in the money, risk, hardship, and innovation were the first things the money tried to drive out.

New Line gave Peter Jackson a planet made of money for his Hobbit trilogy, but didn’t mention that they’re $5 billion in debt and needed him to make all that money back to keep them from filing for bankruptcy. Is it any wonder that what was originally supposed to be one movie got stretched into two movies? And then, very late in production, they decided out of the blue to stretch it into three? They needed three shots to recoup their investment. That’s why the first film, An Unexpected Journey, was based less on the children’s book it gets its name from and more on The Return of the King’s appendices and whatever bullshit Tolkien scrawled on the Oxford staff bathroom’s wall while he was fucked up on opium.

This is where it gets ironic, because massive successes end up leading to more studio control than ever before. Once big companies saw how much money those movies made, they started churning them out. (Did any kid grow up wanting to be Antman?).  Studios want a safe, reliable return on their investment. The corporate owners wanted blockbuster cash cows instead of risky, experimental potential money losers. But what they don’t understand is that Batman Begins, LOTR and Spiderman were risky and experimental and that everyone expected them to lose money at the time.

With these massive budgets, studios are determined to play it safe. That means, of course, some of the riskier aspects had to go — like Edgar Wright from Antman or the non-linear approach favoured by Christopher Nolan in Batman Begins. Challenging and interesting characters and set ups are now watered down and sanitised. Every superhero film I have seen in the past two years has followed largely the same structure and character development.

Marvel’s Cinematic Universe Franchise has become the model for episodic blockbuster storytelling in Hollywood – resulting in $6.3 billion in box office revenue (and counting). Of course, those numbers do not include revenue from Blu-ray/DVD sales, licensing, and retail merchandise, which have added millions more to the Disney coffer. There’s no doubt that Marvel Studios’ recent shared cinematic universe was a game-changer – weaving nine films (so far), the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series, and five one-shots into a single narrative web. In spite of a few hiccups, the ambitious project is paying off, raising interest (and box office profits) for any film bearing the Marvel Studios logo.

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Not long after the shared universe approach drove record-breaking ticket sales for the first Avengers team-up, Sony and 20th Century Fox began work on long term franchise plans of their own. With a long wait Batman vs. Superman hits theatres, it’s too early to say whether or not DC’s shared universe will, in the long run, hurt their superhero films. Nevertheless, like the other directors responsible for setting up an entire shared universe, Snyder is facing a tough challenge. Without a doubt, if any iconic Justice League heroes are short-changed in the process, fans will demonize the studio for rushing a team-up at the expense of quality character stories.

When it was first announced that Marvel Studios intended to develop a branching film project, centred on assembling of The Avengers, many fans were worried that quality execution would falter in the shadow of branding ambition – worry that became justified when Iron Ma 2 hit our screens.

Director Jon Favreau has (reportedly) indicated behind closed doors that Marvel’s push to get The Avengers shared universe up and running negatively impacted the filmmaker’s original vision for Iron Man 2. Instead of a straightforward continuation of the Tony Stark storyline, Favreau was tasked with introducing key “Phase 1″ characters and narrative threads. As a result, without adequate time to develop, despite brief hints at something more distinct, Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko/Whiplash was turned into a hollow caricature – a one-note villain bent on revenge. Often, superhero stories are only as good as their villains, and while Iron Man 2 helped set the stage for Marvel’s current success, it did so at the expense of an intriguing narrative about the conflict between two genius sons, from very different backgrounds, attempting to do right by their (deceased) fathers.

Sony (and director Marc Webb) faced a similar challenge with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – which, interestingly, also features a pair of abandoned sons investigating the legacies of their respective fathers. Unfortunately, the studio did not learn from Iron Man 2 criticisms – short-changing villains and supporting characters in favor of setting up their own Sinister Six “shared universe” plot. No one is claiming that an intertwined franchise narrative should be easy to shape and that some sacrifices won’t need to be made, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a poignant example of shared universe threads hurting the overall quality of a standalone film experience. Many (not all) viewers that enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 still felt that Electro and Green Goblin were underdeveloped and underserved by the narrative – with only two or three scenes to establish and then catalyse the characters into villainy. They are both interesting and effective antagonists, but they fall short of doing anything more than causing trouble for Spider-Man

Many moviegoers still hold Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 in high regard because the film not only upped the action quota, it invested heavily in its villain, showcasing Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus/Otto Octavius as more than a ruthless evildoer. Octavius was relatable, tragic, and (most importantly) reflected key aspects of his rival, Peter Parker. For all of the times we’ve heard Amazing Spider-Man series producers describe their villains as “complex,” the latest film rarely allowed those complexities to be put on display. So now we’re going to have to sit through it all again when Spiderman gets yet another reboot.

Of course, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wasn’t the only comic book film hoping to take advantage of a shared universe. Fox had been hard at work on the ambitious time-traveling epic, X-Men: Days of Future Past, uniting the First Class reboot cast with the heroes and villains from the original X-Men film trilogy, while also paving the way for an all-new entry in the series, Apocalypse. Fox invested heavily in the project – in the hopes of positioning the X-Men series – which typically does acceptable but not remarkable business at the box office – as a legitimate competitor in the superhero shared universe game.

Days of Future Past was rumoured to be the most expensive comic book adaptation to date, but did epic visuals and an all-star cast of new and returning faces result in an impactful film experience? The film was reliant on interesting elements (time travel, cross-franchise character pairings, sentinels) but with over twenty main characters and two separate time periods the film was overstuffed with spectacle – leaving little room for actual mutant drama.

If the superhero bubble is going to avoid bursting then sooner or later it is going to have to adapt. More and more superhero films have become reliant on visuals and vapid cameos rather than developed characters set in an engaging story. Every film feels at least 20 minutes too long and yet still without enough room to do anything interesting with a character.

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Who can tell if this will change with the next wave of superhero movies? J.J. Abrams upcoming Star Wars sequels could well be a game changer– three sequels, plus multiple stand-alone spinoffs (Disney wants a new Star Wars movie every single year, like clockwork). How much money in production and promotion do you suppose will be tied up in just the projects we mentioned up there? $10 billion? More? They’ll be using at least 3 Billion to create new state-of-the-art lens flare technology. Star wars has bypassed the casting issues faced by The Amazing Spiderman and Batman v Superman by seemingly staying true to their original cast and characters. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo et all are characters we have known and loved for nearly forty years and we are already deeply invested in them. If JJ Abrams can recapture even half of that good feeling then Superhero Franchise movies are going to have to raise their game.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, Right?

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Stephen Pryde-Jarman is a Cult TV and Film journalist, award winning short story writer, playwright and screenwriter. A natural hoarder, second hand shopping fulfils his basic human need for hunter-gathering; but rummaging through a charity shop’s bric-a-brac shelf also brought him the inspiration for his novel Rubble Girl having seen a picture of a Blitz survivor sat amongst the rubble of her house with a cup and saucer. Rubble Girl has been described as " thought-provoking" and "fast paced ... with plenty of twists and turns." Amazon.

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