I have cape fear.
Between now and the end of 2018, a period of just four years, various Hollywood studios have scheduled more than 25 major comic book movies. The comparatively calm 2015, when we have The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and Fantastic Four arriving in May, July and August respectively, will give way to a 2016 brimming with superheroes, as seven titles, including March’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America 3 and X-Men: Apocalypse will arrive in cinemas. Don’t worry though, there are nine more due in 2017…
We may not have reached it yet, but Peak Superhero is approaching, the point at which the stock of viable comic book movies – and those who can enhance them via performance or direction – is exhausted, along with our interest. Hollywood has never had a problem jumping on a profitable trend, whether it’s Japanese horror remakes or gross out teen comedies, but the comic book commitments feel like an obsession that will brook no opposition. Teaser by teaser, trailer by trailer, press junket by press junket, we are going to live out one four-colour adaptation after another.
The commercial successes to date, especially from Marvel (now a part of Disney), are difficult to dispute: 2012’s The Avengers is the third most successful film of all time at worldwide takings of over $1.6 billion (it’s the most successful film of all time made by someone whose name isn’t James Cameron), and the characters it astutely assembled through a series of interlocked franchises – such as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor – have all grown their box-office in its wake.
Even a virtually unknown Marvel property with a less than famous leading man that had some question marks, Guardians of the Galaxy and Chris Pratt, has been a runaway success, taking over $800 million worldwide this year. The comic book movies attract audiences not only in America and Europe, but the burgeoning Asian markets such as China and India. They’ve become a universal language for cinema goers; America may have its detractors globally, but everyone digs Captain America. (Captain America: Civil War releases May 2016.)
But now everyone is joining in, seeking to duplicate Marvel’s success even as that mini-studio adds more and more offshoots. Supporting characters and villains are getting their own films, delighting Spider-man devotees who get Venom Carnage in 2017 or exciting Wolverine followers who finally get a Deadpool movie with Ryan Reynolds as the sardonic anti-hero in 2016.
There’s a hunger for titles, and at the same time there’s a dangerous escalation in terms of the links. The next wave of films are mashing characters and storylines up, as exemplified by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (pictured top), which unites two iconic superhero characters for a rivalry that doesn’t make sense, and which adds Wonder Woman and Aquaman because why stop with one improbable pairing? Texture, narrative and the means to surprise audience are being sacrificed for spectacle and screen-spanning fight sequences.
Last year’s Superman reboot Man of Steel was a good movie for the first half, but the last hour was an endless city-smashing battle between seemingly unstoppable adversaries. That destruction will be where the new movies reside, which is probably what you should expect from a filmmaker like Zack Snyder, who oversaw Man of Steel and swung straight into Batman v Superman, which in turns leads to the DC Comics version of The Avengers, November 2017’s Justice League. (The Avengers themselves have a two part sequel, Infinity War, now set for May 2018 and May 2019 in case you need to mark your calendar now.)
Batman was previously in the capable hands of Christopher Nolan, but now the character answers to the filmmaker responsible for Sucker Punch. Marvel made unconventional but winning choices with Joss Whedon and James Gunn for The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy respectively, but now they’re becoming more conservative. Offbeat English director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) worked on Ant-Man for years (pictured below), but he was replaced before shooting began by Peyton Reed, whose previous credits include Yes Man and Bring it On.
And you’ll need to be patient if you’re interested in a woman directing a superhero movie, or playing the titular lead in one. It’s not until June 2017, when Wonder Woman gets her own movie, that a female character takes centre-stage, with the DC Comics rights holder, Warner Bros, adding that they’d like a woman to direct it as well. By then seemingly every second-tier male character to ever cross the path of Spider-man will have their own movie. Marvel won’t release their female comic book movie, Miss Marvel, until July 2018. Another belated nod to everyone who’s not a white male: Marvel’s Black Panther – to be played by 42 and Get on Up star Chadwick Boseman – is out in November 2017.
The future of multiplexes is more comic book movies with fewer surprises, more face-offs between brand names and fewer directors capable of making it work, all with the same themes – bearing the weight of rare responsibility, the need to make amends for past failings – and endless third act battles recycled but never reborn. It’s enough to make you optimistic about the Star Wars sequels.