Monday, May 5, 2014

Criticwire Survey: Too Many Comic Book Movies?

Q: The release of the second "Spider-Man 2" in a decade has many critics, even those with some fondness for the film, crying redundancy. Given that this summer will see new installments in the X-Men, Sin City and Transformers franchises, and Marvel has its movie slate planned through 2028, are there just too many movies based on comic books? And if not, what do future need to do to make sure they're not retracing others' steps?

To quote Reverend Lovejoy: “The short answer, yes. The long answer, no with a but”. There really is no reason why we cannot have several different superhero movies a year. I think, in some ways, superhero movies are this generation’s Westerns – good guys vs. bad guys on a typically black and white morality scale – with a few great ones that try for something a little deeper. Hollywood churned out tons of Westerns a year in their heyday. Why? Because audiences liked them, and they made money. The same is true for superhero movies. There are hundreds of comic book characters – from the iconic to the largely unknown – and many of them have literally decades of storylines to draw from. Therefore, we should be able to get quite a few comic book movies every year, and not have them feel redundant. (Devin Faraci also makes the Western comparison in a recent piece – that I had not read when I wrote this). It’s also worth pointing out, that of the four examples listed, only two or superhero movies – something that doesn’t apply to Transformers or Sin City.
The reality however is that they are all starting to look and feel the same. Each series typically follows the arch established by the Superman movies – with the first one being the origin story where our hero discovers his (and it’s always a him) powers, has fun with them, decides to fight crime, and then ends up against a big bad guy in the end that he (barely) defeats. By the second movie, our hero is starting to see that being a superhero isn’t all glamorous – that “With great power comes great responsibility” – so they have to push away the ones they love in order to protect them – or else they struggle with even wanting to be a superhero anymore, before they realize they have to, and they face an even more powerful bad guy in the end, which they barely defeat. By the third movie, the filmmakers seem out of ideas, and just throw every villain they can think at the screen and hope something works. Audiences grow restless, the series “goes away” from an increasingly short period of time and then it’s rebooted and tells the exact same story again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Nowhere is this more apparent than The Amazing Spiderman movies (my review of number 2 will be posted soon). I thought the first movie may well have been a better film than Sam Raimi’s original Spiderman (of which I wasn’t a big fan) – but it was essentially the same story, so I was left underwhelmed. Number 2 is basically the same structure of Spiderman 2 (Raimi’s best of the series). I enjoyed both The Amazing Spiderman and The Amazing Spiderman 2 – but it’s hard to argue that either really adds anything to what Raimi already did. What’s disappointing of course is that Spiderman has been around for a long, long time. Surely there’s some fertile ground somewhere in all those back issues of the comics that the filmmakers could have mined to come up with something unique. That’s one of the reasons I liked The Wolverine last summer. It’s hardly a great superhero movie – but it was a different one – a mainly standalone effort, where the fate of the free world didn’t hang in the balance.
I think we reached the tipping point back in 2012 when The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. One could make a darker superhero movie than Nolan’s trilogy – but do we really want them to? Some complained they took themselves too seriously already. And one could make a bigger superhero film than The Avengers – but again, do we really want them to? That film, as entertaining as it was, was already a little too overcrowded. Those two films basically threw down the gauntlet for all others to follow – try and beat that they said. Sadly, no one has really come close since. I still enjoy superhero movies – sometimes, they can even still surprise me – as the latest Captain America did. But for the most part, I think filmmakers need to find something new and different – a different take on the genre – if we’re going to get another truly great superhero movie. So far, no one really has.

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