With the recent release of Black Panther having set a new bar for action movies (as mentioned in my previous post), one cannot help but think that the superhero genre in general may be running out of steam. Batman vs. Superman was incredibly underwhelming, the latest Justice League, while better, failed to live up to its hype, and both Marvel and DC Comics fans have been left with what amounts to a lineup of profitable, yet unimpressive films.
In the last 5 years there have been 23 films released based on Marvel and DC properties alone. You would think that this would create something of a superhero fatigue, right? Well, not exactly, and that’s because the superhero genre, after experiencing a bit of a rough patch in the mid-to-late 2000s, has now hit something of a renaissance. And what is the contributing factor to this renaissance, you may ask? Well, put simply, it is creativity, passion and a clear vision.
Let’s take one my favorite superhero movies of all time, Logan for example. Released just last year, Logan was the 10th film in the hit-or-miss X-Men franchise that saw the final story of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Why was this film such a critical and commercial hit? Aside from the fact that it had a great story, terrific acting and some of the best action sequences ever created for an X-Men film, it had used creativity to disrupt the traditionally conventional superhero genre. 20th Century Fox could have put out another PG-13 movie to make a quick buck, but instead, they took a risk and gave fans what they have been asking for for years: a violent, gritty, almost sociopathic Wolverine. Logan featured no shortage of foul language, grisly death and a realistic tone. This was a huge change of pace for the franchise, which previously leaned on toned down violence and language. Because of the passion of everyone involved in the project, namely by director James Mangold, we were left with a beautiful love letter to a character that many of us grew up with.
In fact, Logan is less a “superhero” movie, and more of an old western. If you haven’t already, watch “Unforgiven” with Clint Eastwood sometime. You won’t regret it.
Now let’s take a look at a film that fared poorly with critics and audiences: Justice League. Also released last year, Justice League was a meager attempt at cashing in on the tremendous success that Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has had. A garbled mish mash of CG action sequences and funny, but off tone comedy, Justice League was destined to fail — but why? Because it relied too heavily on traditional genre tropes, failing to pack the emotional punch that other superhero films (like the Dark Knight series) did before it. In fact, the film made more headlines for its trouble behind the scenes than it did for being a film. As leadership changes troubled DC’s film department, Zack Snyder, the creative director who’d made the DCEU what it was (for better or worse), was having problems of his own. Due to personal reasons, he was forced to leave the film before finishing production, and DC had no other choice but to find a new director.
Enter Joss Whedon, the nerd’s nerd. DC, and by extension, Warner Brothers, were hoping that Whedon would be able to add his creative touch to the film and create a box office darling; they were wrong. Instead, Whedon attempted to undo most of Snyder’s dark and gritty atmospheric choices and replace them with lighthearted fare that would appeal to audiences, leaving us with a superhero film that has no clue what it wants to be. Fans noticed this and didn’t bite. The film failed.
This is precisely where Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and to a certain extent, 20th Century Fox’s X-Men universe, is getting it right. They are taking creative risks and putting their films in the hands of creative and passionate individuals whom all have a clear vision for their project. The MCU is headed by Kevin Feige who understands that taking creative risks and playing homage to the source material of these films pays off big time. The first two Thor films didn’t necessarily flop at the box office, but they were not critical darlings; however, once Taika Waititi’s brand of off-the-wall humor made its way into the franchise, Thor: Ragnarok gave a refreshing take on the character, and saw massive praise and box office receipts; Ryan Coogler’s heavy African influence on and passion for the source material of Black Panther made the film the billion-dollar behemoth it is today.
Is the superhero genre dying? No, I don’t believe that it is. I simply believe that we are now experiencing something of a “revolution” in superhero films in which the traditional genre conventions must be disposed of, in favor of originality and authentic storytelling. Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman, Deadpool and Logan all share one thing in common: they were made with a clear vision, and did not limit themselves to what a superhero film “should” be. Superhero films have not reached their peak, not as long as we have young professional filmmakers who care about these characters as much as fans do.