Justice, but no peace: Where superhero cinema goes from here
The superhero genre continues to produce blockbuster after blockbuster, and critical respect for the films has never been higher. Hoping to keep it that way, studios are getting smarter
This past Monday morning, a few hours before North American film critics were exposed to the superhero spectacle that is Justice League, The Hollywood Reporter broke a story whose headline contained a string of words that, were it published at any other moment in history, would baffle the casual moviegoer: "Spider-Man Spinoff: Morbius the Living Vampire movie in the works with Power Rangers writers."
Desperate to keep spinning profits out of a complicated web of licensing, Sony Pictures has reached into the deepest vaults of its Spider-Man intellectual property, the D-level character Morbius being only the latest attempt at a cash-grab (the studio previously announced films based on Spidey enemy Venom and acquaintances Silver Sable and Black Cat). So long as a movie is vaguely familiar and contains a trace of a beloved icon, the thinking inside Sony goes, audiences will come. The studio's not wrong.
For those keeping count, the Morbius film (suggested title: Morbius: You Know, the Vampire Who Runs Into Spider-Man Every Now and Then) pushes the current number of in-development superhero films up to more than two dozen. And this doesn't take into account projects outside the familiar sandboxes of Marvel (owned by Disney) and DC (owned by Warner Bros.), because this newspaper column is only supposed to be about 1,000 words and no one wants to be here all day.
When it opens next year, the release of Aquaman – the already-practically-shot Justice League spinoff – will mark a full decade since the birth of the modern superhero-cinema era. It was in the summer of 2008 when Jon Favreau's Iron Man ushered in the concept of multi-film universes, where one blockbuster acts as merely a bridge to another. It was the moment a seemingly ludicrous idea – do adult audiences care about characters made for children, and even then, would they care enough to follow their story lines across a dozen different films? – turned into the dominant product of the motion picture industry.
Since the arrival of Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark through to this week's Justice League premiere, moviegoers have been gifted 30 superhero blockbusters (16 Avengers-related films, four run-ups to Justice League, two of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, seven X-Men adventures). By 2017's end, five of the year's top 10 highest-grossing films will be of the superhero variety (Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Logan and Thor: Ragnarok) – possibly six, if Justice League performs as well as Warner hopes.
But it's not just about the money (although, yeah, it is mostly about the money): critical respect for superhero cinema has never been higher. Although the dark and choppy Justice League might be a tougher sell, all the aforementioned 2017 titles rate "fresh" on all-powerful review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with every one but GOTGV2 (sorry, Groot) sitting among the top 10 films of the year.
It would be easy – and fun! – to resort to the obvious line: Audiences are getting dumber. But that's reductive. What this year's superhero films reveal, even Justice League in its own misguided way, is that studios are getting smarter.
When Warner decided to build its DC movie universe around the creative vision of Zack Snyder, using 2013's Man of Steel as a starting point, discerning audiences were wary. After that film culminated in a clumsy and abhorrent massacre scene, a legion of comics fans, and anyone with a modicum of good taste, were ready to burn Warner to the ground. Yet the studio persisted, giving us Snyder's somehow worse sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the is-this-really-a-movie spinoff Suicide Squad (directed by David Ayer, but with Snyder's aesthetic coded into its DNA).
The films performed well enough financially, but earned little of the same affection critics increasingly bestowed upon Marvel's slate. Warner's DC films were dark and humourless. The plots were nonsensical, even by superhero standards. The characters were just plain ol' jerks.
Justice League, Snyder's next project and Warner's answer to Disney's Avengers behemoth, needed to be an unqualified success – and to adhere to the lessons the Marvel Cinematic Universe offered, or at least half-heartedly crib the answers to the lessons the MCU offered. Miraculously, Warner listened, relented, and pivoted. Sort of.
Due to a family tragedy, Snyder stepped away from Justice League this past May, and DC brought in Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the first two Avengers films for Marvel, to finish the job. Although the film was already in post-production, 15 to 20 per cent of the finished product is the result of Whedon's reshoots. According to a rash of reports from Hollywood's trade magazines, the new iteration was torqued to be funnier, warmer and brighter. It would also be tighter, at just two hours (a short film compared to most superhero epics), reportedly at the direct request of Warner CEO Kevin Tsujihara. It would, basically, give audiences what they wanted.
Did the rethink work? Well, mostly – in that you can watch Justice League without having to dry-heave, a compliment that couldn't be paid to its franchise precursors. It's also occasionally funny! It has likable characters! It is by no means good, and its plot doesn't make a lick of sense, but it shows that a giant studio can smarten up, a little bit, when prodded.
This strategy of audience appeasement may seem obvious, but Warner isn't the only studio to arrive at such wisdom this late in the game. Disney took its sweet time tinkering with the Hulk. It mishandled Thor for two films before realizing audiences valued wit just as much as warfare. It has taken 17 films (!) to embrace diversity, with the forthcoming Black Panther. Twentieth Century Fox, which owns the X-Men rights, only recently realized that its comic-book movies could be edgy, or more accurately edgy-esque (Deadpool, Logan).
The challenge now – not just for Warner post- Justice League, but for every producer intent on milking this cash-cow – will be how much pivoting the industry can execute and endure before audiences grow tired and move on to the next thing. Steven Spielberg has compared the superhero boom to the western, predicting that a genre demise is inevitable. Others posit that its future might look something like the musical, where there are only one or two big extravaganzas a year. Yet those theories seem rooted in the past, and fundamentally underestimate how critical the superhero genre is to a modern studio's bottom line.
As the theatrical market continues to struggle in its bid to get butts into seats, the promise of spectacle will likely be the only thing that draws audiences away from their comfortable couches and the streaming services that satiate them, 24 hours a day, for a fraction of the cost. Who will provide that spectacle? Well, the glorious men and women expert in strapping on spandex, blowing up buildings, vanquishing CGI demigods – and, possibly, battling someone named Morbius the Living Vampire.