Quentin Tarantino is the latest in a list of directors who have recently criticised superhero films, saying that he would never be involved in one because “you have to be a hired hand to do those things”. Martin Scorsese famously received backlash in 2019 for similarly saying that Marvel films are not cinema. I am inclined to agree with both of them.
While a lot of technical skill undeniably goes into superhero films, beneath the star-studded casts, CGI, and quippy screenplays, they are almost universally empty, the work of “hired hands” rather than auteurs with a vision. There are a few notable exceptions – Thor: Ragnarok gave us an engaging discussion of what makes a people and how we reckon with the role of violence in shaping societies, but the vast majority care more for flashy action sequences than themes. Perhaps most disappointing was DC’s Wonder Woman, which seemed on the verge of an interesting character progression, in which the naïve Diana realises that war is not caused by the malevolent Greek god Ares, but by the selfishness and folly of ordinary people. Unfortunately, the film back-peddles in the third act and reveals that Ares was the villain all along, seemingly just for the sake of a big fight scene. Style over substance isn’t the cardinal sin that many think it is, but when it’s been the go-to for every major blockbuster for the past decade, things start to get pretty bland.
Naturally, Tarantino and Scorsese are more focused on the negative effect superhero movies are having on the world of cinema, but an even more insidious element of them in my opinion is the military propaganda often present, and I don’t mean this as hyperbole either. For several films, most egregiously Captain Marvel, the US military has given Marvel use of their equipment in exchange for a favourable portrayal. There’s a huge difference between films with a message and propaganda vehicles, and the latter is most certainly not cinema.
Tarantino also expressed hope for the demise of superhero films, and anecdotally it does seem like the genre is on the decline. I haven’t seen anybody online talking about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings or DC’s Black Adam, and not even Taika Waititi’s direction could induce anybody I know to go see Thor: Love and Thunder. The numbers suggest otherwise, unfortunately. While Marvel films released during the pandemic did see a major drop in box-office sales, the most recent additions to the MCU are seeing similar sales to their pre-pandemic counterparts, with Love and Thunder grossing around the same amount worldwide as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
So, it will be a while before we see the end of the superhero movie, but like every trend, it will happen. The movie-musical genre, to which Tarantino compared the superhero genre, had a “golden age” lasting around 25 years and finally dying in the late 1960s and early 70s. If this comparison holds, we may be in for another decade of superhero films, but it does leave me hopeful. When the bloated, roadshow-bound studio musicals of the 60s started to lose money, the genre wasn’t immediately abandoned. Instead, it encouraged filmmakers to take risks and be more creative with the old formula, leading to far more avant-garde and, in my opinion, better movie musicals like Sweet Charity, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These did also flop upon release and probably hastened the death of the genre, but they have since come to be held in high regard.
Could the superhero genre undergo something similar? Though the genre is vulnerable to certain issues, there is nothing inherently bad about it. When the well-trodden Marvel formula finally begins to falter, might we see some more interesting, subversive takes on the superhero genre as it breathes its last breath? One can only hope.