The Decline of Superhero Films

The end is nigh for superhero films. At least this is what we’re told, every time a new one is badly reviewed or doesn’t do as well as expected. And it’s being said now, after Birds of Prey massively underperformed financially. They (whoever they may be) might be right. There’s only so long that the genre can dominate the big screen before it all collapses in on itself like a giant, spandex-clad black hole. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Not since the 1950s, when John Wayne was on every other screen in America and studio Westerns were the only thing that ever got made, has one genre ruled over the others quite as definitively. And that is a major problem. It means original films by up and coming directors or writers are being rejected, simply because they don’t feature any giant sky beams threatening the end of all creation. 

According to Rotten Tomatoes, superhero films now take up 4 places on the top 10 highest grossing films of all time. Meanwhile, fantastic films like Snowpiercer or Blade Runner 2049 may be winning critical acclaim, but are financially flopping harder than Jack Whitehall’s latest stand up routine. Even ostensible crowd-pleasers, sequels to pre-established franchises like Creed are struggling to get close to Marvel. In short, we’re facing a creative crisis.

But assuming that this kind of supremacy can’t last, then we could be looking at something fantastic. And not just for cinema in general, although it’s hard not to imagine that an increased variety could only benefit the movie world. But it could also prove a way for films about super-powered gods to stay relevant.

Yes, I know that sounds paradoxical, that the only way superhero films can stay relevant is to die. But look at the Western. For a decade, studios churned out mediocre genre flicks, confident that it would make a tonne of money even if it wasn’t very good. Then, of course, it all fell apart. Now there’s a proper Western maybe once every two years, if that. 

And yet if you look at the Westerns that have been made in that time, they’ve been some of the boldest, most innovative and most memorable additions to cinema. Just look at Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood almost single-handedly turned it on its head, showing the sordid, just plain dirty truth behind the myth of the cowboy. And the results were amazing.

Imagine if we could have that for the superhero film. Say what you will about them, but Marvel films have become undeniably formulaic. But in a future  where it’s not as simple as just sticking an attractive person in tight clothes on an entirely CGI planet and watching the dollars roll in, imagine what exciting films we could get. Imagine a 50 year old Chris Evans getting back into the body armour to play a washed up, adrenaline chasing vigilante. Or a psychedelic, philosophical homage to a genre that too often reverts to simplistic messages of good versus evil. Hell, they might even manage a Watchmen adaptation that’s both faithful and interesting.

So whilst some fans may be dreading the seemingly inevitable downfall of the genre, they should be excited. Sometimes less is more, and quality over quantity is not always a bad thing. Besides, it’s not like the 100 or so superhero films that have been released will be going anywhere. After all, we’ll always have Endgame


Image: lettawren via flickr