Superhero Fatigue or Second Wind?
Without a doubt it is a good time to be a superhero geek. Superhero comics are increasingly reaching out to broader demographics and trying to engage fans from all walks of life. Comic Cons are basically mainstream media events with high profile guests and impressive production values. Superhero films are smashing box-office records left and right, not to mention being churned out at a pace of three or four a year (or more), with no sign of stopping. Superhero television shows are springing up on channel after channel and catering for different demographics and audiences. And in the face of this we say, ‘Well it can’t keep going at this pace… It will have to end sometime… The public will get bored with the constant stream of superheroes…’ and on and on and on. In a number of regards that is undoubtedly true, Hollywood has always had something of a cyclical nature to its production schedule. The era of the Western, the era of the Musical, the era of the Noir and so on. Each genre has its day to shine and dominate the box office, spawn televisual progeny, and then the market reaches saturation and the public moves on to the next craze. Thus it was, thus it always will be, so speaketh the voice of experience.
In fact a cursory glance at google reveals articles and comments about superhero fatigue from
Not to mention the slew of them that came out in 2014, 2015, and now again in 2016.
Yup, we have been complaining of and predicting the collapse of the superhero market from superhero fatigue since 2008… and I didn’t even look that hard. I am sure if I actually took some time I could find even earlier articles. But just a short time ago Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller, 2016) broke box office records for a film by a first time director, R-rated superhero film, February box office and a number of other box-office related records that Hollywood insiders keep track of. So nearly 8 years after a discussion of Superhero fatigue we have another superhero film breaking records and gaining some financial, if not necessarily critical, accolades.
So how do we explain this? A simplistic answer is that we haven’t reached the inevitable saturation point yet. That there will indeed come a point when audiences are bored with superheroes and won’t turn up to the cinema or will watch the latest reality TV c-list celebrity singing and dancing contest instead. But to be honest, while Hollywood may scale back on the number of superhero films in the future if there is a sudden slump in box-office, I don’t think we will ever get away from superhero films being summer blockbuster, tent-pole films or superheroes having a presence on the small screen. The public has been lapping up these extravagant, SFX action films since before Christopher Reeve put on tights and cape and flew up, up and away. There have been Batman and Superman films, cartoons, radio dramas and tv shows nearly constantly since the 1940s, with the Flash, the Justice League, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Teen Titans and Aquaman all getting in on the action. Marvel hasn’t been lacking either with Spiderman films, television shows and cartoons for decades. The Fantastic Four, Hulk, The X-Men, the Avengers have all had small and big screen adaptations. The public has had an appetite for superhero media for decades, and we keep asking for more.
Yet in recent years there has been a development which could stuff one too many superhero franchises into our already crammed gullets. Both DC and Marvel have launched their cinematic universes. Extended meta-narrative transmedial crossovers. Feeding films into other films and into TV shows and back. Films that star characters from within the same diegetic reality having guest appearances in other films set in connected cinematic universes. Events from the films being discussed and having ramifications in the television shows. The easiest example of this is the relationship between Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: The Winter Soldier from the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). H.Y.D.R.A. is revealed to be alive and well in the 21st Century and takes down S.H.I.E.L.D. from the inside, leading to the characters on the TV show suddenly having to battle H.Y.D.R.A. with far fewer resources because S.H.I.E.L.D. is now defunct. The events of the film directly affected the events of the show… in mid season. This narrative development dropped during the show’s scheduled season and everything was timed so that show and film matched up seamlessly. They are in the same universe, they exist in the same reality and the TV show has occasional guest stars from the films. In effect, they are all part of the same story.
This sense of interconnectivity certainly ties all the stories together into a massive tapestry of story. Fans watch the shows to find out backstories and further developments of things that happen between the films. Questions raised by the films get answered or at least addressed in the TV show. The fans go to all the films in part because they are part of the same giant story. To miss one or the other would be like skipping the chapter of a novel and expecting to keep up. On the one hand it is marketing genius in that it guarantees an audience for each and every narrative product. Yet on the other hand it smacks of forcing people to watch things by suggesting that if they don’t they will miss out… and very few people like to be forced to watch something. In fact, creating that feeling of being forced is likely to lead to a backlash effect. But even with this, there would still be a market for the films and shows. It might drop off a little, but they would still attract a core audience.
What is perhaps more problematic for the studios and companies involved is the over-saturation of the same types of shows and the repetition of the same types of stories, and by this I mean the easy origin story films and the lazy revenge/mission storylines. When studio execs greenlight superhero films that pitch the good guys up against a bad guy and the film follows a standard format that includes confrontation, set-back, recruiting new talent/training, and then ends in a big fight, you can see why people might get bored seeing the same story over and over again. No matter how splashy the SFX, no matter how wonderful the CGI, and no matter how polished the dialogue, the same story, again and again, will become tiresome. Sure throwing in some great jokes or a different character or two will jazz it up a little. But ultimately, this is the tactic that will lead to superhero fatigue.
So why do I think that this won’t be a problem? Simple, comics and superhero stories are not tied to origin stories and simplistic revenge plots. There is a wealth of material in the comics that allow film and TV makers to make a whole slew of different stories in different styles. For example, Jessica Jones and Daredevil, while part of the MCU, and similar in target demographic and sensibilities to each other, are very different shows to each other and to a lot of the other superhero shows.
Jones with its first season focused on a PTSD storyline with a detective noir sensibility, and Daredevil with its first season more akin to an organised crime show like Sopranos. They might both be superhero shows, they might both be MCU shows, and they might both crossover and intertwine, but they are actually quite different shows. Not only do they target a different demographic that that sought by The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl, but their tone is radically different to that of the flashy action angst in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., another MCU show. Neither Jones nor Daredevil relied on a mission of the week format, instead focusing on a storyline developed over a season. Yes, they had incidents in each episode around which the core of the episode was structured, but they didn’t slavishly follow the weekly format template so common in other shows. We also see this in Agent Carter, a period espionage superhero show. Jones a detective noir, Daredevil a street level crime show, Carter a period espionage show… these are all superhero shows that use the superhero format to engage with different genres. It is the shows that slavishly follow the linear and simplistic storylines, ‘freak of the week’ formats, and focus entirely on being superhero action-fests that create a feeling of samey-ness. Each of these shows attempts to tell a completely different type of story, that touches on different social issues, and resonates with different demographics and audiences. A lazy way of labelling them would be to say that they transcend the genre, but they don’t. They simply show what the genre is capable of. In fact, superheroes are not so much as a genre, as a tool with which to tell different stories. Yes they have superheroic characters and uber-villains, but they each focus on trying to tell a great story, a new story, a different story.
But even the most tedious of stereotypical superhero stories, the origin story, can be made entertaining. Iron Man (2008) was told in a non-chronological style to make a relatively straightforward story that much more interesting. It also employed a charasimatic lead, plenty of humour, and some great action. Techniques that were replicated by Deadpool. In both cases a straightforward story was made to be a great deal more engaging because it trusted the audience to follow the story, it used early action and peril to engross the audiences, and then it spent time slowing the pace down to develop the characters and make the audience care about them. The leads were given great scripts and screen time to develop the characters outside of actions sequences. This resulted in the audiences actually caring about the story, the characters and the outcome of the events. But it is not these techniques themselves that need to be slavishly replicated, but the sensibility that you can use different tools and techniques to elevate a story even if it involves superheroes. You don’t need to be locked into a specific template or story frame.
So the majority of the problem seems to be the lack of faith that studios have in experimenting with the form and their fundamental misunderstanding of what superhero stories can do. They want a tried and tested format because of the amount of money that they are spending on production. They want to guarantee their returns and maximise their profits. They also seem to want stories to fit into a nice neat framework of good guy fights bad guy without any sort of nuance or attempt to investigate more complex motivations. The revenge storyline of Deadpool was slowly built up. Skrein played a character who had motivation for what he was doing, was given screen time to ably demonstrate why he was a bad guy, interacted repeatedly with the hero, and his actions made sense. Compare that to Iron Man 2 in which the bad guy is a poor genius who Stark’s father essentially shafted, in a story ostensibly about Stark facing his own mortality and wanting to right the wrongs of the past… and yet they set Vanko up as a villain instead of having Stark try to recruit him to make amends. It went against the story, the character motivation and any sort of logic. The main reason we are meant to think of Vanko as a bad guy is that he is poor, dirty and Russian… because apparently we are still in the Cold War era and therefore hate those dirty Russians who want to get their Communism all over our shiny consumerist capitalism. Or Iron Man 3 in which we are told that military veterans are being experimented upon and are victims … until halfway through the film at which point they inexplicably are just turned into villains so Stark can fight them. These decisions smacked of a juvenile need to have a bad guy/good guy conflict, rather than any attempt to actually look at the characters and tell the story that belonged to them and that made sense from their perspective. This results in the films feeling false. They might be pretty, they might be full of great action sequences and effects, but they feel hollow and artificial.
But even this is a simplistic reading of the situation. Studios have clearly taken some chances as films like Guardians, Deadpool, Iron Man, Batman Begins and Fant4stic have shown. But even in that list you can see that the gamble doesn’t always pay off. Fant4stic was a box-office failure, and was loathed by critics and fans. Perhaps due to its serious tone, its sombre story, or its lacklustre third act in which a villain was shoe-horned in with little respect to the narrative trajectory outlined. But clearly studios are willing to take some risks in order to find the next big movie that will make a metric tonne of money. But financial planning and sound investment strategies are not necessarily the greatest creative partners to original narrative thinking.
So financial thinking, while it is certainly one of the considerations and an important one at that, can result in cookie-cutter films made to replicate a previous success by mimicking a juvenile sense of what made the previous films good. After Deadpool’s success there will no doubt be a call for the next Deadpool-style film that tells meta-jokes, makes fun of comics, and has lots of violence. They will be clamouring for the next ‘pool, the next Guardians, the next whatever. Even DC’s plans for the Justice League seem to be a bald attempt to copy the success of the Avengers. This is, at least I think, one of the fundamental mistakes that could lead to superhero fatigue. If studios actually look at the various superhero franchises and characters and design films from them, instead of wanting a new action movie and putting a superhero in it, then we could see the breadth and diversity of superhero stories that are present in the comics. If the producers and the executives trust their writers to do something new and innovative, to use superheroes as tools to tell noir stories, espionage stories, comedies, social commentaries, crime dramas, thrillers and so on, then the idea of the typical superhero movie can be a thing of the past. If studios start to trust their audiences to be smart enough to follow interesting stories then maybe we can get away from linear, simplistic origin stories and superhero fatigue will be a thing of the past.
As long as the writers are allowed to use the superhero narrative to engage with other genres and tell different types of stories to different audiences using different techniques, the audiences will be supplied with variety. The problem isn’t the plethora of superheroes, it is the lack of diversity in the storytelling that will result in superhero fatigue. Invention, innovation, experimentation and novelty are all still possible with superhero stories, even if you release ten films a year and have ten superhero TV shows.