You can barely move these days without running into a new superhero film – but after dominating the big and small screen for over a decade, has the genre reached a stalemate? Or is it the most exciting time for this kind of movie yet?
When it comes to comic book adaptations, Disney-owned Marvel Studios is currently the front-runner in terms of financial and critical success, but many feel that each of their films are too similar in formula and aren’t able to offer audiences anything new.
Will it be possible for the heroes we know and love to continue down the same road, or is a complete shake up necessary in order to keep the genre fresh and exciting?
Some adaptations are already taking this route, and this week’s release of Deadpool 2 proves that you don’t need to appeal to the entire family to be successful. Crude humour, violence and darker themes may be vital in keeping current viewers interested, and perhaps even gaining new ones.
The state of the superhero union
If you take a look back at the last decade, namely with the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (but also to the first round of Spider-Man and X-Men films), superhero movies have been fairly family friendly. They are fun, action-packed, uncomplicated and polished. They don’t break boundaries in terms of their themes and they don’t tend to transgress away from their predictable formulas (save for that gobsmacking Infinity War finale. Too soon?).
They are essentially crowd pleasers and, quite clearly, money makers. Whilst there may be a large amount of these films being pumped into existence, the audiences are still breaking down doors to see them.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is undeniably the market leader and dominates the box office every time a new instalment is released. Some of the criticisms the universe faces are what make other people love it so much – bringing together multiple characters, how all the stories are connected, the set up of long term pay off. Marvel Studios have done something never before seen in cinema history with the way they’ve weaved together these movies, and the money is rolling in to reflect that; Avengers: Infinity War is currently grossing 1.7 billion worldwide, and 4 of the top 10 highest grossing films ever are from the MCU.
The DC Extended Universe is also a fairly big money player of the genre, despite continually falling short in their attempts to replicate the success of the MCU. There is certainly a large fan base for these films, but many have been critically panned.
Going back a few years, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is one of the most acclaimed depictions of a hero on screen. Nolan managed to take an already iconic character and fictional world, and elevate Mr Wayne to new levels. Where we were all used to the gothic vision provided by Tim Burton, Nolan gave us verisimilitude and intertwined real-world threats into his stories. He took it down a dark route, but cleverly managed to keep it at a family friendly rating to ensure as wide an audience as possible. Nolan showed that superhero movies can be true to their source material, whilst at the same time being revered pieces of art – and importantly, not just seen as a kid’s movie.
A more adult direction
Often left out of the superhero movie conversation, Blade is perhaps the first notable example of an R-rated comic book feature. Starring Wesley Snipes, Blade was a stylish escapade full of fierce action, and it’s vampire themed, blood-soaked content marked it as most definitely for adults, despite some disappointing sequels.
Watchmen, from 2009, is another memorable caped crusade aimed exclusively at grown ups. Directed by Zack Snyder pre-DCEU days, it’s dark tone, long runtime and example of an auteur in action combined to create an incredibly ambitious project that divided audiences.
In more recent years, there are still few mature superhero movies – but the ones that do exist have made a hell of an impact.
There are the more independent projects, such as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World, which wasn’t exactly unsuitable for children, but was intelligent, witty and definitely a film for the hipster generation. It had Wright’s signature quick cuts and closeups, along with an incredible soundtrack.
The extremely violent and incredibly funny Kick-Ass was a surprise hit, launching the career of Chloe Moretz and returning some credibility to Nicolas Cage, whilst providing some brilliantly choreographed fight scenes – and seeing a ten year old brutally murder whole gangs of men doesn’t exactly scream ‘family friendly’.
The R-rated revolution?
Fast-forward to 2016 and we have the release of Deadpool, a passion project for actor Ryan Reynolds, looking to redeem himself after his previous portrayal of the same character in one of the many Wolverine spin-off films.
Deadpool was a refreshingly self-aware, crudely funny, violent, graphic and wildly entertaining film, and was a gigantic hit – so much so that it’s sequel is being released this week and it has the potential to spark off its own franchise with Wade Wilson as part of the X-Force. Deadpool tapped into a market that the superhero genre hadn’t yet reached back then – comedy, true comedy. It was a complete breath of fresh air, and being the butt of its own joke made it hard to criticise.
Most recently, a cinematic juggernaut was unleashed in the form of X-Men spin-off Logan. The first superhero film to receive an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, it is an absolute masterpiece of the genre. Unfortunately it took Hugh Jackman almost 20 years to get the film his character Wolverine deserved, but it was worth the wait. It fast-forwarded to an aged dystopian world where our favourite characters were not their usual selves; the stakes were high and the threat was off the charts. The violence in this film reflected an extreme but far more realistic view of what mutant powers would actually look like, but also explored more cynical themes, where an unhappy ending was almost unavoidable. James Mangold’s vision for Wolverine’s send off was sad, startling, and the kind of superhero film we’ve wanted all along.
Why these films work
It is easy to see why these kinds of films have been so successful; they’re not afraid to be darker, grittier, more mature or even just more stylised to stand out amongst the white noise of the genre.
Allowing an auteur to become involved, such as Edgar Wright, Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan, lets their personal stamp be put on the film and their credibility to come along with it. Directors such as these are not afraid to go down a road less travelled to bring a singular vision to life, or to treat their audiences with a much higher level of intelligence.
Perhaps it is not just aiming these films at adults, but also creating something entirely new, something visually appealing, intelligent, complex and unique, that breeds the magic.
Even some of the more recent films from the MCU have cottoned on to this – Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, was by far the best film from the Thor storyline and part of what makes it so is how ingrained Waititi is within the film, even voicing one of its most loved characters. It is nostalgic, decadent, but woven with B-movie atmosphere and off-beat humour you just wouldn’t expect from a mainstream superhero movie. It took Thor away from being a serious and stiff character and let him off his leash and have some fun, giving the audience an all-round great film that could work as a standalone outside of the superhero genre.
It’s possible that this was Marvel’s plan all along? They’ve undoubtedly put in the work to build this universe from the ground up – laying some solid foundations with more formulaic blockbusters that they knew would work might have paved the way and given them the freedom to start experimenting with something more unexpected. Black Panther has shown the MCU becoming more diverse, and we could see this continue as the studio continues to develop.
As for the superhero genre in general, it’s clear that it ain’t going anywhere, at least not any time soon. It could be said that the world of comic book adaptations is at the healthiest point in its history – let’s hope that, as films like Deadpool and Logan continue to prove the demand and acclaim that’s out there for bolder, braver adventures, Hollywood keeps giving them to us.
Deadpool 2 is in cinemas now!