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Director's Cut: What's Wrong With the Superhero Movie Genre

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Sunday, June 26, 2011

When a movie that costs $200 million dollars to make -- and that's before marketing and publicity costs -- can't crack $100 million domestic box office in its first two weeks, that's not a good sign a sequel is on the way. Yet that's exactly what Warner Bros. wants the world to believe: Green Lantern 2 will happen. And I say, of course it will. There's too much riding on the backs of the studio's board of directors to toss in the towel for Hal Jordan and his CG'ed skin-suit.

But then why are there storm clouds on the horizon for the superhero movie genre?

For the first time in five years Marvel isn't showing up to this year's San Diego Comic-Con with a movie to market. That's right: there's no advance footage to be screened of The Avengers, their big superhero wow event coming out next summer. Remember, this is the same production company that ramped up interest in the first and second Iron Man by teasing it at earlier SDCCs. Not this year.

And if Warner Bros. is going to do anything at Comic-Con to promote what's going on with The Dark Knight Rises, it's keeping those plans close to its vest. My guess is that there won't be much of a presence from the Dark Knight filmmakers at the con.

Thor has come and gone at the box office, topping out at $180 million domestic and about $450 mil worldwide, when it's all said and done. Still, that's not good enough for a film that reportedly cost $160 million to make. Anything below $200 million and Thor looks like a disappointment to the accounting department.

X-Men: First Class? By the looks of it, it's going to be fortunate to get to $140 million domestic -- and that's with favorable reviews.

So what's going on? The box office has always had its share of failures and luke warm results. Why all the talk lately that the superhero movie genre is on the verge of being written off, or at least given a good downsizing?

For starters, don't believe the hype. Movies based on superhero comic books aren't going to go anywhere. But what has to change is the fanboy perception of what a comic book movie should be, and the public's perception of a movie that's based on a comic book.

To prove my point, let's rewind the clocks back to 1997. It's the summer of Batman and Robin, and if you know your film history then you'll remember how B&R proved to be a decision point in superhero movies. Not only did it spell the end of the Tim Burton Batman movie franchise, it had a sizeable impact on projects that were in development based on comics. Don't believe me? Take a close look at Blade which came out the next summer. Does that look like a movie based on a comic book character? Look at 2000's X-Men movie as well, especially those form-fitting black leather costumes the heroes wear in the last act of the movie. Now you tell me how much of an impact the black leather look of The Matrix, which came out just one year earlier, had on X-Men's costumes.

It's my belief that those two movies, 1998's Blade and 1999's The Matrix, had an incredible seismic impact on those people in charge of developing comic book projects. I clearly remember the vibe back then, and I was talking with movie producers that had the rights to several superhero movies. No one was pulling the trigger to rush into development any comic book movie until people saw what happened with X-Men. Warner Bros. knew that they had blown up the Batman movie franchise and was trying to right the wrong by either going in a completely different direction (the live-action Batman Beyond movie which came close to happening) or getting some director with an indie rep to come onboard and give Batman a whole new look. The latter route eventually panned out with Christopher Nolan, and in 2005 we got Batman Begins.

Nolan rejuvenated the Batman franchise by going right back to the character's source. Burton might have gotten the look of Batman and his universe close to being right, but the Michael Keaton take on the character lacked Bruce Wayne's biggest motivation in becoming the Dark Knight: his overriding sense to never kill because of the experience he went through as a child. Look at the power of that driving force and how it propels Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins versus the weirdo vibe that Keaton gives off in 1989's Batman, and if you understand the character at all, you'll see why Nolan's film works so well.

Nolan and his screenwriter David Goyer (who we also shouldn't forget gave the badass Blade to us) also did another very important thing with Batman Begins, and that was to ground it in as much realism as they could. Again, look at Burton's Batman; there's no explanation how a rich billionaire makes all of Batman's toys. They're simply there, like James Bond's Q came in from the 1980s and handed them to Wayne off-camera. With Batman Begins, Nolan takes the time to show how his Bruce Wayne can train like a ninja and buy all the gadgets he needs to launch his war on crime. Those moments are necessary to draw the audience in so when this guy dresses up like a bat, they buy it. By that time they're emotionally invested in the picture.

Now let's look at Green Lantern. Did you see any of those moments in that film? Yeah, Green Lantern is a far different kind of superhero than Batman but just because the two are different doesn't mean that the path can't be found that makes the audience invest in Hal Jordan's journey. Green Lantern is a universe filled with incredibly weird aliens, and cosmic spectacles. Did director Martin Campbell or the writers/producers of GL take any time to really show us the otherness of where Hal Jordan was headed to? No; the aliens in Green Lantern are introduced in the same manner as the aliens in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and we all know how soulless that latter movie is viewed today.

The key to making a great superhero movie is to not thinking of it as a comic book movie. When these movies are thought of as comic books, they inevitably come across as bland leftovers. Jon Favreau's Iron Man gave us a superhero that was a vain, spoiled military-industrial billionaire, gave him a change of heart and turned him into a technological weapon for good. It also has a great performance by Robert Downey Jr. who makes the audience fall in love with his character the way that Johnny Depp does with Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. That adds to Iron Man's charm and we forgive the film for its lesser parts.

Going back to Blade, it's sold as a movie based on a comic book character, but really, it's not at all. It's based on the concept of a character called Blade that hunts vampires. The hero didn't go around calling vampires motherfuckers in his comic, nor did the book have any adult themes like the movie did. And if the movie were made using the Blade that came from the Marvel comics, no one would have liked the movie. But Goyer and director Stephen Norrington knew that they had to make a movie that worked for audiences today, and the Blade they improved on works better when he's dropped in our dirty, curse-filled world.

The problem that studios and filmmakers are having now with superhero movies is that they're trying too hard to fit square pegs into round holes. Green Lantern is a good example; it should have felt a lot less like a generic Iron Man and a lot more like Ridley Scott's Alien meets Richard Donner's Superman. But for that film to have turned out like that, it would have required a champion that understood the alienness of the Green Lantern universe and why Hal Jordan is different as a character from Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent or Tony Stark. And that's the problem superhero movies are facing now: they don't have filmmakers like Christopher Nolan who "get" what makes the character and their specific take on being a superhero unique.

Maybe all this talk about superhero movies being on the cusp of imploding will vanish in a month when Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger opens. Maybe this is more of a Warner Bros. problem than a Marvel Films problem (but it's certainly a 20th Century Fox problem.) But the key to improving superhero movies is to find the right creative people that get what makes that hero work and then find the correct way to translate it to a feature film audience. No one cares outside of a small fanbase that Green Lantern has been around for 60 years, or that he's got a worse line-up of bad guys than Hawkman. The trick is to imagine what it would be like to introduce the world to Green Lantern now, without 60 years of baggage and without that safety net of comic book fanboys to champion it and to write all those online articles about who the character is and why Joe Smith is supposed to care more about his journey versus Mater the Tow Truck in Cars 2. There's still a lot of opportunity for Warner Bros. to do that with Flash, Wonder Woman, The Atom, Hawkman, Aquaman and a good bunch of DC heroes -- and Marvel heroes like the New Mutants, Runaways, even the Hulk -- if they have the courage to find and hire the right creative people to do the job.

WarCry
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Posts: 152
Posted: 2 years 42 weeks ago

 I find a flaw with your assertion that a lessened presence at SDCC is a sign of trouble. But it's the San Diego Comic Con, not the San Diego Comic-Movie film fest. Yest, that's what it has SEEMED like over the last few years, but that, to be, was a joke in and of itself. The fan-base is there. Avengers has the built-in comic book audience - so they'd be preaching to the choir - plus the audience from IM, IM2, Thor, and CA

Yeah, it's a nice tip of the hat, whatever, to the fans, but it's not NECESSARY, in my opinion.

 You don't have to like it, you just have to do it. --Richard Marcinko
MrBlades
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Posts: 1
Posted: 2 years 42 weeks ago

So you think that comic book movies need to be more like batman, and that studios just need 'the courage to hire the right creative people'?

The genre will be fine. They will be forced to learn to do these movies on a tighter budget, like Marc webbs spiderman.

Patrick Sauriol
Location: Canada
Posts: 20025
Posted: 2 years 42 weeks ago

@WarCry: I think the lack of presence at SDCC is a sign that Marvel/Disney doesn't need the fanboys to "bless" their films. I also think that's partly a business reason; Disney owns the D23 convention brand and I bet that they'll roll out an exclusive AVENGERS event at the next D23 con, like they did for PIRATES 4 with Johnny Depp.

@Mr Blades: Perhaps it's not so much hiring the right creative people as having the courage within the studio to let each superhero film march to its appropriate drummer. Was Martin Campbell the best directing choice for GREEN LANTERN? Maybe this would have been better in the hands of a director and writers with more of a sci-fi vision.

I like what I've seen of Marc Webb's approach to the SPIDER-MAN reboot; practical effects instead of CG. I wish GREEN LANTERN had more of that sort of thing.

No matter where you go, there you are.
Quasar
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Posts: 7587
Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

I had no confidence in Martin Campbell at the hands of GL. I do not like GoldenEye at all, and I only like 2 scenes in Mask of Zorro. The comedy element in that movie is way too intrusive, and takes over scenes that need to be much more serious. (I never bothered with the sequel, 'specially with that kid *groan*). So when the first trailers showed up with all the goddamn jokes goofy jokes, I was thinking this is FF all over again.

Of course, I think Joe Johnston's resume is kind of dodgy also. At least the trailer for Cap looks like they've gotten a good handle on what it takes to get it right.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
The Swollen Goi...
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Posts: 14343
Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

We don't owe David Goyer shit.

WarCry
Location:
Posts: 152
Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

Green Lantern is hard to use as any sort of measure, because the concept, while great in comic, is hard to explain to a non-comic fan, let alone put on film. But it CAN be done - Thor kinda falls into the same thing, and they did ok - not stellar, but ok. 

 

Marvel has a grip on this thing for the moment. They hire the right people, people that care about the product, and then they bring in OTHER experts - writers, artists, and even the occasional fan of the comics - to look over storyboards, flip through scripts, etc. Favreau was perfect for Iron Man. Kenneth Branaugh was an inspired choice for Thor (though it's not as close to flawless as Iron Man).

Joe Johnston, I'm happy with that choice, too. Sure JPIII was weak, but I think that was the script more than the directing. I'll be honest, I thought JPII was worse, and Spielberg directed that one. Johnston has shown he can do the high-adventure style of shooting, AND do it with Nazis! (The Rocketeer, anyone?)

 

My point here isn't that Marvel rules, etc. It's that Marvel has figured it out. Disney is letting them continue to run things their own way. But for DC, I'm not even sure any of the comics-side of the house has ANYTHING to do with the movies. It certainly doesn't feel like it. WB owns DC, but they don't seem to TALK. It's like WB just goes through their property catalogue, yanks stuff from DC's filing cabinet, and hands it off.

For all the critical acclaim that Nolan's Batman films have gotten, they don't really FEEL like Batman films to me. They feel like vigilante films that happen to use a few names in common. I can understanding wanting to use a more realistic approach, but in this case, I think they swung the pendulum too far in that direction. Even going back and watching Burton's Batman (Batman Returns is laughable, in my opinion, nearly as bad as it's two successors), it just doesn't FEEL right.

 

WB/DC needs to get their act together and get people that care about the PROPERTIES, that will make only the changes needed to translate a property from the lunatic-fans to the broader market without treating them like "grown-up versions of kids books" (Nolan and Batman) or just as live-action Saturday morning cartoons (Campell and Green Lantern). These are stories that can - and do - sell to adults, some of whom don't even live in their parents' basements! Let THOSE stories be told, how's about?

 

 

 

BTW, one compliment to WB/DC for handling the translation well - again, not flawless, but well - is Watchmen. I think the problem there was that the broader audience weren't quite ready to see a comic book movie with such a serious message, and it shocked them.

 You don't have to like it, you just have to do it. --Richard Marcinko
mckracken
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Posts: 965
Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

well Zack Snider is another director that "get it" like Nolan does... he's (snider) proven that he's a capable director...period.

I think the one key that Patrick missed is keeping this movies on a realistic budget. NOBODY should have approved a $150 million dollar project and then tacked on an additional $150mill. for marketing.... thats just stupid... $300 mill. movies equels the kiss of death with the financing dept's and the bean counters, if something goes wrong...hell if ANYTHING goes wrong, hell, even if everything goes 75% RIGHT... you're totally fucked... the movie is fucked from the start, the franchise is screwed before it ever gets released because the movie failed to make any box office profit because it had a $300 million dollar price tag to overcome FIRST before making it's first penny back... those arent good odds.

Could they have made Green Lantern for $70,$80 or $90 million? Oh most definitely they COULD have... but would they? No, never.. I think the people in Hollywood really ride the fence about making a movie on a weaker budget... vs the alternative making a movie where the budget has no constraints whatsoever but also has zero chance of making a profit.

So i think a greater pressure should be put on the director to come in UNDER budget... rather than ON budget. if he's given $300 mill, he should be looking at ways to save some of that cost to lower the overall budget and save the producers some money in order to get the movie to make a profit.

sheets
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Posts: 1
Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

You make good points but I think you're overlooking something really obvious, which is that too many superhero movies are introductory stories, usually following a pattern in which our cocky man-child of a protagonist is given great power only for him to reject his responsibilities to use that power (or misuse it somehow), and then in the end he "grows up" and learns the true meaning of being a hero; i.e., basically every superhero movie now is a remake of Spider-Man. We just saw Thor and Green Lantern use this template despite it not really being appropriate for either character.

What I'd like to see more often from filmmakers is a willingness to just dispense with the origin altogether and just TELL A STORY that happens to have superheroes and supervillains in it, just like they do in all of the comics. Don't get hung up on explaining absolutely everything up front and trust the audience - they can pick up on stuff as it goes, especially now that we've had quite a few superhero movies to pick over and it's become a familiar movie genre.

mckracken
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Posts: 965
Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

i agree... they did that with that Will Smith super hero flick... what was that called?

Quasar
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Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

I thought everyone hated Hancock.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
WarCry
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Posts: 152
Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

 Actually, Hancock was still an origin story. He didn't know his origin and learned it along the way. It wasn't the beat-by-beat telling like others, but it WAS still an origin film.

If they can ever get it off the ground, SuperMax is supposed to be a "jumping in" kind of movie, with supervillains in prison, etc. I REALLY want to see that movie made.

'89s Batman actually did this to a lesser extent. It was an origin story of Joker, because Batman had been active (if I recall) for about 3 months. Even if it's not "authentic" to the comics, it's pretty widely accepted as a good comic book film. X-Men is the same - the X-Men were already an established team, though it DID fall into the hole of character not wanting to accept responsibility before coming to his senses. In this case, it wasn't a young guy, it was an old (olldd...OOOLLLLDDD) guy in the form of Logan.

I'm hoping Man of Steel does jump in. We know they have Lara and Jor-El cast, but hopefully it will be more of flashback stuff. It's been argued ad infinitum about whether comic book characters can be introduced to the 'general public' without an origin story. I'd have to say, even if the "rule" is no, Superman at this point is the exception that proves the rule.

 You don't have to like it, you just have to do it. --Richard Marcinko
mckracken
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Posts: 965
Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

it also seems that with many characters in movies, they start with an origin and then retell the origin AGAIN after they reboot the franchise after three films (Spiderman)

Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 2 years 41 weeks ago

I don't think it is to do with superhero movies on their own, I think it is more basic than that. I think it is simple economics.

There is a notional maximum figure that a movie will earn. Barring freakish exceptions to the rule (e.g. Avatar) this is broadly the same across the board for major summer tentpoles. However cost inflation means movies are getting more expensive to make yet the maximum potential earning power of a movie is not moving in line with it, especially in the current economic climate. Margins are being squeezed.

3D was the studios reaction to this as an effort to stretch that margin again. Yet all the evidence is that 3D is slowly dying and Hollywood got this wrong (e.g. More people went to see Pirates IV in 2D, Potter VII having it's 3D binned etc.) and the studios find themselves with the higher production cost of 3D yet without the rewards. Even more pressure on that margin.

Given the 18 month cycle that Hollywood works on, expect to see a major correction coming some time in 2012.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Quasar
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Posts: 7587
Posted: 2 years 40 weeks ago

3D is dumb.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
mckracken
Location:
Posts: 965
Posted: 2 years 40 weeks ago

hey quasar, 3D is dumb... durring a recent screening of Transformers 3, I noticed something was odd durring certain "non-pivotal" scenes of the movie... they werent in 3d at all.

as it turns out, I do not know the percentage of Transformers that actually utilized it's 3d technology but it sure wasnt 100%... some of the action scenes were very much popping off the screen and were very much in a 3d "background/midground/foreground" look to them (I'm not one of those people who's eyes cannot see 3D - I can) and those 3d scenes looked (because of the glasses) a little darker than usual- but damn beautiful... other scenes were actually presented as "normal" (2D) and did not use the technology at all... I even removed my glasses a few times to double check there was any difference in the image, no blur, no two images.. nothing.

its a gimmick plain and simple... did showing Transformers 3 in 3D really improve the story? no, it did not... this is a movie that would rock in either format (as apparantly it did switch between both formats quite frequently)