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.