Superheroes Are Dead, Long Live Superheroes

I’ve had the chance to finally see Avengers: Endgame a few days ago, and while my mind is brimmed with thoughts about how that movie was executed and the stark tonal shift it marked away from Infinity War, I think the most interesting story this movie has told us isn’t the triumph of the Avengers, it’s rather the rebirth of the whole superhero genre after we’d thought its whole business model was solidified and unlikely to experience any sudden evolution in format, or delivery.

My relationship with the superhero genre was an on-and-off one for the most part when — arguably the first modern superhero movie — Iron Man came out. It wasn’t that I disliked the genre or was particularly averse to it, but I felt no need to rush to theaters to see the latest release, and I haven’t been much of a fan of early DC shows like Smallville or 90s Flash simply for they have veered way too much into uncanny, and sometimes woefully corny territory. It doesn’t necessarily help that early superhero movie efforts were bogged down by sub-par visual effects, and the only ones that could manage to stand-out are Christopher Nolan’s very grounded renditions of the Batman character, the X-Men with their overly fantastical sci-fi premises, and the first two Spider-Man movies aided immensely by their comedic tone.

To be a successful superhero movie in the past, you had to have a shtick, and the shtick for so long was to emulate what was already successful in traditional cinema, but even as the genre progressed, there’s a feeling of stalemate I couldn’t exactly shake. It felt like filmmakers were more dancing around the limitations of the artform than indulging truly in what makes its comic book self stand-out, and that sentiment was amplified greatly by the raging consensus that comic books are a far better alternative since you could visualize the same amount of spectacle for far less financial expenditure. However though, the calculus of buying a single volume of a comic book story arc for the same price of a movie ticket proved like it’s challenging audiences on a mere basis of artistic preferences — Is indulging the fairly niche market of comic books any justifiable now that their most pivotal stories have been rendered live-action, or does the artform stand a chance of survival on its own, through its own merits?

I think comic books are a valuable form of media, despite the objection of a disgruntled many, but I also think that experiencing the joy of comic books through the cinema, or even the comfort of your own home, is not that farce of an endeavor. I used to be into comic books in times past but I simply fell out due to the incredible pace at which stories seem to be coming out, and it turned out later that I’d like to read the arcs once they’ve been completed and critically panned as opposed to being labels’ testing lackey for public appeal.

Conversely, however many botched superhero movies there are, there’s still a sense of security that whoever greenlit a project must’ve thought it financially viable — and therefore a worthwhile of a pursuit — to even consider making it. Marvel happens to excel at that especially well, and even if a few are considered flops by way of audience consensus or financial performance, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has particularly solidified its brand as a trustable constant in a sea of variables, guaranteeing the fans they’d at least come out with a small appreciation for the hard work being put in at the end of a showing.

The first movie to have gotten me into this frenzy was surprisingly the first Thor. I simple wasn’t as jazzed about the MCU from its very beginnings as some would like to retroactively pretend they were, but when I saw that movie, I didn’t only see a familial struggle between Thor, Odin, and Loki — I saw the template for the superhero genre being carved out. The stunningly beautiful backdrops of Asgard served as but a reminder that this character with their — seemingly — insular issues were going to be part of an event that extends far beyond their immediate vicinity. The first Avengers was the first significant step in that, and it proved that given the right ingredients in the hands of a masterful storyteller and a director who knows how to portray spectacle, iconic moments could be forever cemented in the collective consciousness of humanity, beyond what religious symbols of piety or common acknowledgements of virtue and tradition could ever hope to achieve.

It might sound completely benign said out loud, but the MCU boasts a larger following than all major religions of the globe. Its Church: Disney; its priest of the highest order: Kevin Feige; its places of worship: the movie theater; its Bibles: the movies themselves; its theology: the heated conversations surrounding them; and its guiding pope: Bob Iger.

Kevin Feige and a few Avengers: Endgame cast members at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

The way Marvel managed to cut through cultural barriers agnostic of religion, race, sexuality or gender across the globe doesn’t only speak volumes to its power as a gauge for pop culture appeal, but it also showcases what a great sense of solidified artistic vision can bring in order to unite fans of many a cultures under one banner — that of Good, against the meddling hands of Evil.

That constitutes a major part of the appeal at least for me. The conflicts within our own world are so doused in nuance and intricacies that makes them utterly hard to follow, that they’ve rushed within me a distinguished vying for simplicity when seeking out a produce of pop culture that I’m to discuss with others without devolving into a whole mess of sociopolitical theory. It provides a sense of catharsis, and somewhat of a relief, that you can talk about any Marvel movie and have to skip over who’s wronged who and get into the meaty juicy stuff of character moments or badass action scenes. It isn’t as heady of a conversation as a typical action movie where the lines are often so profusely blurred between good and evil that the conversations almost exclusively center around that distinction rather than themes, or textual happenings throughout the movie.

It is in major part due to the MCU’s popularity that I turned my interest towards watching superhero TV shows from DC, and Marvel’s many attempts at a gritty retelling of its less-powerful superheroes’ stories around the streets of New York City. Marvel’s Netflix collaboration however was soon met with an abrupt stop after it’d been circulated for many months ahead that they’d move to Disney+, and DC is facing a crisis of identity after many of their fans have simply deserted their shows following a noticeable dip in quality, only to be left with its highest-budget efforts exclusively on DC Universe, and the FOX-distributed Lucifer that eventually moved to Netflix.

The cancellation tally is immense on the television side. Netflix has canceled Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, the Punisher and its flagship crossover the Defenders; and DC has seen canceled — since the beginning of their partnership with the CW — Powerless, Constantine, concluded Gotham, and is now on track to end the granddaddy of all its modern superhero television efforts, Arrow. The reasons for why vary, but the uniting trend across all of them is their relatively low-budget, and the unwillingness of production companies to see in them enough potential to warrant a raise, or entrust them with handling storylines we’d only see exclusively in the movies — that’s however on-track to change, and Disney is the one responsible for that.

Since the company unveiled its plans to bite off the Netflix-dominated pie that has become streaming, the announcement of Marvel series helmed by extremely popular characters didn’t go unnoticed. This list boasts no less than the inclusion of the Winter Soldier, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Vision, and the fan-favorite Loki, to financial return that could potentially be astronomical. DC has somewhat tried the same with its own proposition, but they never dared to chomp off their movie properties and deemed the television format unworthy of attention up until they entered the streaming race themselves. This signals a shift in how superhero content is made, and it may mean that AT&T, and Disney, will be the only ones to keep up.

The shift in superhero television is merely symptomatic of a larger trend we’re seeing so much more of in entertainment, and the superhero genre especially — the palette is starting to homogenize, and foreign players are getting increasingly wary of indulging without copying the — seemingly — only successful format Marvel Studios has been able to perfect since the release of the first Iron Man.

Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely love Avengers: Endgame, and I’ve really enjoyed watching the movies prior. But I can’t help but think that the release of Endgame not only marks the end of an era for the journey of heroes we once thought could be undefeated, or otherwise unreplaced, but it also coincided with the end of many great efforts to explore the format on a smaller, if not a more interesting scale. I think that Disney has somewhat spoiled the audience to the tune of massive-scale stakes, that if the economics of releasing a multi-billion-dollar box-office movie every single year didn’t pan out, they’d have gladly done it.

That’s where capitalism comes in — since the parameters of a successful superhero movie have now been drawn, it is unlikely that we’ll see one to break the mold in any way for the foreseeable future.

It sucks because long before it, I had high for Justice League and the potentially-interesting ways it could’ve utilized the DC roster to concoct a plot against a worlds-invading semi-dietic creature. But the movie has nearly lost them money, and it pretty much put a cap on the age-old question that if superhero movies were just “funnier”, they’d end up making so much more. It seems as though the answer isn’t humor, or even the Marvel characters themselves — it’s simply that Marvel Studios — now under the leadership of Disney — kept testing the grounds for a successful formula until they struck gold with the first Avengers. Now that they did, there was little incentive for them to change. The law of iteration we see commonly invoked in technology, has observingly very potent applications in the medium of cinema — wherein if once proven to generate profit with very little innovation, the formula is to be maintained despite what consumers of differing demands might think.

In the case of a superhero movie however, it’s very hard to plot an idea around a concept without sinking millions of dollars into it, as opposed to a gadget prototype where the investment is thousands of times less. It’s perhaps why AT&T and Disney are the only remaining companies in any close measure to make a financially successful superhero movie — the breadth of resources they have is an undeniable gift, but the tolerance for error and experimentation is much lower given the financial goals at stake.

The age of experimentation is over. And if there was any single doubt about that already, Avengers: Endgame put a lid never-to-be-reopened on that whole conversation. Now that the superhero movie format has emerged alive out of its experimental phase where weird costumes, plots, and character motivations were all tried out — only the few successful experiments got to plot out the course for the many movies to come after.

I wonder if what happened to the action genre before it will repeat, and if no matter how extravagant the set pieces, how good the stories, how deep the characterization work, and how artistically sound superhero movies are ten to twenty years from now, the appeal of the genre might not be enough to bring butts atop the movie theater seats. We’ve already seen somewhat of a similar doomsday scenario with the oversaturation of superhero content on TV, and one has to wonder if film has the same capacity to endure such a massive influx of superhero movies in such a small amount of time.

Just this year alone, Captain Marvel, Shazam!, and Avengers: Endgame have made incredible runs at the box-office, with Spider-Man: Far from Home projected to do not all-that-bad either, but when will audiences eventually come down from the superhero high and start seeing superhero movies out of preference — like most movies are — rather than social pressure? It seems as though that prospect would have to be collectively elicited, rather than individually sparked. But for the time being, superhero movies — if tonally and structurally similar — still remain a delightful spectacle in collective joy and social unison. They’ve managed to gather those who may have completely divergent interests from the superhero genre well into one pool where they may discuss its triumphs and trepidations where the question of consuming said media is less a matter of “if”, and more a matter of “when”.

The superhero genre isn’t my favorite to watch for naught — the themes it explores wrapped around the veil of amazing character moments and beautifully shot and well-choreographed action scenes does ensure I will be coming back for more. However, just because I like what I’ve seen so far, doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to see it experimented with more. Unfortunately, Endgame’s massive success at the box office ensures there will be little chance of that happening; and this, is perhaps, the greatest tragedy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.