The State of the Superhero Movie

By Danny Marchant

Courtesy of ThisisChris

Superhero movies are not going away.

For those who enjoy them, excellent. For those who don’t, too bad.

In 2000, Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” was released and started the modern era of superhero movies. But in the 12 years that Hollywood has been kicking off and rebooting comic book franchises, the genre has already seen lots of changes and trends emerge.

Most movie genres fade out and return. Superhero movies seem to be cramming that whole process into one short amount of time.

The year of 2008 saw the release of “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight.” Both were about billionaires. The similarities stopped there. “Iron Man” was a fast, funny and entertaining romp through the world of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). It dealt with some issues like arms control, but mostly it was about how Downey Jr. is much cooler than you are.

Two months later, “The Dark Knight” came out and everyone is still reeling from that to this day. It made billions of dollars, earned Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for his role as the Joker and made it impossible to watch Tim Burton’s “Batman” without giggling. It was a dark and complex look at our modern world while still being an entertaining summer blockbuster. But “fun” is not a word that springs to mind.

Since 2008, superhero movies have essentially been torn between which of the two approaches to go for: Fast and funny with an AC/DC soundtrack or brooding and brutal with Hans Zimmer’s relentless “whomp-whomping.” When done right, both approaches work. When done wrong, you get movies like “Green Lantern.”

This summer saw the release of the follow-ups to “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight.” Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” was the culmination of four years of in-movie advertising that started with “Iron Man.” Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” was the finale to the Batman trilogy he started in 2005 with “Batman Begins.” And once again, one was fast and funny while the other was dark and gritty.

Both movies, like their predecessors, have made boatloads of cash. Both movies have wide audiences that tend to overlap and are seen as the model on how to make a good superhero movie. But they differ in a number of ways.

Nolan may be one of the most beloved directors working today. Along with Peter Jackson, Nolan provides the kind of spectacle and depth that modern moviegoers want to see. His movies wow with stellar performances, gorgeous cinematography and Zimmer’s aforementioned “whomp-whomping.”

But in dealing with his Batman saga, Nolan basically followed his own counsel. There were no Comic-Con appearances for Nolan, who told the story the way he wanted to tell it. Without Nolan, there may have still been a Batman franchise for the 2000s. But it wouldn’t have been as good.

On the other end of the spectrum is Marvel Studios. No single director has shaped Marvel’s movie universe. The directors have been diverse with the likes of Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh contributing.

Marvel Studios wants to please the fans. Every Marvel movie since “Iron Man” has had a post-credits scene that hints at further stories. Tony Stark exists within the same world as Thor. Instead of realism, Marvel has opted to transplant the comic-book world to the screen without a wink or a nod.

For fans that enjoy the psychology of Nolan’s films, the sight of a 1940s-era super soldier fighting aliens with a giant green monster may be a bit silly. But when done with the kind of gleeful energy that Whedon seems to run on, that silliness becomes incredibly fun. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it’s a comic book movie.

There are going to be more Avengers films. There are going to be more films about each individual Avenger.

DC wants to make Justice League film, and Nolan has teamed up with Zack Snyder to reboot Superman. What will be interesting as the genre continues is, which approach has staying power?

Will people get sick of caped crusaders brooding over duty in a morally ambiguous world?

Or will they just want to see Captain America punch Hitler?

Danny Marchant can be reached at [email protected]