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Comic-book movies: How much is too much?
When Chase Lee first realized there were going to be more than a half-dozen superhero movies slamming into multiplexes in 2016, it was like discovering a calendar full of holidays.
"If you're a comic-book fan, it's glorious," says Lee, who runs Reel Me In, a Dallas-based weekly podcast about movies. "It's like Christmas Day."
As far as the movie industry is concerned, Christmas started Feb. 12, not with heavenly archangels but a foul-mouthed superhero saga named "Deadpool." Based on the cult Marvel comic book, the film's $132.7 million debut weekend became the biggest R-rated opening ever. A sequel, of course, is in the works.
Now, Christmas continues with "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," starring Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill.
It will be followed in quick succession by:
- "Captain America: Civil War," featuring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow (May 6);
- "X-Men: Apocalypse," starring Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Oscar Isaac and James McAvoy (May 27);
- "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" (June 3);
- "Suicide Squad," with Will Smith, Ben Affleck, Jared Leto, Viola Davis and Margot Robbie (Aug. 5); and
- "Doctor Strange," starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton (Nov. 4).
Against the backdrop of all these battles of good vs. evil, hero vs. villain loom the larger questions: Has America finally reached its superhero saturation point? When will audiences grow numb to the charms of costumed crusaders saving us from CGI-inflicted disasters?
Last fall, Steven Spielberg, certainly no stranger to big, effects-driven movies, said the genre has a lifespan. "We were around when the Western died, and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western," he told the Associated Press.
"There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground," he told the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts in 2013. "And that's going to change the paradigm."
In December, Entertainment Weekly even staged an online debate between editor James Hibberd and writer Natalie Abrams over whether there are too many superhero movies.
He said yes: "I recently realized I'm perfectly OK with not seeing another cape and cowl for a few months. Or a year. Or a few years."
She said no: "We're interested in watching relatable stories with a heightened twist through the lens of someone unlike ourselves, like a superhero."
Lineup: As Batman and Superman battle, and with more than 30 scheduled superhero/comic book films scheduled between now and 2020, it doesn't appear that the superhero bubble will burst any time soon.
"The lineup of superhero films in 2016 is pretty typical when you consider this genre is responsible for some of the highest-grossing films over the last decade," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracking firm. "Including 'Deadpool,' 2016 should officially be deemed year of the comic-book adaptations. Thing is, this sort of lineup will be typical from here on out, as theaters will routinely see a half-dozen or more films every year."
Danny DiGiacomo, marketing vice president for Southern Theatres, the company that operates the Movie Tavern chain in North Texas, says the success of "Deadpool" — an R-rated film in a typically PG-13 category — shows there is still growth and creativity.
"We're seeing that the genre has really exploded, and, with the introduction of 'Deadpool,' we've seen the extension of the entire genre," he says. "I can't predict the future, but what I do know is that the genre is a reliable genre and we'll keep seeing great box-office results and a lot of fan engagement."
Disaster possible: Still, there is a possibility, however remote, that the superhero wave could crest if quality is questionable and word-of-mouth is poisonous.
"Disaster is always just a Joel Schumacher away in the world of comic-book adaptations," says Bock, referring to the director of the much-maligned 1997 bomb "Batman & Robin."
Look at what happened with "Fantastic Four," a 2015 film that seemed to have everything going for it: a deep potential fan base going back to the origins of the Marvel comic book in 1961; a photogenic cast of young stars including Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan and Kate Mara; an admired young director in Josh Trank; and a $120 million budget.
But reviews and advance word were scathing and moviegoers avoided it like Homer Simpson served a bowl of tofu.
"People get fatigued from the same thing (like) blockbuster movies that overuse CGI," says James Wallace, creative director for the Alamo Drafthouse theaters in North Texas. "How many more cities can we watch be destroyed?"
He also says that, especially with a new franchise, filmmakers may spend so much time trying to establish their universe that they forget to make a compelling movie.
"That's where they get into trouble," he says, pointing to what's happened over the years with some of the Spider-Man films. "They're trying to pack in too much stuff and they're trying to set up future films."
A few more "Fantastic Fours" and "Batman & Robins" could put the brakes on these films' momentum.
Yet Wallace remains bullish on superhero movies, saying that bad films might hurt a franchise, as with "Fantastic Four," but not the entire genre.
"A cinematic universe done right can be the coolest thing," he says.
As that universe expands, the movies might evolve and differentiate themselves from each other. We've come a long way from the year 2000, when the first "X-Men" film was released.
"It's so funny to think back at a time when there were no superhero movies and making a comic-book movie was a ridiculous and crazy thing," says Wallace. "Comic books were treated as this thing only for kids, and that was not that long ago."
Limiting: Now, for some at least, it feels like the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
"I avoid them," says Ya'Ke Smith, a filmmaker and the Morgan Woodward distinguished professor of film and video at the University of Texas at Arlington. "I do wish that Hollywood would spread the wealth to smaller films and return to an era where character-driven narratives were produced on as large of a scale as the blockbuster, because in some ways the blockbuster is pushing the smaller films out of mainstream cinemas. Online streaming platforms and TV series are quickly becoming the home for smaller, character-driven narratives."
Yet even he is looking forward to "Suicide Squad."
"It has actors in it that I actually like," he says.
New territory: This underscores the notion that comic-book movies may be shape-shifting into various forms with different appeal to different audiences. There's a world of difference between "Deadpool" and "Ant-Man."
"Since the superhero genre is here to stay, there is no reason why it can't push the envelope and evolve into R-rated territory," says Bock. "Audiences are obviously more than ready for it as 'Deadpool' proved. ... I go into a comic-book shop these days and you know what I see: not teenagers. ... Superhero flicks are now a genre that can cater to every demographic cinematically."
Television is also helping spread the comic-book word through the culture, as such series as "The Walking Dead," "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Agent Carter," "Daredevil," "Jessica Jones," "Arrow," "Gotham," "The Flash," "Supergirl," "iZombie," "Lucifer," "Legends of Tomorrow" and the upcoming, Seth Rogen-produced "Preacher" are based on comic books or graphic novels.
They may find an audience among those who feel ambivalent about going to a theater for a superhero movie, though Bock wonders if these could end up hurting the trend.
"I just wonder how many great (television) showrunners the superhero genre can attract," he says.
Escapism: Then there's the whole event aspect. These are films that many times are closer in spirit to amusement-park rides, more roller coaster than "Raging Bull." As such, they provide the kind of big-spectacle escapism that gets people off the couch and away from Netflix and Redbox and into theaters.
"(Comic-book films) are big (and) people want to go for the spectacle," says Smith.
"These films are perfect to view in a public, communal setting," says DiGiacomo. "The fans love the interactions with each other."
In other words, get ready for at least a few more years of the superhero. For Chase Lee of Reel Me In, the whole question of the genre's survival is absurd. After all, no one does that with other types of movies. He asks, "Do people ever get tired of romantic comedies?"
"'Ant-Man' and 'Deadpool' prove even unknown entities can enchant audiences if they are built on solid foundations," Bock says. "Will they all succeed? Certainly not. But right now, they're the hottest thing going and the easiest way to make money, thus greenlight."
"Superhero films are one genre that appeal to audiences of all ages," says filmmaker Smith. "Adults who have been following their favorite heroes or villains since they were young get their fill of childhood nostalgia while also introducing their children to those characters.
"More than likely their children will introduce their children to those same characters at some point," he continues. "That's why the genre lasts. It's almost a tradition handed down from one generation to the next."