Superheroes in Decline?

This past week has seen some reporting on the number of superhero movies that are released each year, all started with a reasonably presented statement by Steven Spielberg in an interview with The Associated Press:-


“We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western,” said Spielberg. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us.”

That’s a perfectly valid point to make. After all, there was indeed a time when the Western genre accounted for the bulk of the film releases in each year, but then grew out of favour, so it is important that the industry recognises that whilst the superhero genre is strong right now, it may decline (particularly if the quality of the films declines, and so audiences move away from it). The Western was pushed aside during the advent of the sci-fi and horror films of the 50s and 60s, with glossy (for the time) effects and main characters who were generally young teens (albeit played by older actors), thus relatable to the core audience of the time. In addition, the rise of awareness of the race issues associated with the Western genre made some of the films quite embarrassing and in reflection caused a re-think of how to present the old frontier legends, and whilst attempt have been made in recent decades to bring it back in films such as Young Guns, Unforgiven, and True Grit, it certainly hasn’t become a major genre again.

Seriously, watch this film – best example of a remake in recent years.

But, you could argue, Superhero films are diverse, with the fantasy sci-fi of Guardians of the Galaxy being significantly different to The Dark Knight in tone and content. Yes, that’s true, but the same could be said of the classic western genre. There were the generic, and somewhat corny westerns, and there were the grittier ones, such as Clint Eastwood’s series of films. However, as stated, the young audiences moved to the sci-fi and horror genres of the time in droves, which is an important factor in the decline. What genre could they move to now, given that most genres are already covered these days, and the days of effects really impressing us so much with something new are generally gone (with the rare exception of films such as The Matrix and Avatar)?

All that aside, Spielberg’s comment has been taken out of context by many, and he is in no way being demeaning to the genre – heck, the guy is a Producer on the Transformers films. No, he is simply proffering a warning to the industry to not anticipate the genre lasting forever, and maybe they should also invest in other ideas and genres too.

Then Emma Thompson weighed in on the debate in an interview with Vulture:-

emma-thompson“I loved the original Superman with Chris Reeve because there was a real tongue-in-cheek-ness to it,but their constant appearance at the theatre is getting old. After a while, you do get a tiny bit cynical about it.
The fact that I know they’re going to win out in the end has now slightly interfered with my continuing to go to those movies. If I see yet another Spider-Man, I’m going to have to actually hang myself.
I can’t do it any-more! They’re all marvellous, but how many times can you make this franchise, for crying out loud?”

It does feel that the final sentence was tacked on when she came to the realisation that she had just managed to alienate her from every major studio – unless, of course, she really thinks they are all marvellous…including Fantastic Four. However, her general statement sums up to, “I hate knowing that everything will work out in the end for the heroes, so am fed up with them!” Okay, that’s fair enough, but isn’t this the same for pretty much any genre of films? Don’t we know, generally, that the boy and girl from opposite sides of life will get together in the end? Don’t we know that the pure, innocent girl will survive the attack by the knife wielding psycho, whilst the highly sexed best friend will be killed in the second act? Don’t we know that the criminal who has evaded those two cops for decades will finally have a showdown with one of them in a one on one fight, and be taken down? To refer to a franchise that Thompson herself was part of, didn’t we know that Harry would win and Voldermort would be defeated? Heck, don’t we know that the rowdy kids that won’t listen to the nanny will eventually be amazed by her magical abilities, and the family will become a perfect unit by the end?

Yes, there are examples in every genre where things don’t go the predictable route, and the hero dies, the killer gets away, and so on – heck, even Amazing Spider-Man 2, which Thompson appears to not be a fan of, kills off the love interest (sorry, it’s a spoiler, but seriously the comic told that story decades ago) – but we watch the bulk of films (particularly the summer blockbuster) for a sense of enjoyment, the thrill of the spectacle, and to see good defeat evil because if we wanted to see evil win all the time we would stay at home and watch the news. The superhero genre is escapism, and a way to believe that all evil can be overcome, delivering us hope in ourselves. That’s why I read comics, and that’s why I watch films – to escape.

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And because of shots like this! Damn, this film was awesome!

If Thompson sees another Spider-Man she is going to actually hang herself? Really? Better get the rope ready then, love, as he’ll be in Civil War next year. Will she follow through with her ‘actual’ claims? I get what she is trying to say, the plethora of Superhero films are dragging her down. You know, there are just so many each year! I mean, this year alone has seen…erm….three released (four if you feel the need to include Kingsman as it came from a comic, but seriously it isn’t the same thing). Last year saw 5 (7 if you include TMNT and Transformers: Age of Ex-Stink-Shun, or 8 if you throw Birdman into the mix). This is a lot, isn’t it. No wonder celebs feel the need to weigh in on the fatigue they feel about it all.

However, this year (2015 for those caught in a timewarp) also sees 19 horror films, 53 comedies, 12 biographies, and 51 dramas, as well as a load of sci fi, thrillers, and documentaries. “But the comedies are all different sub-genres!” I hear some of you cry out. Okay, let’s just use the 7 romantic comedies then (the smallest breakdown of the comedies this year). Looking at those figures the 3 Superhero films don’t seem that excessive, do they? You can’t even argue that they dominate the box office, which makes them take away from other films, as only one (Age of Ultron) resides in the top ten for the year (at number 3).

This won’t be the last we hear of this debate, after all the subject has come up every couple of years since Iron Man hit the screen. Regardless of whether the genre does decline, lets just enjoy the fantasy whilst we have it, and stop trying to predict its failure.


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