Will the Superhero Bubble Burst?

What could possibly go wrong?

By Matthew Gohn

Because somehow this wasn't the stupidest thing ever. Image Source:  b  lastr.com

Because somehow this wasn't the stupidest thing ever.
Image Source: blastr.com

Yesterday Marvel Studios announced their slate of films for their Phase 3, a run of superhero and comic book films that will go into 2019. (Read my thoughts on yesterday's announcement here.) This is on the heels of the very similar announcement from Warner Brothers a few weeks ago where WB announced their DC Comics movies, intending to release DC movies through 2020. 

It's easy to forget, but Marvel Studios and WB are not the only players in this game. We've also got Sony and their attempts to build a massive Spider-Man universe, complete with spinoffs for Black Cat and the Sinister Six, as well as rumors of a Venom film. 

Oh, and don't forget the X-Men, a film franchise that has shown incredible dexterity in recent years. Any other franchise would never have recovered from X-Men: The Last Stand, one of the most universally despised films. In spite of that, and an equally hated X-Men Origins: Wolverine spinoff, Fox decided continuity wasn't an issue and successfully navigated the franchise back to glory.

Fox is also distributing The Fantastic Four in 2015, taking a curious approach with that one. Director Josh Trank has chosen a much younger cast that doesn't bear strict resemblance to their comic inspirations. For example, Johnny and Susan Storm are brother and sister in the books. Unless Pop Storm adopted one of them, I'm not sure how Trank will explain Johnny being black and Susan being white. Trank needs to balance a risky approach to the source material, as well as the poor memory of the original films released several years earlier. Oh, sorry if I didn't mention that this was another reboot, Hollywood's favorite word. 

Image Source:  technologytell.com

Image Source: technologytell.com

At this point there are few costumed heroes who aren't in line for a live action treatment. But these aren't the only type of ways superheroes are crowding the pop culture horizon. Two-time Batman actor Michael Keaton recently made a superhero film of sorts with Birdman,  a film about a former superhero actor attempting to regain his popularity. Sure it's not a superhero film in the traditional sense, but it's about the effect of superhero films. You can also look at Guardians of the Galaxy helmer James Gunn's previous film about a man who decides to be a costumed vigilante in Super.  Or the superhero deconstruction Kick-Ass films. We're starting to make an equal number of superhero movies about the effect of superhero movies. It doesn't get much more meta than that. 

I've also neglected to mention Marvel Studios is producing two shows for ABC, and has five series in development at Netflix that hope to replicate The Avengers formula, on television. 

So here we are, in a pop culture landscape that will be dominated by superheroes for the next five years at least. Will this train jump the tracks anytime soon? 

I think so.

Right now, the big players in the game are Marvel Studios, Warner Brothers, Sony, and Fox. All are heavyweight studios making hundred million dollar flicks that bring in many times that over. Marvel Studios have started a bandwagon that everybody is jumping on. They've proved the concept of a shared cinematic universe among their characters can work. You now can make a series of character films and have those lead to event films and repeat. Universal has announced they're going this way with their gallery of classic horror monsters. 

Marvel has also reinvented the concept of the sequel, choosing a strategy seen more on television, a medium where characters can leave for several seasons and show up again when the story calls for them. Marvel still seems to respect the trilogy treatment with their heroes, but look no further than Robert Downey Jr. still around for the next Captain America film as well as the Avengers movies.  It's proven this works, and now Hollywood is on board. But this is not a good thing. 

I don't want to discount superhero movies, a genre I love, by saying it's a fad. Yet, I think that's the unfortunate truth. Fads are defined by three stages. We've already seen that a shared movie-verse can work. Now everybody else is trying to get on board. Pretty soon there will be an over-saturation of costumed flicks and audiences will stop going to see them. It will happen. It's just a question of how it will happen. 

Ever since The Avengers in 2012, we've seen everybody start (and restart) their own superhero franchises. After all, a movie about a talking tree and gunslinging raccoon became the highest grossing film domestically to date in 2014! It's too big to fail. 

But it's going to. As I said, it's a question of how. I've listed my theories on what will happen in the next few years. 

Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends

Image Source:  moviepilot.com

Image Source: moviepilot.com

The Amazing Spider-Man franchise is for now, the weakest. Sony, if I understand the deal correctly, needed to keep making Spider-Man movies or else the film rights would have reverted back to Marvel Studios. Sony owns the rights to Spider-Man and all his kin, which is why Spider-Man wasn't in The Avengers, despite being one of the core members of the group in the comics. 

Sony has announced plans for their Spidey franchise as I'd listed above. The villains and anti-heroes would also get movies and there would be events movies as well. These plans were made before The Amazing Spider-Man 2 released, which might explain why ASM2 feels like a horse designed by a committee. The film suffered the problems of Iron Man 2, structurally speaking, in that it was clearly meant more to build up to another film rather than stand on its own. Now that  ASM2 did not perform as well critically or financially as Sony would have hoped, the webslinger's future is uncertain

Nevertheless, I don't think Sony will give up on the franchise. They'll most likely continue their original plan, though it might be altered. Audiences right now wouldn't take well to a third reboot since 2002, and since Sony has already laid the groundwork for bigger plans, I bet they continue to try, but will ease back their scope and focus more. Spider-Man is a universally adored hero, and if Sony gets it's act together, audiences will respond. 

What will be most interesting are the rumors that Sony and Marvel Studios have been in talks to lend Spider-Man to the Avengers films. Personally, I'm fine without him in the series, although I understand Spider-Man is a critical element of the Civil War storyline. So if Sony has screwed the pooch on their franchise, would they give up Spider-Man? I think they wouldn't. They will do what they can to hold onto the character, even if it involves rushing out terrible films to justify the rights ownership. But it gets you thinking. 

Those Uncanny X-Men

Next, we have the X-men films. Of all comic book franchises, X-men have a considerable adaptability. There are many stories that deal with time travel, alternate futures, alternate realities, and so on. Many character powers can bend the space time continuum at will. In other words, when Fox needed a blank slate to undo all of director Brett Ratner's damage on X-Men: The Last Stand, they had it. We went back in time before his film took place, rebooting it with a new cast. Then they used time travel & alternate realities to bring back the original cast. Days of Future Past could not have worked with any other superhero group except this one. 

I only rank the X-men films low on this list because they don't quite have the juggernaut status of the other two franchise I'm about to list. X-Men have shown to be in continuing good graces with audiences, despite the fluctuating quality of the movies. In addition, X-Men scope seems to be limited, with only the Apocalypse film next on their list. There will also be Deadpool and Wolverine movies released as well, but these are character pieces and not carrying the long-term viability of the franchise on their shoulders. And the X-Force film is being talked about, but Fox has been smart recently with them, so we'll see. 

X-Men films I don't think will tank. Their scope and ambition have always been in perfect sync even at their lowest point. The plan seems to be to keep making them, and not make grand sweeping predictions for the next decade of cinema. Which right now is smart. 

The Justice League

Image Source:  moviepilot.com

Image Source: moviepilot.com

Now we come to DC and Warner Brothers. This is a comic franchise that honestly can't fail. In 2016, audiences will get Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even if the film is as clunky and bad as its title, it will still make hundreds of millions of dollars. In an era where computer graphics can finally do justice to comic book panels, everybody will be curious to see how this duel looks in live action. Everybody. Those who say they'll never see it will still go see it. It can't fail. 

No matter what DC won't be able to fail commercially. However, critically it might be a different story. Man Of Steel in 2013 didn't get as much love or as much money as people would have hoped. Audiences felt the film was disaster porn and that Superman was too much of a downer. Whether Man Of Steel was always meant to be the inaugural film of the DC Cinematic Universe or not is unclear, but if it wasn't then it's a interesting thing to consider how it was shoehorned to be the beginning of their new franchise. 

DC has announced an impressive lineup of films, but it remains to be seen if this is any way premature. I have no doubts that Dawn of Justice will make all the money, but what if it performs as subpar as Man of Steel did? If Batman proves to no longer be a box office draw, then why would audiences go see Shazam or Green Lantern? (not that they saw Green Lantern the first time)

Now, Guardians of the Galaxy has shown us that the most obscure and random characters can win audiences over if done right. But GotG is also a Marvel film, and Marvel has spent six years establishing brand loyalty with audiences. DC doesn't have that brand loyalty yet. Iron Man did very well upon release despite while the Man Of Steel didn't get that love. So to bank billions of dollars of film production on one decent film seems to be putting the cart before the horse.

What seems most likely is that DC releases all of their films anyway, but productions will be iffy over the years. I think we see more cases like the behind the scenes drama of Ant-Man as budgets and expectations clash with director vision. For instance, Henry Cavill has one of the most intense workout regimens of all time to keep his Kryptonian physique. If he needs to stay in that kind of shape for five more years, what kind of salary would be negotiated? Hell, asking that much of him emotionally is a lot as well. 

Another possibility is that DC cancels some of their films and narrows their focus. This would only happen if superhero films across the board are doing weak numbers at the box office and studio heads decided the risk was not equal to the reward anymore. This feels likely to me. Marvel has shown with their franchise incredible patience, taking their time to build to the event film. Warner Brothers has decided their event film will come twice before we introduce other characters. It's brand loyalty has not been earned and there is no way to guarantee the same success The Avengers had simply because they are not doing the exact same thing. 

If Justice League is a failure, WB will have no graceful way to save face as they decide to cancel Aquaman or Cyborg. 

Ultimately DC has such a strong roster and brand recognition in spite of their history, that I don't think they can fail. While failure is not an option, I also think the success they've promised themselves will be slow to fruition. As long as they hold the rights to Batman and Superman however, they're in no real trouble. However, they are at risk of mismanaging those characters, and if they do so audiences will ignore them. 

Avengers Assembled

Joss Whedon's latest looks primed to break moviegoers hearts. Image Source:  moviepilot.com

Joss Whedon's latest looks primed to break moviegoers hearts.
Image Source: moviepilot.com

Finally we've got Marvel Studios. In his highly informative Nerdist interview, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said that in 2008 The Incredible Hulk was presumed to be their guaranteed box office smash, and Iron Man was the risky independent film. Now Marvel Studios has proven themselves a brand name on par with Pixar. After ten films with no real missteps, audiences have a shown a great amount of faith in Marvel.

Phase 3 I believe is only going to cement that faith. For starters, Marvel Studios is finally giving us a black and a female superhero. In addition, they're gearing up to adapt two of their biggest event comic story lines with Captain America: Civil War, an event that will cause our heroes to clash over registration of their powers in society. And then, Thanos campaign of universal destruction is split into two films with the Infinity Wars. Oh, let's not forget, we still have Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man coming out before Phase 3 even begins. 

Marvel has been building to Infinity Wars for six years now, and by the time Part 2 is released it will have been eleven years. For anybody else, I'd say that's too long. Audiences are trained to need a beginning, middle, and end, not for our tales to drag out for so long with no conceivable finale. But after reboot upon reboot upon adaptation upon reboot, our storytelling expectations are warped, and perhaps that's how Marvel is going to get away with it. It also appears that Infinity Wars is being broadcast now as a way of saying to audiences "this is what we're building to."

Infinity Wars will make The Avengers look like a small scale skirmish in comparison. By 2019, the roster of characters in these films will be massive. And yet, I think audiences will be willing to put in the effort to keep up. Let's be real, James Bond is a fifty year old franchise that still pulls people in.

So simply based on Marvel Studios track record and their ability to make even the most outlandish concepts work, yes, I think they'll be okay. But one also has to ask if Marvel is capable of screwing up. 

Slashfilm editor Peter Sciretta in the more recent Slashfilmcast he thinks Marvel has gotten away screw up free thus far because they've made genre films and not superhero films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was an espinage film. Scott Derrickson has been tagged to direct Doctor Strange, a director who has made several horror films. His most recent has been Deliver Us From Evil. This should give you an idea of where they expect Doctor Strange to go. I think this is a valid point. Guardians of the Galaxy wasn't about superheroes per se, even if they share the same universe as Thor. 

It has worked out so far. But Marvel has had drama. Ant-Man slated to release next July was originally directed by comedy director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) but left this summer due to creative differences. It was a revolving door of directors who came and went before Peyton Reed signed on to direct. The script underwent significant rewrites as well. Traditionally this isn't a good thing. 

Paul Rudd in  Ant-Man .  Image Source:  hollywoodreporter.com

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man
Image Source: hollywoodreporter.com

If we surmise that Wright's vision didn't fit with the grand plan for the MCU, then that problem will only get harder as the roster gets bigger. This is where I think they're at risk most, especially since Marvel Studios are known for tight budgets. So Marvel's big hurdles may come internally rather than externally. For now though, their track record and brand loyalty are without question, and it feels as though they can't lose. 

But the bubble has to burst. Superhero films are a fad, and a very expensive and time consuming fad at that. How many more box office bombs will they take before they start cutting their losses? In recent years we've seen several films with astronomical production and marketing costs tank completely. Who would have thought a blockbuster western starring Johnny Depp would do anything other than be the biggest thing ever? 

It's not just the inevitable lifespan of fads to consider either. Audiences are becoming increasingly spoiled for their movie and TV content as well. If HBO GO is launching a cable free version of HBO GO in 2015, how will that affect theater attendance? DVRs and Amazon Instant Video are also forces to consider. The very way we consume television and film is changing quicker than ever before, and undoubtedly the box office will be affected. And the country hasn't exactly bounced back from the recession yet. Plus, for better or worse we have specific scenarios like Marvel's Doctor Strange releasing very close to a presidential election. It's impossible to predict outside forces and how they will affect superhero movies, which is why it's even more audacious to announce five to ten year film plans based on little evidence that they work in the first place. And the superhero film renaissance is only six years old. James Bond and Harry Potter are both much older franchises with proven staying power. 

So I'm hardpressed to think that these films will continue to do gangbusters business. If we start seeing flops, it will make watching the mad scramble to adapt long standing plans all the more entertaining. I think Marvel will persevere, and Warner Brothers as well. Though the X-Men and other mutants I expect will find their film futures to be on wildly unstable ground in the coming years. But I can also see a reality where the Warner Brothers films will screw up royally and quickly. 

In the end, I think we're going to see these best laid plans fall apart. Until then though, I'm stoked to see the next Avengers film. 

Do you think Marvel is infallible? Will DC take the champions torch? Have I forgotten other things entirely? Please leave a comment below!

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