April ushers in a possible sea-change moment for the superhero film phenomenon. The horizon is obscured by the hulking behemoth money-magnet that is Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of a 22 film run from Marvel Studios and producer Kevin Feige, and potentially the biggest movie event of all time. But what after that? Will the genre go ‘the way of the western’ as Steven Spielberg famously stated in 2013? With the end of this particular line-up of Avengers and the Disney/Fox merger, one can’t help but think of the possible mask-clad oblivion that’s in store for the foreseeable future and its inevitable implosion. (Brexit’s obviously getting to me.) Other Disney export, the much maligned Solo: A Star Wars Story, came as a reminder to the conglomerate that you can’t necessarily pump out regular instalments of a franchise and expect your audience to lap it up – appetites need to be whetted, expectations built. Yet, with both Disney and Warner Bros. gearing up to launch their own streaming services, this seems a good moment to take stock of this phenomenon and where it’s likely to go.
Wedged into this already over-crowded field, come the two latest super-offerings. Despite originating from different comics (Marvel and DC), the leads of both films actually share the same super-title – Captain Marvel – as if I needed to prove the industry’s super-saturation further. Aside from this coincidence, Captain Marvel and Shazam! share relatively little connective tissue except for some traits that seem to characterise the comic book genre in this pre-oblivion stage – what I’m going to refer to as ‘Post-post Modernity’ – and how they fit in the wider context of superhero-dom. When I say post-postmodern, I mean the ‘knowing’ quality of this genre, the meta way in which the genre routinely stagnates, re-assesses, and reinvents itself (with varying results). It can also apply to the kind of relationship some audience members (including myself) have with the genre, simultaneously indulging and criticising the phenomenon in equal measure. This particular amendment to the comic book movie isn’t wholly new, the genre has moulded itself over time in the same way as the western – chopping, changing and adapting to current tastes – whilst retaining essential recognisable tropes.
For those not familiar with comic book films, the genre has gone on a significant journey since the turn of the century. Superheroes had commanded the box office from time to time beforehand, but Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) kicked off a new wave of super-obsession complete with modernised costumes, quips galore, and a climatic CGI battle. Today’s cape-laden release schedule would’ve been novel to audiences of the new millenium used to original blockbuster concepts (The Matrix owned the summer of 1999). The arrival of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man (2002) solidified a new thirst for everything Stan Lee, and thus plans of the current MCU were put into motion. In 2008, two films would change the landscape of the superhero blockbuster for different reasons: The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Christopher Nolan’s second Batman outing is often heralded as the best in the genre, and kicked off a number of ‘dark’ superhero imitations, none more successful than its successor The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 which was the first comic book adaptation to break $1 Billion at the box office. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, although not as influential artistically speaking, was the first official MCU film and, as such, birthed the interconnected highly lucrative global franchise.
So, superhero films could now come in different flavours, yet many of the elements which painted the genre in a bad light by critics remained the same – unimaginative villains, CGI overloaded fights, and a lack of diversity. The current stage of the genre’s lifespan was ushered in by Deadpool in 2016 which dis-assembled the traits of the superhero film whilst also indulging them. It must be noted that many films released before Deadpool played with the expectations of this genre – Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, A History of Violence, Guardians of the Galaxy and Kick-Ass all worthy subversions of the genre – yet Ryan Reynolds’ ‘Merc with a mouth’ did so in a broad, direct manner (and was all-the-more successful for it). This post-postmodern sense of self-awareness is where I see the superhero genre at this very moment, a genre that is at-once labelled fantastical guff and art for the masses. At this tier, the superhero film can almost act as a cultural weapon for social change: Wonder Woman‘s financial success showed the genre could be a platform for female stories; and Black Panther saw such a swell of public support the Academy had to take notice and make it the first superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture; whilst Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse went ahead and picked up a statue this year for it’s unique visual style, meta-storytelling and diverse cast. Despite their socio-political resonance, none of these films completely do away with the tropes of the genre, still making time for computer generated smashery in their final acts that undermine their forward-looking elements.
The arrival of Shazam! this weekend provides another intriguing addition to this post-postmodern film landscape. The film is a fun, run-of-the-mill superhero yarn that only seems good in comparison to the tonal mess of the DC films that have come before. Shazam! squanders its most valuable asset, namely its central teenage hero who is played fantastically by Zachary Levi, bouncing off the equally brilliant Jack Dylan Grazer as his disabled foster brother/sidekick. As soon as Shazam! veers off into standard superhero, grey CGI villain, origin nonsense it loses the edge it carefully cultivates between its two leads, finally doubling-down in what can be only be described as a ‘lit’ Power Rangers finale. It’s as terrible as that sounds. Yet, perhaps more interesting than the film itself is the post-postmodern way in which DC likes to remind you of their other properties through t-shirts, backpacks, and… action figures. I shit you not, there is a moment in Shazam! where a child is playing with Batman Vs. Superman on-brand action figures as he watches new hero Captain Marvel and rent-a-villain Mark Strong beat the living crap out of each other. The amount of merchandise on-screen was actually quite troubling – are DC strapped for cash or something? I can’t help but feel this brings a whole new credence to the common assertion that superhero films are 3-hour long toy adverts (the actual reported length of Avengers: Endgame).
Captain Marvel’s (the Marvel one, keep up with me here!) post-postmodern edge is far more subtle and nestled in its story which makes it, in my opinion, the superior film. It flips the usual origin story on its head, seeing Captain Marvel endowed with her powers from the off, retroactively discovering her alter-ego identity. Through this simple subversion, the film manages to deliver a wider sociological message about the societal pressures imposed on women. Perhaps the more worrying post-postmodern element that both films share is the growing trend of framing these movies on pre-existing Hollywood ‘classics’: Kevin Feige mentioned in press for Captain Marvel the influence of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day evident in the movie’s 1990s LA setting and sci-fi, shapeshifting narrative; whereas Shazam! acknowledges Tom Hanks comedy Big in a not-so-subtle mid-battle foot piano gag. Not only are Hollywood remaking every single piece of IP they can get their hands on, they’re also sneakily remaking other crowd-pleasers in order to give their films some sort of semblance of character. Take a look at many of the most recent comic book offerings and it’s not hard to see the framework:
- Thor: Ragnorok AKA Flash Gordon
- Spider-man: Homecoming AKA Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
- Black Panther AKA The Lion King
- Logan AKA Unforgiven
- Suicide Squad AKA Escape From New York
In this post-postmodern age of immediate consumption, the only way to avoid the homogenisation of a ‘house style’ is to imitate the tone and story beats of other films that are, in their own way, considered postmodern. Not wholly a bad thing, but it doesn’t bode well for the future of originality in blockbusters. Even the directors of these classics are in on the action, Martin Scorsese producing DC’s upcoming Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix which looks to be heavily influenced by his own King of Comedy. Not-to-mention the many talented up-and-coming filmmakers that haven’t made their own classics yet and locked into Disney/DC contracts, such as The Rider’s Chloe Zhao helming Marvel’s Eternals.
What am I trying to say with all this? Am I a super-fan or a super-critic? Are superhero films destined for extinction? Are they a socio-political barometer of western society or empty fluff? I think a bit of the former and a lot of the latter. I could say that the post-postmodern elements I’ve highlighted in this piece are directly linked to American identity politics, the self-reflective nature of superhero films mirroring a nation ashamed of/leaning on its national identity. This speaks true to me in part. I tend to watch superhero films with a kind of double-consciousness: the fan side of my brain revelling in the smashing, quipping and macguffins; the cinephile side crying with rage at the omnipresence of the Mouse House and the fallible tropes of the genre. A very post-postmodern kind of guilt-complex. Yet, time and again, I fork it over to see the latest merchandise-athon (usually on opening night). I’ve already got my tickets for Avengers: Endgame. To me, it’s no different to a Game of Thrones obsession. Pick your (fantastical) poison.
In establishing a universe with room to experiment, Marvel have set an unobtainable precedent for other studios. Watch the most recent Fantastic Beasts and tell me that the Harry Potter universe isn’t being superhero-ified too. Like it or not, comic book films are here to stay. But this doesn’t have to have negative connotations. Perhaps like the western the superhero fad will fade with time, but it will always be part of our societal makeup as long as pop culture stays alive. It will retain its core DNA, but hopefully we’ll see more and more complex takes on the genre. Many of my favourite westerns are from recent years, not the 1960s. Like the future of streaming services, it’s hard to predict where the genre is likely to go, although it’s hard to imagine it won’t implode under its own weight soon. We’ll shuffle through post-postmodernity, post-post-postmodernity, uber-modernity and quantum-modernity in the years to come, re-examining our pop culture identities, then re-examining our re-examinations. The days of Avengers Assemble (2012) seem long ago, belonging to a simpler time, and with the Endgame in sight, maybe this is my opportunity to jump the Good Ship Marvel and do away with my cape-shaped addiction until the super-pocalypse is over.
Who am I kidding? I’ll be first in line for Avengers 17 when it streams directly onto my eyeballs via the Disney Plus implant installed into my digi-cerebellum.