Depending on who you ask, we are either currently in the golden age of superhero movies, or the immense “superhero bubble” is about to pop.
A staggering 28 mainstream superhero films are due from 2017 to 2020, with several more up in the air. Even the biggest fan of the genre might get a little fatigued seeing the world being saved so often.
2000’s “X-Men,” 2002’s “Spider-Man” and 2008’s “Iron Man” kicked off the tidal wave of comic-book blockbusters we’re drowning in. Before that, an action flick based starring a comic hero was extremely rare: 1978’s “Superman” and 1989’s “Batman” were the standouts even though they were a decade apart.
For years, many film critics have bemoaned today’s inundation of superhero movies, saying the “superhero bubble” is dangerously close to bursting. By that, they mean what was once innovative and record-setting is now commonplace. The heroes can only have climactic showdowns against faceless drones in massive cities so many times. Audiences will get tired, and eventually, a $200 million blockbuster will flop horribly, signaling the end of this cinematic superhero era, popping the “bubble.”
Without a doubt, there are tons of these movies coming out — too many, one could easily argue. I, however, say this precarious bubble actually benefits the superhero genre and the movie industry as a whole.
This isn’t the first time Hollywood has been limited by genre. Alfred Hitchcock was forbidden by his studio from showing any actual violence or nudity in “Psycho,” so he decided to create incredible tension instead. Howard Hawks was required to include both a “love plot” and a “work plot” in “His Girl Friday,” so he combined them and made one of the greatest comedies of all time. Warner wanted multiple villains in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” so he used the Joker and Two-Face to weave a brilliant theme about identity throughout the movie.
The “superhero bubble” keeps filmmakers on their toes just as these other limitations did. It forces them to think outside the box and stay relevant. If they stagnate for even a moment, the bubble will pop and they’ll be out hundreds of millions of dollars. Those are high stakes, which ensures we get good products.
Audiences and theaters tend to lump all superhero films into one genre, which was a fair assumption in the Christopher Reeves and Michael Keaton era. Nowadays, thanks to the pressure of the “bubble,” directors and writers have broken free of that category, telling all sorts of stories that just happened to feature characters with superpowers.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” brought us a fun comedy, while “Deadpool” took a decidedly raunchier, R-rated approach to humor. “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a throwback to the adventure serials of the 1940s, and its follow-up, “The Winter Solider,” is an espionage thriller. “The Dark Knight” is a crime epic, and “Watchmen” is as film noir as it gets.
Today, “Logan” hits theaters, and I can’t wait to see it (once the madness of Spring Sing is passed). Trailers and interviews promise a gritty, character-driven drama that just happens to be about the mutant antihero Wolverine. Even the title is indicative of its focus on humanity rather than explosions and catchphrases.
Recent marketing for “Logan” has touted the USA Today review quote, “[It is] a gripping film that transcends the comic-book genre,” and that sums up why I love this overall library of films. When I watch “The Winter Soldier” or “The Dark Knight,” I don’t see geeks in tights — I see fascinating characters and plots that truly have something to say.
Indeed, audiences already pushed back against superhero movies they didn’t like. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “Green Lantern” tanked critically and financially, and their planned franchises were ditched. Reviews for “Suicide Squad” were brutal, so Warner Brothers is seeking out a new writer and director for the sequel. They don’t want to pop the bubble, so they’re working to improve their products.
I’m thankful for the “superhero bubble” so many hate. It keeps directors thinking and looking for new ways to tell their stories. It doesn’t always work, but when lightning does strike, it’s movie magic, and that’s more than worth it.