Insight: On Superhero Films and the Heat Death of Cinematic Universes

by AC B. Recio


Marvel and DC. For the past few years, the two companies have been locked in a superhero movie space race, a contest to expand their respective universes one film at a time. With the upcoming theatrical releases of Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League, these universes just keep on growing. But how well have these cinematic odysseys been faring, and what lies in store for them beyond the new frontier?

Images from Justice League and Avengers: Age of Ultron Promotional Posters.

Marvel Studios started independently producing films in 2008 and has had a solid filmography spanning 9 years, 16 movies and counting. Previously unknown heroes like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, and even Groot are now household names thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel movies may have been playing it safe, lacking diversity in their movies (of all the films they’ve released, there have been only two female superheroes and three people of color, none of whom have headlined their own films), sticking to formulaic plots (Ant-Man and Doctor Strange both have extremely similar plot points to Iron Man) and superhero tropes (Macguffins, near-identical evil counterparts, the three-point landing, among others). But the subtle deviations in genre conventions (Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a political thriller, Ant-Man as a heist film, Guardians of the Galaxy as a space opera), the fleshed out and likeable characters and the easter eggs have kept moviegoers on the edge of their seats for the past decade. And of course, any Marvel fan will tell you that the franchise’s greatest strength is its willingness to get comic-booky and not take itself too seriously, while still remaining believable and engaging to viewers.

Thor: Ragnarok Promotional Poster from Marvel Studios.

With Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel seems to have picked up on its previous weak points and emphasized its strengths. The diverse cast, the colorful and retro feel, the comic book references, and the thunderous heavy metal anthem chugging on in the background marks a significant departure from the previous Thor movies, and promises an epic and energetic take more reminiscent of Walter Simonson’s critically acclaimed comic book run on Thor.

A comparison of Thor Vol.1 (1966-1996) by Walt Simonson and the Thor: Ragnarok Theatrical Trailer. Upper left from Thor Vol.1 #362 (1985) and lower left from Thor: Ragnarok Theatrical Trailer depict Skurge the Executioner. Upper right from Thor Vol.1 #353 (1984) depicts Thor and lower right from Thor: Ragnarok Theatrical Trailer depicts Hulk attacking Surtur.

On the other hand, Warner Bros. Pictures’ attempts at a shared DC cinematic universe have been far less impressive. Nearing the end of the critically successful Dark Knight Trilogy in 2009, DC was scrambling to get its cinematic universe off the ground, as the Dark Knight’s restrictive “realistic” tone and setting were not ideal launching points for a universe of flying aliens and super strong amazons. 2011’s Green Lantern was supposed to signal the start of the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU), but due to it being a critically panned box office flop, we had to wait another two years to be introduced to the bleak and joyless world of the DCEU.

The DCEU was launched with Man of Steel (2013). And with director Zack Snyder at the helm, it was no surprise how the movie turned out. All substance was thrown out the window in favor of Snyder’s signature humorless and over the top style (see Watchmen and 300, other comic book film adaptations by Snyder). The movie clearly wanted to avoid campy territory but veered too far the opposite direction and ending up taking itself way too seriously. The filmmakers were so devoted to getting the ending they wanted – a large scale action sequence and Superman killing the villain – that every other element of the film suffered for it. Character motivations were clumsily put-together for the sake of plot (Superman’s motivation was never delineated and was full of irreconcilable contradictions; Superman fought Zod to save lives while not even going out of his way to prevent the destruction of Metropolis), pacing was inconsistent (the opening sequence was out of place like it could be from another movie, and flashbacks appear at random moments giving the movie a disjointed feel), and the film was dominated by extended fight scenes that bored the audiences half to death.

Man of Steel Teaser Poster from Warner Bros. Pictures.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was just as bad, if not worse. The movie was clearly made with the intention that fanboys get to see their ultimate power fantasy: dark brooding genius rich playboy Batman beating the crap out of the big blue boy scout Superman. Everything else was an afterthought. But even then, the whole fight between Batman and Superman was just a red herring. The big bad is really Doomsday, who kills Superman (uhh spoiler alert?), which also sets up Clark’s return from death in a future movie. Gal Gadot is in a supporting role as Wonder Woman, which sets up her solo movie. The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg also make cameo appearances, which sets up the Justice League movie, and the big team-up at the end hypes the crowd for it. See how it all fits? Now mix it all together with weird dream sequences that make you go “what?”, bad decisions by characters that make you go “why?”, and vague references to upcoming storylines that make you go “huh,” and you have a mess of a movie in your hands. Most critics even went as far as panning the movie for being a three-hour long advertisement for the next instalments in the DCEU, Wonder Woman and Justice League. Right now, all DC can bank on is the popularity of their characters. And don’t even get me started on the overhyped mess that is Suicide Squad.

The only decent superhero film Warner Bros. has on their repertoire is Wonder Woman (2017). The sincerity which radiates off the screen was a pleasant surprise considering the cynical tone that DC has set in its previous films. There were no hints of irony in the titular character’s declaration, “I believe in love.” Her optimism is not born of naïveté, but of her great capacity for love and her desire to help bring peace to a war-torn world. Wonder Woman wields the power of the gods but her motivation is borne out of a desire to help and not out of a messiah complex. This deep understanding of character, combined with the earnest tone and lighthearted humor was a welcome change for viewers, one that DC has picked-up on and has seemingly integrated to Justice League, based on the trailers and promotional materials. DC is attempting to be more faithful to the comics (the 2011 Origin storyline from Justice League Vol.2 #1-6 where the League formed in response to an invasion by the forces of Darkseid and Apokolips), injecting more character into their heroes (special mention to Flash, who is not reduced to a stereotypic comic relief character, but can be seen struggling with the burden of being a hero for the first time in his life), and has since improved their fight scenes with truly enjoyable choreography.

Top: Justice League painting by Alex Ross. Bottom: Justice League Promotional Poster from Warner Bros. Pictures.

No other film genre has captured the imagination of the general public more since the emergence of the modern superhero film. Fantastic figures on the screen – larger than life and facing impossible odds. The formula is the same: tragedy strikes and motivates a person to become a hero, a looming threat arises, hero saves the day. The commercial success of the superhero genre shows that the formula has been working, but rest assured that some people are starting to feel the fatigue. With twenty or so superhero movies planned for release until 2020, you can’t help but wonder: can the industry adapt quickly enough to sustain itself? Or will these vast universes, once filled with nearly endless possibilities, slowly run out of energy and end in a whimper? If the trailers are any indication, there’s still a glimmer of hope. The landscape is changing, but if it’s for the better or for the worse, we’ll just have to wait and see.




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