It has come out recently that Steven Spielberg, legendary director and someone for whom I have great respect, believes the superhero movies are a phase and will fade away much like the Westerns did so many decades ago. Since then Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman director Zack Snyder has also issued his agreement with this thought as well as his own ideas on how to abate such a fate by reining in on such movies even as interest wanes. I for one believe they are both wrong both on the fate and the remedy of this genre, and here's why.
First, the idea that superhero films are a new wave phenomenon is simply not accurate. superheroes have been a persistent theme in fiction for over three quarters of a century now in many forms of media. And the types of larger-than-life characters they were an evolution of have been in literature and media much longer. So while the presence of powered beings saving the day and battling villains on the big screen has had a fairly recent and brief heyday, these characters have had audiences of dedicated fans spanning generations.
The reason for their persistent fandom is because they are idyllic avatars for ourselves and our struggles in life. Their abilities are strengths that we wish we had to abate our own fears and insecurities, their enemies and weaknesses an embodiment of those same trappings. They are the ultimate form of escapism - relatable enough to exist in a archetype of our world, but superior enough to not reflect too much of our inner demons.
Westerns are Antiques
Further, the reason that the Western movie fad did fade away is because while the heroes of those stories filled a similar niche, they weren't powerful enough to prevent the bubble from bursting. In the end they were only human, and we wanted to be more than that. Additionally they failed to be diverse enough. It is hard to build lasting cinematic fandom on characters that lack relatable characters that aren't white or men - the audience is exceedingly narrow just on the numbers.
No matter what else is true, action and drama will always be cinematic draws - it's why each of these meta-genres enjoys entire seasons of glory in the box office. And it is true that superhero movies are invading these turfs and enjoying a significant monopolization of the action segment. So it is easy to see how it can seem similar to Westerns as just the current big thing. And if you look at how many of the big studios are handing these types of properties, Snyder's suggestion to "not just crank out superhero movies for the sake of it" seems sound - Fox is still licking their wounds over yet another failure to make the first family of Marvel thrive and Sony is turning to desperate bedfellows to keep their wallcrawler from running out of webbing. But I say nay - we don't need to sacrifice on quantity if there is simply more sincere effort put into quality.
Warner Bros. is trying hard to catch up to the miles-long lead that Marvel proper has in this field and certainly has faltered at times, but what may be getting overlooked is just why Marvel is succeeding so well in this field. People may postulate that they have a more well-known character set or big-name talent or minimal direct competition. But I call bull on all such hypotheses. Because what Marvel has succeeded to do in the past decade is to build a powerhouse, multi-franchise cinematic universe based on it's own C-list characters. It'd already sold off the rights to its biggest names to other studios in bids to avoid bankruptcy, and when they did finally start taking matters into their own hands, their first properties were characters that only comic book geeks really knew about and featuring actors that most of us had either written off or never heard of. And all the while there have been plenty of big, successful (and some not so successful) superhero movies in direct competition with many of them.
It's Not About Genre
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is winning and showing everyone else how to do it, whether they see it or not. Because what Zack & Steven & even some of the other big players that are actively in the superhero movie business seem to be overlooking is this: Marvel isn't making superhero genre movies, Marvel is making genre movies that feature superheroes. In just the past few years we've seen a heist movie, a serious space fantasy action movie, a silly space anti-hero team-up comedy, a political intrigue drama, and a contemporary sci-fi suspense movie.
There's also the interconnectedness of it all that they maintain with mind-boggling masterfulness. But this is gravy. This aspect is not necessary to success, it's just good cross-marketing. All of these movies could be completely independent and disconnected and they would still be equally successful and enjoyable.
Warner Bros. is attempting to build their own, but we can only hope that they do heed Snyder's warning and not try to pump their movies out in order to "catch up" without keeping an eye on the quality of the stories they are creating and be careful not to get hung up on putting in the biggest names or treating the genre as too much of a silo. Superheroes aren't a genre, they're characters, they're a motif.
Don't Overlook the Other Guys
Furthermore, the industry needs to be careful not to try to bank too hard on name recognition of the featured characters. Warner Bros. is rebooting the two most recognizable names in DC for the umpteenth time and struggling to avoid critique, meanwhile Marvel hit the top of the charts with a movie about a walking tree and a talking raccoon in space. It isn't about the names, it's about the story. And there are so many rich stories to cultivate in the greater comic book mines. In addition to deep, deep benches of lesser known heroes and villains within the ranks at both Marvel and DC, there are entire imprints and independent comic book producers that have yet to see their work explored for adaptation.
What do you think? Is the deathknell coming for superhero movies? What lesser-known or lesser-seen characters are you eager to see grace the big screen?