As the year in superhero movies drags on, it’s becoming increasingly clear that for a fairly hefty slice of people out there – both reviewers and fans – the definition of a good superhero movie is “one Disney made” – which is perfectly understandable. Disney has come up with a rock-solid formula for making superheroes palatable to a mainstream audience, and they’ve chained all their films together to create the kind of shared universe that goes well beyond anyone’s previous dreams of a feature film franchise. But that doesn’t mean that Marvel/Disney’s way of making superhero movies is the only way to make them.
Of the non-Disney superhero movies this year, Deadpool was generally dismissed by critics as being little more than crude cheap gags going for shock value. Then it made a crap-load of money, which had critics worried that “all the wrong lessons” would be learnt from it. That is to say, people would start making superhero movies that were crude and excessively violent – the two things Disney movies can’t do.
Batman v Superman had plenty of problems, but its dour tone was the one many critics latched onto, as if superhero movies were only allowed to be light-hearted fun – and yet, not the kind of campy fun that, say, the original Spider-Man trilogy delivered as that’s currently well out of date (don’t even think of mentioning the ’90s Batman movies, even though they made a whole lot of money too). And now X-Men: Apocalypse, which is basically the same kind of over-stuffed and muddled yet generally enjoyable film as all the other X-Men films, is copping a pasting. None of these films are particularly good. All of them are at least as good as the last Thor movie or Avengers: Age of Ultron.
What we seem to be missing out on at the moment is the idea that superhero movies can have a distinct tone that’s not the current Disney/Marvel tone, where things are serious but not so serious the heroes can’t make a few quips, and the angst is something they can brush off rather than something baked into their core (even in the generally well made Captain America: Civil War, Cap’s need to save his old comrade Bucky never feels like the last connection to his past that it should be). When Tim Burton’s first Batman movie hit big, it opened the door to a series of odd films that were basically pure superhero material: The Shadow, The Phantom, Dick Tracy. For the most part, they flopped, while the Batman movies got campier and everything else – planned Spider-Man and Superman movies for one – never happened. By the mid-00s, superhero movies worked in isolated cases: Spider-Man was kind of pulpy, Batman was earnest, Superman was retro. Disney/Marvel made their blander range of characters work by selling them as genre films: Captain America is Bourne-style spy antics (with costumes), Thor is fantasy (with costumes), Iron Man is techno-thriller stuff (with costumes). But they’ve been so successful that we’ve lost the idea that superheroes can be interesting in their own right and in their own way. Marvel/Disney have done so well in selling bland characters that the interesting ones no longer fit the formula. Their heroes might win, but that’s our loss.
Written by Anthony Morris