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Are There Too Many Superhero Movies? A Chart and a Comment

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire May 7, 2014 at 2:20PM

It's not that there are too many movies based on comic books, but there are too many drawing on the same ones.
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Superhero chart

For the second time, Criticwire reader (and critic in his own right) Tim Wainwright has taken the initiative and turned the responses to a survey question into a handy visual aid. (The previous one was "Should Critics Write About Filmmaking?") This time, Wainwright crunched the numbers on "Are There Too Many Superhero Movies?" and the results, as you can see above, are pretty close to an even split.

As Wainwright points out, though, the yesses and the noes came with varying degrees of intensity:

Most Yeses shared two qualifiers. The first: while there aren't too many superhero movies, there is far too much superhero press. Because of the ravenous comic fanbase, every casting announcement and still photo release is reposted by a zillion outlets. Douglas, Rocchi, Snider, and others all made this point to different degrees. 

The second is pretty intuitive: quantity is more important than quality. The Wrap's Alonso Duralde cautioned against snarking at the super, but admitted that "Directors of these movies should consider spending five fewer minutes on destroying Manhattan yet again and use that time to provide some character insight and/or intelligent dialogue." 

Wainwright allows that he leans towards "Team Faraci," referencing Devin Faraci's sarcastic tirade on the subject at Badass Digest. (Faraci blocked me on Twitter several weeks ago, so I wasn't aware of his piece until the responses to the survey question started coming in.) Faraci's argument, in essence, is that four movies a year is not exactly a "glut," comparing it to the 61 Westerns he says were released in theaters in 1957. But as Farran Smith Nehme points out on her Twitter feed, the argument isn't really about numbers but about cultural dominance; only two Westerns made it into the box office top 10 for 1957 (and that's counting "Old Yeller," which is mighty generous). In 2013, two of the U.S. top 10 movies were also based on comics -- "Thor: The Dark World" drops to number 12 when you focus on domestic rather than international box office -- which doesn't seem like much dominance. But look at the rest of the Top 10: Eight of the movies are either science fiction or fantasy, and that's not counting "Gravity," whose radically simplified story and heavy reliance on visual effects makes it feel like sci-fi even though it's not. That leaves "Furious 6" as the nearest thing to a story that takes place in the real world until you get down to "The Heat" at No. 15.

A few of the survey responses pointed out that the initial question lumped superhero movies in with movies based on non-superhero comic books and those, like the "Transformers" saga, that began in other media entirely -- a conflation that was deliberate on my part, since the issue is less one of source material than of an overriding and suffocating aesthetic. It's no accident Comic-Con has become a Station of the Cross for studios looking to promote tentpole movies, including "Gravity" and "The Hunger Games," neither of which has any connection to comic books. And there's a reason why the vogue for adapting comics into movies rarely extends beyond the superhero genre, nor does it includes any of the radical alterations that writers of superhero comics have made to keep the genre fresh. Comic books have openly gay superheroes and a black Spider-Man; the movies don't. It's only too telling that the big twist at the end of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is based on a storyline from 1973.

It's not that there are too many movies that are based on comic books, so much as there are too many based on, or inspired by, the same ones. Comic-book writers vary the mood from issue to issue, but the escalating stakes of big-budget blockbusters require a world-threatening catastrophe every time out of the gate; they rarely have room for the goofy diversions or inspired revamps that keep comics fresh -- let alone any interest in thinking outside of the superhero box. 


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