By Sam Adams | Criticwire May 5, 2014 at 9:15AM
Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.
Q: The release of the second "Spider-Man 2" in a decade has many critics, even those with some fondness for the film, crying redundancy. Given that this summer will see new installments in the X-Men, Sin City and Transformers franchises, and Marvel has its movie slate planned through 2028, are there just too many movies based on comic books? And if not, what do future need to do to make sure they're not retracing others' steps?
Piers Marchant, Philadelphia Magazine, Pop Matters
Short answer: Absolutely yes. And I say this as a (only slightly) reformed comic book fan. Like all comics geeks, I was thrilled when Hollywood first came calling, but now that the genre is utterly dominating the industry, I've grown increasingly bored of them. While there are occasional exceptions (I remain a fan of the first two Singer X-Men films; and "The Avengers" was pretty much everything you want in such a movie), there's a general laziness to their creation now, a rote checklist of three-act beats and CGI stunts like any other would-be blockbuster. I'm not saying there won't be any standouts, but you have to sit through a lot of dreck to get to them. Um, much like the rest of the summer stock. As for the future, the films that actually feel as if they're putting their heroes in peril -- be it physical or psychological -- can be compelling. Be meticulous, you comics filmmakers, and try to avoid having CGI bail you out at every turn.
Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly
Without parsing the semantics too finely, I guess we'll know if there are too many comic-book movies when audiences stop making it profitable for studios to keep making them. As frustrating as it may be for professional critics to watch so much attention grabbed by these franchises, they continue to make craploads of money. And even many of the grumpiest opponents of ubiquitous comic-book movies wouldn't object if they were all like, say, Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies. There are never too many really good movies, of any kind.
What I suspect is that, for many movie-lovers, it's not so much that there are too many comic-book movies. It's really that every comic-book movie becomes part of the endless cycle of long-lead trickle publicity: the announcement of the filmmaker; casting rumors; casting confirmations; first look at costume designs; first set photos; rumors about plot elements; confirmations of plot elements; first teaser trailer; etc. etc. so that by the time the movie itself actually appears we are sick to death of the thing. The seemingly insatiable appetite of hard-core fans for this non-news turns every detail into movie-coverage kudzu, choking out everything else. We'd be less fed-up with the half-dozen or so comic-book movies a year if each one didn't generate 10,000 blog posts.
Edward Douglas, Coming Soon, Superhero Hype
It's not that there's too many superhero movies or that there's a redundancy as much as that there are fewer movie writers writing about other movies and every outlet, however appropriate or not, are writing solely about superhero movies, so it seems like overkill in that sense. I thought "Captain America: the Winter Soldier" wasn't really like any other superhero movie I'd seen and "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" was very different from that even though it was in the same world/tone as the previous movie. I expect "X-Men: Days of Future Past" to fall somewhere between "X2" and "X-Men: First Class," both decent movies, and it should be able to appeal to that audience. But the best way comic book filmmakers can stay fresh is always go back to the original source material, the comics, rather than trying to use other comic book movies as reference, which definitely was a big problem for a while there.
Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter, Tribune
"Are there just too many superhero movies?" To ask the question is to answer it. But so long as short-term-fixated corporate cinema targets male under-25s at the expense of all other sections of the population, their bombastic preponderance is assured and guaranteed. Excelsior!
Farran Smith Nehme, Self-Styled Siren, the New York Post
I can't imagine an honest answer to the first question that is anything other than "yes." As for what superhero movies can do to stand out from the herd, if that's a box-office question, search me. On an artistic level, these films desperately need a touch of the poet. They need a John Ford.
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, Linoleum Knife
I grew up on comic books, so my interest in seeing superheroes on the big screen hasn't yet been entirely squashed. (There is a creeping sense of "Be careful what you wish for" with each passing year, admittedly.) I think some of the most successful of these films to date have come when studios don't turn the reins over to traditional action guys (*koff* Zack Snyder *koff*) and instead go with filmmakers who bring other skills and interest to the table, like Joss Whedon, the Russo brothers and Marc Webb. (OK, that last one worked once, anyway.)
The best comic books deliver plenty of large-scale action, but they also create characters who are funny, tragic, empathetic and compelling, and that's what the good superhero movies figure out how to do as well. 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.
Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket
As someone who's been a diehard superhero fan since childhood, I'm all in favor of the slew of comic book-based movies we've seen in recent years. Then again, the majority of them have been good, so that helps. As long as the quality level stays high, I say, keep bringing them on! As to the second part of the question, I wrote an entire essay about it last summer. Long story short, future superhero movies need to stop retelling origin stories that have already been successfully told, draw on some of the less well-known villains rather than repeatedly trotting out the same old offenders, and find ways to keep the heroes interesting from sequel to sequel. And for goodness sakes, make a movie about a female superhero from time to time. There are plenty of worthy ones waiting for their turn to move front and center.
James Rocchi, About.com
It's not that there are too many superhero films -- at Badass Digest, Devin Faraci number-crunched the 4 comic-book movies in 2014 against the figure of 63 Westerns in 1957 as a supposed counter to that suggestion -- but instead the real problem that movies like "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Captain America 2" and the in-progress "Batman vs. Superman" and "Avengers 2" are so very expensive that they by their very nature they distort modern moviegoing around them, a square-cube function of money and marketing. It's less about number and more about magnitude. Costs are incomparable, but you could make a lot of Westerns -- or other movies -- out of the money Fox is paying to make & market "X-Men: Days of Future Past." At the same time, initiatives like the Netflix-Marvel 4-series alliance also represent possibilities for reducing production cost while trying to make fans happy with quality stories at a price point stockholders can respect. Right now, the big-movie ecosystem is out of whack, and comic-book films are a big part of that.At the same time, since we apparently clearly have to have these things, and they can often be good, they're still most frequently utterly ruined by that most deadly narrative Kryptonite, fidelity to the source material that turns fan service into a suicide pact. As Ms. Dargis pointed out last Friday, "There’s something amusing about the corporate owner of a superhero brand being held near-hostage by the love of the comic-book true believer, yet it’s hard not to think that this fanatical love can be as creatively inhibiting as the company bottom line."The other problem with superhero films is that they often come out of cultural creations and characters who were, often, thought up over a few drinks in a dark bar on deadline by guys who'd signed work-for-hire contracts in 1964. It's what I jokingly call the retro-normative paradigm -- a blandness and sameness in teams where "diversity" is either the knockout lady or the space alien, or a dramatic universe with one person of color in the newsroom at the Daily Bugle -- '60s-era four-color two-bit storytelling and thinking pumped up, largely unaltered, for the present day movie-screen. Say what you will about the "X-Men" films, whatever you think their lowest point to be -- and yeah, you do have a lot of options -- they look more like America and the 21st Century than "The Avengers" does, in no small part thanks to different eras of creation and also in no small part because of storytelling decisions made here and now. The pop culture of the 21st century can -- and should -- be better than what's come before when it comes to both narrative structure and the power structure.
Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News
I'm not sure we've seen a gay superhero movie, yet. So that would be novel and not a rehash of what's been done before. How about it Hollywood? You already have hot guys in tights.
Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com
There’s a problem with this question. This might sound like an insanely fanboyish way of splitting hairs, but there’s a method to my madness.
You note that this summer will see new installments in the X-Men, Sin City and Transformers franchises. That is true, but only one of those is a superhero property, X-Men. "Sin City" is an adaptation of a gritty comic book. Transformers is an adaptation of a feature-length toy commercial from the eighties that was masquerading as a Saturday morning cartoon. In fact, so far this year, there have been two superhero films ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and last weekend’s "The Amazing Spider-Man 2") whereas in the same period, three faith-based films have seen wide-releases in theaters ("Son of God," "God’s Not Dead," and "Heaven Is for Real"). In fact, even accounting for the upcoming reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which, again, is not strictly speaking a superhero adaptation), there will be five superhero movies this year, and six faith-based pictures (discounting "Noah" and "Exodus"). Yet, in the grand scheme of thıngs (which is, what, 300 wide releases), neither counts too much.
Apart from a few hit-whoring pieces about their box-office prospects, Christian movies don’t get nearly the same amount of “Run to the hills; the plebs are taking over Cinema”-thinkpieces. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
My point is that based on the actual number of films, there doesn’t seem to be as many superhero films at the multiplex as the eight billion articles on the subject suggest. If by superhero films, one is referring to a certain aesthetic (bubblegum or what-have-you), that is not nearly a new trend. Many of the Schwarzenegger/Stallone festivals of beefcake from the eighties are implicitly superheroic. Arnold’s character in "Commando" might not wear a skin-tight costume, but he is nonetheless replete with all the qualities of a physical ubermensch. And I am sure you recall William Goldman’s assertion in “Which Lie Did I Tell?” that even "The Deer Hunter" is in fact a comic-book movie.
Superheroes have made the leap from being the nexus of a certain type of niche culture to being a part of popular culture. There is nothing that suggests that they are taking over film, in general. This debate reminds me of the shitty infographics that sites like Mashable peddle out during the Oscars about how so many films coming out of Hollywood are now either adaptations or remakes. In 1939, one of the greatest years of Hollywood cinema, only one Oscar nominee had an original script. When you skew the sample size, everything starts to look like a trend.
Zac Oldenburg, Having Said That
Devin Faraci nails it here. People need to calm down and not worry so much about the number of superhero movies. If you don't like them, that's fine, doesn't mean they are ruining all the other movies out there. How many terrible horror films are released each year? People seem able to ignore those without much fuss. Plus, people come out in droves to see them, so they are connecting with someone, and they obviously aren't sick of them. As for the future of the genre, I hope they follow Marvel's footsteps and try and make each of the entries for into a different genre box.
Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second
I'm quite fond of the comic-book movie. I came of age professionally with this current iteration, which is kind of neat given that I came of age with the comic-book a decade or so earlier. As it stands I see the comic-book movie as something that is now a part of the fabric of the Hollywood spectacle picture, and transcend genre. My teens were filled with a glut of uninspired Blockbusters, devoid of identity, but the post-millennial wave of superhero movies -- granted, not the ideal term given that I'm talking about fare as diverse as "Sin City" (crime drama), the various Spider-movies (coming-of-age film) and "Man of Steel" (most successful when viewed as a "Day The Earth Stood Still"-type visitor-from-another-planet movie) -- give a shape and a form to the wider mainstream Hollywood picture.
As for their future, well I think they're heading in a solid direction. "Iron Man Three" and the second "Captain America" film has seen Marvel head out in interesting, diverse directions, with black comedy and conspiracy thriller, while "Guardians of the Galaxy" looks set to diverge even more dramatically. For me the real test comes post-"The Avengers: Age of Ultron," when the sensibility of Edgar Wright, a very distinctive filmmaking voice, is introduced via "Ant-Man." That said, I'm not particularly apprehensive about even that. The work of DC on the other-hand leaves me less confident, though I'm sitting on my hands before more is known. The casting of Ben Affleck as an aged Dark Knight strikes me as particularly inspired though. Elsewhere, I quite like the idea of Hollywood looking outside of the major two comic-book companies too. Books like Brian K. Vaughan's "Saga" and Ed Brubaker's "Fatale," and other creator-driven properties may be the next line of enquiry for studios, and with that comes an extra layer of creative attachment. While the architects behind many of the current Marvel and DC projects are either dead or Stan Lee, the creators of these modern books are still very much in control of their ideas (see Robert Kirkman's involvement with the "Walking Dead" television show) and arguably provide an extra level of quality control. In theory at least.
Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot
I tend to agree with Devin Faraci's recent, highly sarcastic article at Badassdigest, the gist of which was that in the past, there have been, for example, way more westerns in a given year than there have ever been superhero movies. I think even the question you phrased is already comparing apples and oranges -- "Transformers" is rooted in toys rather than comics, and "Sin City" has no superheroes in it.
There need be no shortage of good superhero stories any more than there need be a shortage of good war movies. I think the problem is that so far, most superhero movies have wanted to tell the same "trilogy" arc that's always loosely patterned on either the Donner/Lester Superman films (origin story, hero wants to abdicate responsibility, hero faces dark version of self) or the Burton/Schumacher Batman arc (start conventional, go weird and alienating, get bigger and funnier and add new heroes). Let somebody do a "Gotham by Gaslight," with Batman in the Victorian era. Give us the Soviet Superman of "Red Son." If the way to get people to accept this is to make an "Avengers"-style movie that establishes a multiverse, and that means getting Barndon Routh and Tom Welling to appear as alternate-universe Supermen facing off with Henry Cavill, do it. Give us Alan Moore's" Swamp Thing," now that technology can actually do more than Man-in-Suit with this concept. Hell, even though the name is associated with box-office poison, a comic-accurate Howard the Duck could be amazing. I'd even be up for Kirk Cameron to try and do an updated Bibleman reboot, just for the sake of something different.
Comics aren't the problem. Narrow interpretations of them are. Thankfully, movies like "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and James Gunn's "Super" are moving things forward, slowly.
Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running, RogerEbert.com
As the great critic and humanitarian Devin Faraci has pointed out, perhaps more than four times, out of the hundreds of releases opening in movie theaters and on demand and everywhere else in 2014, only four of those are superhero movies. So leave him alone, people. (Just to make things worse for him, I hear he HATED the new "Spider Man.") The problem isn't too many superhero movies. The problem is pretending that the superhero movies somehow transcend superhero movies. Even critics who pride themselves on not caving in to genre hierarchies are sorely tested by the triumphalist baying of nerd culture, and its incessant but certainly by no means emotionally or intellectually immature whingeing about why don't we take this stuff as seriously as they do because even though it's POP CULTURE it's also SMART and that's so GREAT because SMART can be FUN and what's wrong with FUN and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. It's the never-ending defensiveness of the ostensibly higher-toned culture vulture devoting scads of Paper of Record pages to complaints along the lines "Stop telling me to watch Tarkovsky when I've told you a million times I prefer 'Game of Thrones' which is really sharper and more relevant anyway." It's the suck suck sucking sound of the arrogantly know-somethingish demanding that you acknowledge its intellectual value and continuing to mock you after you do. I'm sorry, what was the question?
Eric D. Snider, Movie B.S. with Bayer & Snider
It's not that there are too many superhero movies. Even if there are five or six a year, they're still less numerous than, say, R-rated comedies about stoners, or rom-coms about New York women who work at magazines. It only seems like there are too many superhero movies because each one is preceded by 10,000 Internet articles about it, from casting to plot rumors to set visits. That kind of massive overkill, previously reserved for major "event" films, has become the standard for this genre. And whose fault is that? Our own damn. We've fatigued ourselves by over-covering these movies.
Vadim Rizov, Filmmaker Magazine, The Dissolve
I think the question is "too many for who?" It's obviously not too many for the audiences that make it easy for these movies to hit half-a-billion+ without breaking a sweat. If the business of Hollywood is making money, then no, there aren't too many. These movies are continuing to prove a sound investment -- not all, but enough to justify their mass manufacture -- and therefore they should continue to be made; if people want to watch the same Spider-Man trilogy twice in a generation, I hope they have a nice day for it. I just want everyone to be happy.
Personally, I don't see much of a distinction between "superhero movie" as stand-alone genre and the generically CGI-powered spectacle (e.g. the recent "Titans" movies); former's just a sub-genre of the latter, I think. People pay on a mass scale to watch a lot of CGI that looks pretty garbage-y to me. Because CGI has become so incredibly uniform -- unconvincing flying through the air, a vague and unjustified haze hanging over everything, monsters with weirdly rippling skin -- there's very little sense of difference from one film to the next. And I'm not seeing many new imaginative technicians on par with James Cameron (the good, pre-"Avatar" one) or Steven Spielberg in this realm -- there's J.J. Abrams, Guillermo del Toro and Brad Bird (at least just that once with "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol"), and my recall ends there.
I heard a dude, pre-multplex-movie, saying that he doesn't pay to watch dramas or romcoms in the theater because there's no point -- but blockbusters he goes out for, because it's worth the extra money to see all those effects. I find this point of view pretty baffling, but it's futile for me to pretend that it doesn't (or shouldn't) exist. This also seems like part of the banalization of the blockbuster: a movie can make $1.5 billion without in any way seeming like an "event." Yes, readers, I'm a lot of fun.
Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight
My kneejerk reaction: yes, there are too many superhero movies. However, I think the real problem is less that there are too many -- 10 superhero films in this or any year is a lot, but there could be 20 or 30 or worse. Instead, it's that a lot of the movies we're getting from this genre often feel extremely similar to each other. As a few other writers have pointed out lately, the consistency of spectacle in modern cinema means that spectacle, in itself, isn't as spectacular as it should or could be. In part, this is by design; Marvel's cinematic universe is overseen by a series of writers and producers who are attempting to make sure many of their films fit together as part of a larger piece, as opposed to standing out too much. But in part, it's because there's a lack of creativity on display in more and more of these movies. I have some hope for "Ant-Man" and "The Guardians of the Galaxy," but only because I hope those films' directors (who are quirkier than the Marc Webbs of the world) can do something different within the Marvel system, not just make a workmanlike product. I think that's the solution, too; for these movies to feel more like labors of love as opposed to just labor.
Richard Brody, the New Yorker
No matter how many superhero movies the studios may churn out, there are still -- and always will be -- a whole lot more mediocre, even execrable, lower-budgeted naturalistic dramas about so-called real people. A bad superhero movie is no worse than a bad adaptation of an acclaimed novel or than a bad political drama. In any case, if a superhero movie is good, so much the better; if it's not? Well, some actors and other participants may make some money, so that when Terrence Malick or another great filmmaker working on a lower budget comes along with a project that will take six months, they'll be more likely to go with it. Or if there's no overlap, then there's no overlap. In any case, I think that much of the complaining about the number of superhero movies involves critics donning their own superhero mantle and presuming to defend the supine masses (while praising those mediocre naturalistic and political dramas).
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
I try really hard, honest I do, to approach all films without judging their genre in advance but I'll admit to a sinking feeling that hit me during the opening scenes of "Thor: The Dark World" last year that felt a lot like exhaustion. To the question of are there too many superhero movies, the answer is "undeniably." I think even the people who make them would admit that. But it's a supply-and-demand thing. McDonald's execs would probably admit there are too many Big Macs too but they'll keep making them as long as people keep eating them. Creatively, what the genre needs are creative voices willing to break free from the same recipe (which "Dark World" and "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" definitely did not) like Christopher Nolan, Joss Whedon or, I hope, James Gunn. For even though superhero exhaustion frustrates me, I can admit that "Guardians of the Galaxy" preview looks pretty damn cool. Like all genre fans, even the exhausted ones, I still hold out hope.
Jason Osder, "Let the Fire Burn," George Washington University
Yes. I'm not a critic, but in my personal appraisal of films, I give special points simply for not being retread: not a comic book, not based on a book, not a sequel, and not a remake. Sometimes I scan the listings to see if anything at all fits that criteria. I'm not one to say there is too much of something, and I like a super hero film as much as the next guy (often much more than a non-super action film), but there is the sense that this retread (and presumably it being an easier studio sell) is sucking up all the oxygen (read money) in the room.
The problem isn't so much that there are too many superhero films as there are too many blah ones. Instead of remaking the Spider-Man films so soon after Sam Raimi's trilogy, or continuing the further adventures of Wolverine, why not dig a little deeper into the Marvel archives? I'd love to actually see a big-screen version of Doc Strange, for example, instead of just rumors about one. And the astral-tripping Silver Surfer deserves his own movie, instead of just guest-star status in a Fantastic Four film.
John DeCarli, Film Capsule
Of course there are too many superhero movies! As someone who has no stake in many of these characters and situations, I'm disheartened to see summer movie slates packed with superhero movies and little else in the way of blockbusters. Some of the films are good, sure, but I do think that it's becoming problematic that so many films with similar themes and arcs are creating an echo chamber of origin stories and diabolical villains. But superhero movies continue to make money, so they'll continue to be made. My advice to potential comic book directors: do something to make one entry stand apart from another visually. Costumes change and the cartoony/gritty spectrum is tweaked, but only Raimi's Spider-Man films have had a distinct visual language. Hopefully at least one of the next 27 Marvel films can take some chances with style and flare. Be garish, be bold, be something!
Michael Pattison, Sight & Sound, Fandor
There's too much junk as a whole -- why single out the superheroes? What about: 'Slow Cinema' Overload, 'Festival Film' Overload, 'Repugnant Vacant Post-Tarkovsky Bullshit In Which Ciphers Stare Into the Middle Distance And/Or Masturbate Over Their Own Reflection Into A Teacup' Overload? Question: How many people are drawn to filmmaking because in its current industrial form it enables a politically evasive, emo-friendly shell that reeks of one's own built-up smegma? Answer: Too many. (Greetings from warm and sunny IndieLisboa!)
Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times, Ashvegas
With the second Thor, Captain America, and "Amazing Spider-Man" films arriving in fairly rapid succession, there's reason to be concerned about over-saturation, but I don't think we've reached the breaking point yet. On the whole, the people making these films keep them fresh and interesting enough that they still warrant "event" status.
The risk lies with revisiting the same material so shortly after someone else, especially when the previous production was a success. Sometimes you get a distinctly new vision that allows a familiar story to feel new (e.g. Christopher Nolan's take on Batman not that long after Tim Burton's likewise imaginative version). Other times you get "The Amazing Spider-Man," which hits so many of the same origin notes as Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" that it's a wonder David Koepp didn't get a screenplay credit.
As long as comic-book filmmakers are knowledgable of what came before and put their own spin on the material, we should be fine. If we get more and more retread projects, well...
John Keefer, 51 Deep
I don't know if there are too many superhero movies being made but there is too much talk about superhero movies. Why? It must not be the films but what they represent. And what they represent is the death of visual language, or deaf visuals, or the stupid-ening of the American movie audience. Why is this? There's no end to the amount of garbage spectacle cranked out by Hollywood over the last hundred years but that was handmade garbage and easier to respect. It's difficult to admire garbage that was made in a computer because we all have access to computers and at a certain point you can't make an image any sharper, an unrealistic thing seem more realistic. CGI is lazy and it takes away from the magic-trick element of special effects. How did they do that? We all know how they did that. Magic dies. And the filmmakers don't have to answer the question of How? they are going to do something. Which is a very important question that bleeds into every other aspect of the film and refocuses attention on the story/visuals/characters/overall impact. Visual literacy is also deadened by shots and sequences that represent exactly what they mean. A shot, its perspective, its duration, no longer has any meaning other than its apparent meaning. Did Superman '78 need to fly through space at the end and flash us that smile? No. Did it embody what we love about Superman? Yes. Success! Did Man of Steel need to be breaking necks? No. Did it mean anything when he did? No, but it did remind me of when comics got dark in the 90's in order to seem more relevant, "not your daddies comics", but turned out shallow exercises in darkness rather than the awesomeness of Moore and Gaiman. Bad high school poetry. The other problem is the horrible sameness of CGI effects. There may not be a huge number of these movies as compared to every other type of movie but they all look like the same movie defeating the point of even making the movie in the first place other than to make movie money. And we sure do love when big corporations make more money! Give them your money and your dreams and your ability to know when you're being conned into thinking that you are being entertained when really you're just being teased for the next thing and, oh look, was that a reference to something from the comics? Hooray? Why don't you just wait until they're on HBO and save your money and then why don't you actually go out and read some comic books, now available with or w/o superheros. Or better yet, go make love.
Jeff Berg, ABQ Free Press, Las Cruces Bulletin
Aren't they all kind of redundant anyway? I mean how many superheroes can we have doing the same stuff to different bad guys for all these years? I'm not sure I understand the appeal of all of this, but then again, I'm just not into the genre.
Q: What is the best movie in theaters?
A: "Under the Skin"
Other movies receiving multiple votes: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Lunchbox."