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Chaos Theory: An Unofficial History of the Modern Superhero Film

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by Simon Abrams
December 30, 2013 1:15 PM
4 Comments
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While this wasn't always standard practice, continuity has become the cornerstone of American superhero comic books. Stand-alone stories that start and stop within one issue are a rarity now; six-part stories that tie into other series, often for cross-over events, are the norm. This is partly because the average age of comics readers has shifted over the years from pre-teens to 40-somethings. Comics aren't just for kids anymore, as mainstream journalists have recurringly  screamed since the '80s, so mainstream comic books have to form a cogent narrative. But, as comics readers know, continuity-based comics almost never make intelligible sense.

For example: if a major character died years ago, there's a good chance he (it's usually a he) will come back, thanks to a new creative team. Think of it like a soap opera: each of these whimsical resurrections pokes a hole in readers' faith in the stories they're reading. If Barry Allen's The Flash can return after selflessly sacrificing himself in Crisis on Infinite Earths, who cares about the death of a lesser character? That's the defining paradox of comic book superheroes: even though they’re perennially rewritten, superhero stories are defined by wink-wink, nudge-nudge, secret-handshake-worthy events, allusions, and mythology.

On the one hand, these are imaginary stories about characters that control time and space, as Grant Morrison, the writer who brought Allen back from the dead, has argued. Every issue is ostensibly a new one for a comics reader, so why not ingratiate these readers with new stories about old characters? Also, comics are for kids, and kids aren’t insane enough to care about narrative inconsistencies. Ahem. On the other hand, constantly-retooled origin stories, and routine Christ-like resurrections blow holes in the very idea of continuity. If Barry can come back, why care when the Red Skull dies one more time, or the death of yet another Robin? It's a headache for everyone involved, but it's also business as usual.

Batman small

It makes sense, then, that superhero movies would also be about remakes, reboots, and recycling. Even today, we're still being told and retold the story of how Peter Parker earned his arachnid-like powers, or what really made Bruce Wayne want to dress up and scare criminals. The sad fact is that almost nobody making superhero movies has any idea what they're doing. There's no proven formula for success in the genre, so any given successful superhero film is only proof of what works in the present, not what will work again. Here comes the first sequel to the second Spider-Man franchise; and next up, a new actor playing Batman in the sequel to the third Superman feature film series; and so on.

Rebooting a franchise does not have to be a terrible idea. In a 2011 Cinema Journal article entitled "Why I Hate Superhero Movies," Scott Bukatman hit the nail on the head when he wrote, "Superhero films remain something of a provisional genre, still very much in a state of becoming." Bukatman goes on to praise origin stories as, "the most intriguing part of these films [...] this is the moment when [...] everyday reality will yield to something more, the moment when the constraints of the mundane world will evaporate, forcing a new awareness of corporeal possibility as the body is rethought [...]"

Bukatman has a point: a good origin story reminds you of how exciting a character can be. But since franchises are rebooted so often, premature fatigue sets in, and audiences just don’t want to support even superior origin stories (cough, Amazing Spider-Man, cough). Audiences always vote loudest with their wallets, but as with anything, a film's box office success is usually relative. Batman Begins soberly re-established the title character's popularity after Joel Schumacher high-lit Val Kilmer and George Clooney's Bat-nipples. But even Schumacher's Batman & Robin was eventually successful, even if it only grossed 40% of its original production budget during its opening weekend release. And Schumacher's manic, campy style was itself a response to Tim Burton's expressive, grim (and even more financially successful) take on the title character.

Bane Schumacher

But again: nobody knows what they're doing. In a 1997 Cinefantastique interview, Schumacher says he hoped to present Batman as “a more accessible, less agonizing, lighter character… There is a certain narcissism and selfishness to constantly brooding about yourself and although Batman was created in 1939, this is 1997 and it was incumbent for Batman to mature and become more concerned about others." Remember: this is the guy that put Bane in a trench-coat and armed Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze with puns that would make Otto Preminger's version of the character (from the 1960’s TV show) blush. So it's no wonder that audiences took to Batman Begins. Kitsch-fatigue had set in, though everybody still paid to see Schumacher crash-zoom into his brooding hero's junk a few years earlier.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman will be succeeded by Zack Snyder's Batman because Snyder’s Man of Steel made money. Not much is known about Snyder’s take on the character except that Christian Bale will be replaced by Ben Affleck, suggesting that Snyder's Batman does not exist in the same universe as Nolan's. But Man of Steel is clearly inspired by Nolan's Bat-films. Now, Clark Kent's origin has twice the bathos: Daddy-devouring tornados! Wanton skyscraper demolition! Neck-snapping fury! And per diem, too! After the failure of Bryan Singer's Richard Donner-inspired Superman Returns, studio execs were convinced that Superman had to toughen up (though Returns also netted $120 million during its theatrical run, almost half of its $270 million budget). They spoke for the fans when they said people wanted a tough, contemporary hero who is also devoted to, in the words of Donner's Superman, "Truth, justice, and the American way." Snyder's Superman reworks that mantra, suggesting that Man of Steel is light! But also dark. In that sense, the next Batman film will be something of a return to beguiling form, though only in the sense that it will be almost as confusing as Schumacher's film.

Then again, one shouldn't just blame superhero films' creators for their characters' schizoid characterizations (especially not directors). Avi Arad, the Toy Biz mogul who helped rescue Marvel Comics from bankruptcy in the '90s, is exceptional in that he's been involved in several superhero success stories, from the mid-'90s to present. Arad helped create Marvel Films in 1996, a company that ostensibly helped Marvel to avoid the many pitfalls that kept money-making properties like Spider-Man and Captain America caught up in law-suits and pre-production limbo. The formation of Marvel Films was supposed to be a major step towards standardizing continuity in superhero comics:

Iron Man

Realistically, Arad has only unified the Marvel universe so much. He's produced both Sam Raimi and Marc Webb's versions of Spider-Man, and Ang Lee and Louis Leterrier's Hulk films, as well. He's also bankrolled a couple of Marvel films that belong to competing studios: Daredevil and the Fantastic Four films were produced by 20th Century Fox while the Spider-Man films were released by Sony Pictures. And of the Avengers-related properties, Arad only produced the first Iron Man film (Robert Downey Jr. is locked for two more films!), both Hulk movies (already rebooted once!), and a Nicky Fury film starring David Hasselhoff that nobody wants to remember. He's also only produced the first three X-Men films (three more done, and three on the way!), one of two Punisher films (New World Pictures!), and two of three Fantastic Four films (Roger Corman's New Horizons, oh no!). If there's a unifying principle to Arad's filmography, it's anything goes, a form of chaos theory. They’re all made under basically similar conditions, but their success is determined by small, but significant different conditions of their production, and popular reception.

And yet, while you might not think it to look at them, the three Arad-produced titles that helped to prove that superhero comic books were blockbuster material were the Blade films. Based on a minor character introduced in the cult favorite comic book series Tomb of Dracula, the first Blade made $70 million in profits. Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story writes: "although Marvel only saw $25,000 of the profits, suddenly there was proof that Marvel Comics characters were viable as film franchises." The Blade movies were probably also successful because Wesley Snipes played the title character in all three films. In the comics, Blade was always a secondary character, making cameo appearance in other heroes' series. But Snipes has played the character as many times as Christian Bale has played Batman, or Tobey Maguire has been Spider-Man. No wonder there have been decades of fruitless speculation on similarly minor characters, like Doctor Strange (Wes Craven was gonna direct!), and the Black Panther (Snipes was gonna star!).

These movies obviously don't sink or swim based on a producer's confusing (but successful!) whims. There's also the simultaneously negligible and crucial role comic book fans have in determining the success of a superhero film. Nerds build hype, as when trailers, casting rumors, production stills, and sequel speculation popped up to rally around Martin Campbell's Green Lantern at fanboy sites like Bleeding Cool, Newsarama, Ain't It Cool News, and others. At the same time, despite earlier planted reports, Green Lantern 2 won't happen anytime soon, because the first film cost $200 million to make, and only netted $20 million during its theatrical release.

Then again, Edgar Wright somehow managed to bounce back after the geek-driven momentum surrounding his Scott Pilgrim vs. the World adaptation failed to carry-over to the box office. If the world were ruled by geeks, the kind that salivate over various PR-friendly production updates from the film’s cast and crew, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World might have been a blockbuster. In this world, almost nobody else showed up. Wright is currently developing an Ant-Man movie for Marvel, a film that will presumably tie-in with the other Avengers-related satellite films. Admittedly, assigning Wright to direct an Ant-Man movie seems like a low-stakes gamble. But it also suggests that Marvel wants viewers to distinguish the Avengers-centric films from each other. So, directors for these films are being chosen based on their established track records, even if their previous films weren't financially successful (Scott Pilgrim didn't make back its original production costs during its three-month theatrical run). So Kenneth Branagh and one of the show-runners of Game of Thrones handle the Thor films, Rocketeer director Joe Johnston takes the Captain America movies, and Super director James Gunn is making the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film. This last assignment is especially exciting/perplexing.

Super

Gunn has scripted films for Troma, Lloyd Kaufman's boastful, flea-circus barker-style independent production company. He's also done some mainstream work before, though scripting two live-action Scooby Doo films only lends you so much street cred. The closest thing to a superhero film Gunn has done prior to Guardians of the Galaxy is Super, a black comedy in which The Office's Rainn Wilson plays a disturbed wannabe superhero. Still, asking Gunn to direct a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, an action-adventure in which Bradley Cooper voices a talking, gun-toting raccoon named Rocket Raccoon, sends a loud message to a small audience: here's a weird one for you, fanboys and fangirls. Here, finally, is a weird-ass, misfit movie that will also be part of Marvel's burgeoning meta-narrative. Here's hoping it doesn't bomb too badly.

Uniting the Marvel movies into a barely-coherent narrative is such a popular strategy that DC Comics is now aping that conceit with their upcoming Man of Steel sequel. That film will apparently feature Batman and Wonder Woman, too. But Marvel's novel structuring gimmick has also become something of a running joke. For example, mid-credits stingers only really serve to introduce characters that will barely matter in the movie, in Marvel's four-colored, Wagner-worthy cycle. And Avengers director Joss Whedon has even said that Thanos, the shadowy boss-behind-the-boss in his first of three planned Avengers films, was "never meant to be the next villain." Whedon has also said that Thanos "was only teased to give fans a taste of how big this Marvel Cinematic Universe can really get." That kind of ass-covering logic--He's not the bad guy, we just made him look that way! Look over there, we're already working on another story!--is unfortunately par for the course with Marvel's Avengers films. Their films are part of a continuity-reliant series whose individual entries are united only by their creators’ need to resemble the Wizards of a Neu Oz. Just don't look behind the curtain—but oops, Whedon has already peeled it back.

Marvel's struggle to make films that feel of a piece is the biggest sign that superhero films are still stuck in Bukatman’s never-ending provisional phase. The most stylistically experimental superhero films to date--stuff like Peter Berg's Hancock, Frank Miller's The Spirit, Ang Lee's Hulk, and Lexi Alexander's Punisher: War Zone--bombed at the box office. Furthermore, the only one of those four films about a popular-enough character has already been rebooted twice. 

Superhero movies are, for the moment, hyper-popular, but what makes them work still eludes us. Marvel's multi-film model is successful right now, and Marvel Studios are now branching out to television, and Netflix-exclusive programs like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, and Defenders are in various states of development. But there's no guarantee that business model is sustainable. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on the way, just ahead of another Captain America sequel (yes, I do count the Reb Brown made-for-TV monstrosity where Christopher Lee participates in one of the least climactic fist-fights committed to film). And while the former series was never associated with the Avengers franchise, it will probably go on to have a second sequel, and so will Captain America

The allure of a cohesive, all-encompassing universe of characters is tempting. But contemporary audiences are just as likely to grumble while forking over their money for yet another origin story. So until the next successful paradigm-shifting film somehow makes money by being different, superhero films are going to just be more of the same Marvel Studios-style chaos. The genre's future is uncertain because it's being made up as its creators and characters go along. Let's just hope that Joel Schumacher doesn't helm the inevitable Spider-man reboot; the world isn't sophisticated enough to resist The Tackily Flamboyant Spider-Man just yet.

Simon Abrams is a freelance film critic and native New Yorker. His review and feature coverage is regularly featured in the Village Voice, Esquire, RogerEbert.com, and other outlets.

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4 Comments

  • DW | December 30, 2013 10:28 PMReply

    Smallville’s clark kent/superman since the original 1978 Superman. The show made a lot of money for Warner Bros. It may be the most successful superhero show to be created for television.

  • brando | December 30, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    Some of those BO numbers are way off (Green Lantern & Superman Returns)..check out box office mojo..

  • Simon Abrams | December 30, 2013 4:59 PM

    Hi

    Box Office Mojo IS the site I used.

    For Green Lantern, $200 million is the quoted "production budget" and $220 million is the film's total theatrical gross.

    For Superman Returns, $270 million is the quoted "production budget" and $390 million is the film's total theatrical gross.

  • Andrew | December 30, 2013 2:17 PMReply

    Johnston isn't directing Winter Soldier.

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