We are in the eye of the storm. Last week saw the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while next Friday brings with it The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
An inevitable by-product of blockbuster season is the reigniting of the superhero bubble debate. For several years now online commentators have declared the genre to be winding up, to be in the midst of it’s final throes, for the only inevitability to be one of a bust that would see the Hollywood machine revery back to a humbler time of anonymous blockbusters concerned with time machines and cruise ships out of control.
The immediate period leading up to the current age of the superhero was pretty lousy for blockbusters. For every Independence Day there were a couple of Lost In Spaces. For every Jurassic Park, two or three Van Helsings. While the 1980s had the rise of consumerism upon which to hang the high concept, and the 2000s sit in the shadow of 9/11, Irag, Afghanistan and worldwide financial recession, the 90s had little to call their own, or to cite when looking for contemporary parallels. The superhero movie came of age at precisely the right time, with the war on terror raging and spectacle redefined by the horrors of the real world, much in the same way that the birth of the blockbuster came in the wake of Vietnam.
Note the use of the term ‘blockbuster’ here to define the form. This wave of movies are functioning within and without of that easily delivered but barely useful blanket term of “superhero movie”. The whole enterprise transcends genre or labelling. Diversity reigns, even within the loose catch-all phraseology of “The Blockbuster”, that great tradition of the American cinema that began life sometime around the mid to late 1970s. From the black comedy of Iron Man 3 and the high fantasy of Thor: The Dark World, to the much lauded conspiracy thriller of The Winter Soldier (a key point being that at least two of those films are highly praised examples of their respective genres) the Marvel Studios films have even within themselves been exhibiting the kind of form-breaking behaviour that many seem keen to ignore, or either rashly sweep under the all-encompassing header marked “Superhero Movie”.
It’s actually a relatively quiet Summer this year, at least when one thinks back to the dizzy heights of 2012 with its The Avengers facing off against the might of the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga, The Dark Knight Rises, but 2014 is set to be one that looks to advance the scope of the comic-book derived movie even further, thanks largely to the upcoming super mongrel that is James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy. Fusing broad comedy with space opera, while maintaining the core nerve of the marvel mythology thru it, Guardians Of The Galaxy looks set to be the most diverse outing from Marvel Studios to date. And that’s just for starters: next year brings with it Edgar wright’s Ant-Man, and what is expected to be the most jarring auteur vision to date. Wright’s distinct filmic style is quite at odds with the workmanlike (very solid, but safe) approach adopted for most of the films in the marvel cinematic universe to date. Rather than Guardians Of The Galaxy being the big test of Marvel’s clout that some seen to have already declared it, Ant-Man might be the real trial.
An auteuristic approach to this kind of source material gas worked well before, specifically in Nolan’s Batman series, but that had a number of other things going for it, namely the respectability of the crime drama genre and the relatively restrained nature of the director’s style. Even going in to the first Batman film Nolan’s arthouse credential were seen as daring and provocative in the most accessible of ways, his films quite unlike the overt, particular, perhaps even divisive nature of something like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.
The greatest difference, and the one in which it might be argued that the concept of risk plays a role, is the status of the respective franchises at the time of production. Nolan’s shot at Batman came at an all-time creative low for that franchise, with the previous film in the series, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin having already achieved “Worst Film Ever” status in some quarters by the time that Nolan took the helm of Batman Begins. On the other hand, things couldn’t be going better for Marvel Studios right now, with things looking set to only be furthermore successful by the point that Ant-Man reaches cinemas, which will be in the wake of the release of Avengers sequel, Age Of Ultron next summer.
For what it’s worth I don’t think for one second that Guardians Of The Galaxy nor Ant-Man won’t make huge amounts of money. The question is, what will become of the naysayers by that point?
Adam Batty – Editor