Superhero Movies: The Beginning Of The Fall?

History has shown that certain film genres hog the box office for a certain period of time before another take over. Has time come for the highly successful comic book films to exit the stage?

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the one film that hampered what could have been the first major attempt in comic book superhero movies conquering the box office. Yes, in 1997 Batman and Robin were unleashed to the unsuspecting audience, and caught them off guard, especially the mammary papilla in that film’s Batsuit.

A brief lull ensued, and it was not until the steady rise of the Spider-Man and X-Men films in the mid-2000s that powered themselves with Stan Lee cameos, among others that regenerated outputs of comic book movies (henceforth, let’s abbreviate it to CBM).

Zoom forward two decades later, after the stellar box office performances of CBMs like The Avengers franchise and its spinoffs, something weird happened. The same Warner Brothers, the studio that released most of those major CBMs, pulled the plug on the already shot, US90 million Batgirl flick.

A similar fate awaited her gal pal, Supergirl. This is after a slew of potential projects saw dead end the last few years. So much hype, so much hope, and it is all just dope? Is the cycle of comic book hero films coming to an end, then?

MCU Monopoly

For those who are new to the entire comic book world, there are two megaliths in that industry, DC and Marvel. Both have their film divisions, currently known as the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and DCEU (DC Extended Universe).

While both have been a relatively steady growth and often had good competition in the comic book industry per se and have had almost a fair share of votes in the TV animation market, the same cannot be said of the big screen arena.

MCU has been churning out blockbuster after blockbuster – the last one decade especially – mercilessly, taking charge of the box, resulting in the collateral damage: that is, the stepped-on smaller films that were always looking for wider big screen releases.

The surviving, smarter varieties of these little critters have since scurried into the smaller screen – the Over The Top (OTT) streaming/online media platform. It’s a safe zone. It’s a quiet zone. It’s also the zone where ideas die – more on that later.

But has the audience been tired of seeing the men and men in tights? Perhaps, as evidenced by even some Marvel fans lamenting that they are “suffering” from superhero fatigue, where respondents to a survey say that they are “getting a little tired of so many of them”. If that is the case, would there, then, be…

Shifting Of Taste And Platform

The movie viewing experience has changed over the years and it has to. Everything evolves, and physical changes aside, the movie-watching habit has changed too. Streaming services have been welcomed enthusiastically and there are recommendations and guides on which shows you should binge watch, as well as warnings that it can make you a pixelated zombie.

These services, being the den for binge (cough! cough! addiction! cough!) watching, have also become the to-go-to destination sought out by many stars and filmmakers looking for artistic/creative freedom. Some were forced to go on OTT because of the hesitance in making compromises like Martin Scorcese, one of the greatest living film directors ever, whose The Irishmen and the recent Killers of The Flower Moon were both screened on Netflix and Apple respectively. The former found difficulty in finding circuits because nobody wants to finance it for cinematic opening, hence finding a home with Netflix that forked out the US$150 million budget. Would this then lead to the dreaded?

Extinction Of Movie Theatre?

Like going to the art museum, or the classical dance performance, watching films on the big screen may be elevated to the artistic status. For one, a trip to the cinema can cause you a dynamite stick (hasn’t gone to ‘bomb’ level yet) – film going event used to be a family and friends affair – now it costs equally as much as, well, double dynamites (link not important, just an in joke). There’s hesitation now about going to the movies (more of this later).

Let’s face it, comic book films are in no way going to work on smaller screens – the impatient editing, the out-of-the-world graphics and tremendous sound effects best work in a fully equipped theatre. Sure, you can’t have a 3D effect at home, but 3D is not going to revolutionise the film-watching experience (Let’s not get carried away, like this article which proclaimed that 3D is supposedly dead.

Can Superhero like Superman (seen here in his comic book debut (1938) succeed in other platform?

What that has got to do with CBMs? Remember the spectacle associated with it, the brilliant effects, the great sound system and all the frills that goes with them only work in cinema halls? And as movie theatres began to make way for shopping complexes and were even torn down for highways to pass through, the CMB’s move to TV will not be a happy affair for the producers, financially speaking.

Cinemas failing to properly exist as evidenced by what happened in our own country, would point out the slow demise of superhero flicks too. Last year, the Malaysian Association of Film Exhibitors was heard lamenting a loss of up to 90 per cent revenue year on year. Check out the numbers in there – it’s terrifying. Cinemas will no longer be CBM’s playing ground, and where else they would go but to…

Streaming services or OTT platforms, a place where comic book series that premiered excitedly, exit quietly. That’s a fact, Jack. News of shows plugs being pulled left right centre is horrendous.

No way CBMs are going to transition and flourish there in series format. Plus they are too expensive even if they are meant for the smaller screens. Less, we forget the…

Girl Power In Box Office

Let’s flashback to the late 1970s and witness the success of two TV series that highlighted women at the most kickass, Wonder Woman (1975 – 1979) and Charlie’s Angels (1976 – 1981). More gal-oriented action characters started appearing on the small screen, especially like Cagney and Lacy and Angie Dickinson starred, Police Woman, etc.

Even cop shows like CHiPs had strong female cops. The foundation had been strong for some time, actually.

But let’s forget box office, or action roles for a moment and look at the calibres. The most number of Oscar nominations and wins have always been held by women – Katharine Hepburn with 12 nominations (and four wins) last century, and now Meryl Streep with 17 nominations (and three wins). Both never ever did any comic book roles.

Also, remember, women have been ruling the box office from behind the camera as well, as more powerful female directors have taken on the reign and proven their mettle at the box office as this record will show. That’s an eclectic mix of films, with only two CBMs on the list.

It is already ascertained that the glass ceiling has long been broken in the film industry, and these ladies have a whole bunch of fresh, new takes on storytelling and believe me, the same old comic book panel will interest them the least. CBM is in no way going to grow through the talents of the fairer sex. It’s a dead end there.

Speaking of which, let us end here with this proclamation from the master of box office himself, Steven Spielberg and his verdict about the interest in comic book films: “We were around when the western (genre) died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us.”

Intriguing, but the prospect of a slew of coming-of-age romance flicks waiting like barbarians at the gates terrifies me. For now. – NMH

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