Brow Beat

Is It Too Late to Save the Superhero Movie?

Thor, Superman, Batman.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos courtesy Marvel, Warner Bros.

Dan Kois: This past weekend Batman v Superman collected both abysmal reviews and $420 million in worldwide ticket sales. Though its box office dropped steeply throughout the weekend, it still garnered an A-minus CinemaScore from 18-and-unders, suggesting it could have legs. But some comics fans and movie fans are arguing that artistically, the movie is a dead end, suggesting a long and difficult slog ahead for the DC cinematic universe. Meanwhile, Marvel movies chug along toward Civil War, heading for the kind of multiple-character, multiple-universe pile-up that turns this casual superhero fan off these stories. So where does the superhero movie go now? Is the only possible trajectory for superhero stories in the direction of bigger, louder, more complex? Is this DC story arc doomed from the get-go, despite its apparent success?

I’ve convened you guys, super-team of Slate writers and editors, to discuss the future of this genre. What do y’all think? Are superhero movies headed to the Phantom Zone? (I don’t know what the Phantom Zone is.)

Laura Hudson: It’s a Kryptonian prison dimension.

Jacob Brogan: It’s also where I thought I was trapped for most of Batman v Superman.

Hudson: I’ve long wondered when, and not if, we’d eventually reach peak superhero movie, and I believe we’re close. Though I think the two types of fatigue produced by Marvel and DC films respectively are very different. Marvel has done a fantastic job of turning its Cinematic Universe into the film equivalent of a comic book mega-crossover, with both the scope and oversaturation that entails. DC, meanwhile, has never had a particularly coherent or successful cinematic vision for its films as a whole, and now seems to be leaning into the same problem I’ve had with its comics for some time, which is that they confuse grittiness and violence with seriousness and maturity. And also seem to think this is what people want from superheroes?

Kois: Laura, I don’t have a sense of whether those kinds of crossovers helped comics or hindered them. Will the movie version of those crossovers expand the superhero-movie audience or narrow it to superfans?

Hudson: The double-bind of megacrossovers is that one, they make enormous amounts of money because everyone has to buy all the issues in order to fully experience the story, and two, that they also annoy and fatigue readers because everyone has to buy all the issues in order to fully experience the story. But two is not as important as one so they still happen pretty much every year.

Brogan: Traditionally, crossovers in superhero comics were part of broader marketing campaigns. One of the first massive ones was Marvel’s Secret War, which was designed to explain a toy line, I think. There’s a sense of play there, but it’s on someone else’s terms, dictated by corporate interests.

Forrest Wickman: I’m somewhat resentful of the Ponzi-scheme style of these interlocking movies, but I don’t think the casual viewer worries about it as much as you guys are suggesting. After all, it’s not as if these movies are that difficult! Their main pleasures—Robert Downey Jr. one-liners, cool gadgets, wish fulfillment, mass urban destruction—aren’t dependent on understanding the intricacies of the Marvel or DC cosmology, and at the end of the day most of the movies are pretty samey, so you more or less know what you’re going to get whether or not you saw ​Thor: The Dark World​. (I will never see ​Thor: The Dark World.)

Hudson: Say what you will about Marvel movies, though. They are, again, generally coherent and seem to have a firm grasp of who their iconic characters are on a very basic level, neither of which can be said about Batman vs. Superman.

Wickman: I agree with Laura that the two kinds of superhero fatigue (DC vs. Marvel) are somewhat different (though they do both have to do with how nearly every major superhero movie ends with mass urban destruction), but I think we can separate Batman v Superman’s grittiness from Batman v Superman’s failure. Certainly Batman v Superman’s joylessness was a big part of what made it so bad, but for me, the Christopher Nolan Batman movies—and especially The Dark Knight—proved that you could pull off gritty and still have it be entertaining. I think it was Batman v Superman’s self-seriousness in combination with all its many, many failures that made it so insufferable. It just wasn’t justified! But in our 2016 world where superhero cinema is dominated by the self-smirking superheroes of Marvel and Deadpool etc., the self-seriousness ​could​ have been refreshing.  

Jamelle Bouie: But is it dominated by self-smirking superheroes? I don’t read the Marvel films, other than Guardians of the Galaxy, as especially self-smirking. They are earnest in a kind of neo-Silver Age style.

Wickman: I think we’re talking about a difference of degree. ​Deadpool​ is more self-smirking than ​Guardians​ is more self-smirking than ​Avengers​ is more self-smirking than ​Iron Man​ is more self-smirking than ​Captain America: Winter Soldier​, and so on, but they all take themselves less seriously than ​Man of Steel​ or ​Batman v Superman​ or the ​Dark Knight​ movies.

Hudson: Not all grittiness is created equal. Is it an important part of the aesthetic of this character or this story, or does it just settle over the movie because DC has decided to lean into a take on superheroes that is post-Watchmen in the worst possible way?

Gabriel Roth: Right, it’s like DC is trapped in the defensiveness of a 14-year-old in 1985 waving a copy of ​Watchmen​ and shouting “See? They’re not just for kids!”

Bouie: The DC approach, to echo Laura, is to take the critiques established in the 1980s and present them as (guitar riff)​ sweet-ass takes on how to do heroes.

Brogan: If superhero cinema is going to move forward as something other than what we’re seeing now, would it mean getting rid of the capes and costumes? Would it be something like ​Heroes​? If so, it’s worth recognizing how quickly that show ended up a combination of Marvel’s overcomplication and DC dark gritty bullshit.

Hudson:  I don’t think capes and costumes are the problem. I think my biggest problem with superhero movies, and the moments when I feel they fail the most, are when they try to be “superhero movies” and not: a movie about Superman, a movie about Thor, a movie about the Avengers.

Bouie: One of example of what happens when you completely fail to tell a story about the characters are the Mark Webb Spider-Man movies. Which seem self-consciously designed to be “superhero movies” than “a film about a guy named Peter Parker who is also superhero.”

Brogan: I literally forgot that the new Spider-Man movies exist. They’re there to fill a niche, not to do anything with the actual story they’re telling.

Roth: Every superhero has a thing that you want to see them doing. The tagline for the first modern superhero movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly.” What was great about the first couple of Spider-Man movies was seeing a teenager swinging through New York City. Even beyond characterization, these characters have something cool about them that makes kids pretend to be them on the playground. Superman v Batman does not seem to capture that thing.

Bouie: Batman v Superman seems to be animated by a basic disdain for its characters, honestly.

Brogan: And its audience!

Kois: So how do we capture that thing? Is it just a matter of simpler, standalone superhero movies featuring the characters we know and love? Or should we be hoping that writers out there are cooking up brand new cinematic superheroes, unbeholden to current franchises, to tell interesting stories?

And are there movies that have captured that outside the Big Two universes?

Bouie: Shaky-cam aesthetic aside, I thought Chronicle was pretty good.

Roth: The Incredibles.

Kois: But there’s never been a superhero movie more about being a superhero than The Incredibles!

Roth: Right but it’s also about other stuff: being a family, taking pride in your abilities, why Ayn Rand was right about a class of ubermenschen dominating the rest of us.

Brogan: Guardians of the Galaxy might be an interesting test case for this, even if it is in the Marvel universe. These aren’t especially familiar characters for most audiences, and they’re not especially unique. But it was joyful throughout. Why did that work so well?

Hudson: They weren’t particularly familiar to comic book readers, for that matter. While they certainly had a basis in comics, I felt more than other Big Two movie that it was made out of whole cloth. So maybe there’s something in that.

Brogan: It broke free from the basic condition of Big Two films, which is their repetition compulsion, their obsession with telling and retelling origin stories.

Kois: … though it was an origin story.

Brogan: Was it? Where did these people come from? Who cares!

Wickman: I think you guys are overthinking the appeal of ​Guardians of the Galaxy​. It was good because it had a funny screenplay, Chris Pratt, and a raccoon with a machine gun. Also: Groot.


Hudson: It also wasn’t beholden to some Deeper Theme about rejection or loss or revenge.

Wickman: But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Deeper Themes! We shouldn’t abandon thematic ambition just because Zack Snyder (Zack Snyder!) flubbed it. I’m wary of prescriptiveness about what superhero movies need to be, generally. Like anything else, they just need to be good movies.

Brogan:  The trouble is that they’re doing the same Deeper Themes they’ve been doing for decades. Those holes have been dug. They are deep. We need to climb out and dig new ones.

Roth:  The Deeper Themes always feel tacked on, to justify a punch-fest. If you have anything interesting to say about Honor or Loss you don’t express it through a script for Thor.

Hudson: I dunno Gabe, I think that strays pretty close to suggesting that the superhero genre can’t tell meaningful stories about important things and I don’t think that’s true.

Wickman: I agree with Laura. Pixar makes movies about Deeper Themes and they express them through anthropomorphized toys and fish with short-term memory loss and gastronomically obsessed rodents. Is it really so silly, then, to express Deeper Themes through men (and sometimes women, but mostly men) that wear capes?  

Brogan: What do we want our superhero stories to say, though? “Superheroes are kind of problematic,” which is what so many have been saying for so long strikes me as increasingly dull. It’s also hypocritical in most superhero films, which so badly want us to be entertained by these characters.

Bouie: I think part of what allowed Guardians to get past that is that these are minor characters. There are few expectations attached and no particular legacy to honor.

Kois: Last question: If you all were advising DC and Marvel on how to save their cinematic universes—if you even think they need or deserve saving—what advice would you give them?

Bouie:  I would tell DC to embrace their heroism of their heroes. Pulsing through Snyder’s films is a real contempt for the idea that these men in tights could be motivated by any kind of core decency. But that’s just another way of saying that they should try to actually explore the themes of these characters. Like, there have been three Fantastic Four movies and none of them have anything to do with the themes of those characters—family, loyalty, ambition, wonder.

Hudson: DC: Please stop letting Zack Snyder direct movies, which you won’t do.

Wickman: I think we can all agree about Zack Snyder.

Hudson: As far as Marvel goes, I’d like to see them shift out of their comfort zone which now borders on formula, and allow their movies to be a little more distinct and idiosyncratic.

Roth: Right. Now that you are a money-printing machine, do some more off-beat stuff at smaller budgets. Make a Black Panther movie and a Black Widow movie, obviously, but also make a Hawkeye movie based on the Matt Fraction comics, and a Squirrel Girl movie, and a Ms. Marvel movie.

Hudson: Yes, a Hawkeye movie.

Bouie: A Spider-Man flick that is more Archie-style teen film than ​(extremely Batfleck voice) We have to save the world.

Kois: All I want out of Marvel is a Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane movie.

Roth: Both DC and Marvel: Get some good villains instead of anonymous monsters. The only good villains have been Heath Ledger’s Joker and Killgrave from Jessica Jones, and they made those stories so much more interesting.

Bouie: And Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus!

Brogan:  I’d like to see both companies embrace camp a little more fully. Filmmakers have generally run from that quality since ​Batman and Robin​, and I’d love to see a return to it. There’s been a gay panic undertone to so much superhero filmmaking, and I can’t believe we’re still stuck in that mode. Superheroes are kind of gay sometimes, and that’s great! Embrace it.

Bouie: If Marvel would just abandon the need to have a third-act destruction fest I’d be happy.

Roth: Runaways. Make Runaways now and all your problems will be solved.

Bouie: (Whispers)​ East of West.