As superhero films become more popular, we have begun to see the side effects of shared universes and unified corporate visions. Both Marvel and DC are rigidly locked into certain visual and stylistic choices. Even the tone has become an aspect that audiences expect some synchronicity from. That wasn’t always the case with this genre. Hopefully, it will change at some point. If it does, what elements need to return?
After Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a grounded approach became the norm for superhero movies. No matter how wacky an MCU movie like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange may get, they are always going to be beholden to the style and world that they are a part of. Before the superhero genre became streamlined, radical takes on the material were welcomed. Tim Burton’s Batman was allowed to exist in a Gotham City that had jumped straight out of a German expressionist film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Metropolis. Ang Lee’s Hulk could explore Bruce Banner’s psyche through interpretive dreams in a film that tried to emulate the panels of an actual comic book.
The visual style of superhero films have fallen into a realm of acceptable sameness. It would be refreshing to see the genre go the route of other comic book adaptations like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, American Splendor, and Sin City. Allowing filmmakers to experiment with the format could lead to the next 300. Seeing as how these characters originated on the comic page, it’d be nice to see them in films that relished that history.
Nick Fury’s tease at the end of The Avengers forever changed the cinematic landscape. There had been post-credit teasers before but this was on a whole new level. Now that tease has put a demand on every superhero movie to be part of something bigger. Why can’t a superhero film simply satisfy its own set of standards? Movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman v Superman are messes partially due to the fact that they have to service future films. The serialized nature of these projects takes the emphasis off of a singular experience. Granted, self-contained superhero movies still want to generate sequels, but they are sequels that only pertain to themselves. Blade never had to worry about how its events would effect a Moon Knight film.
Fans of these properties love the interconnected universes that these characters inhabit. However, at some point the universe itself becomes more important than the characters. Standalone stories allow a focus that cinematic universes are beginning to step away from. Plus, some characters simply work better on their own. Though it may be fun to see how Swamp Thing and Aquaman would react to one another, is that really necessary in order to create a good Swamp Thing film?
Challenging Subject Matter
Superhero cinema has become a fairly simple playground when it comes to what topics it wants to tackle. Considering how diverse comic stories can be, it’s disappointing to see the majority of superhero films play it safe with subject matter. It’s why the MCU feels like a sexless place and the DCEU‘s level of violence feels so disingenuous.
While most would say that this would require R ratings to do so, that’s not true. Take a look at Batman Returns. Tim Burton’s wildly imaginative sequel explored the bestial nature of its three main characters in incredibly dark ways. Impacting violence and twisted sexuality permeated that film and it managed to squeak by with a PG-13. A good creator can find ways to work within a system while still producing something that’s transgressive or complicated.
The purpose of superhero films is to make money and sell merchandise. That’s why you see these big corporations like Disney tightening their stranglehold on what is allowed in their pictures. And this isn’t a call for more blood and breasts. Superhero stories like Grant Morrison’s Animal Man dealt with the nature of fiction itself. Steve Darnell’s Uncle Sam took the leader of the Freedom Fighters and used him to explore the sordid corners of the American experiment. Superhero movies need to grow up just like the comics themselves did. A big part of that means telling stories that might not be as palatable to mass audiences.
Variety is the Spice of Life
At the end of the day, this is an argument for more diversity in the superhero marketplace. As it stands, things are perfectly enjoyable but very uniform. We generally know what kind of experience we’re going to have when we go see the next Marvel movie. Once you know what to expect from art before you consume it, it becomes passé and dull. The superhero format is so malleable and most modern superhero films aren’t taking advantage of that. You can tell any kind of tale in any kind of style. Steven T. Seagle used Superman to tell a story about his family’s history with a crippling disease. Paul Dini used Batman to recount his experience of being mugged and critically injured.
The opportunities are limitless and films like Deadpool show that new takes on the genre are happening. Let’s hope that superhero movies can become as varied and unique as the books they are based on.