Pretend for a moment that you’re the head of a major Hollywood studio – oh, you are? good. Anyway, you’ve got a good thing going now, for what is it—3 or 8 years (depending upon whether you’re Warner Bros. or Disney)? Superheroes are tearing up the theaters around the world and dropping cha-ching into your pockets in a big way.
The trick is, how long will it take before comic book movies are the not properties and superhero burnout hits comic book-fatigued audiences?
Hollywood studios are notorious for one thing in particular: fleecing of the golden goose. Once a good idea comes along, Hollywood tends to squeeze it until it’s drier than a bone in the Gobi Desert – and about as desirable and interesting as a bucket of sand to a desert-dweller.
Once the magic leaves a concept, as we all know, so do all the moviegoers.
But there are ways to avoid churning out staid comic book tripe, to invest each new shared universe with a sprinkle of panache which could keep the superhero subgenre alive and well for decades – and many of these techniques can be found in the source pages of the best comic books.
One way to preemptively strike against superhero burnout is to loosen things up a little. Intercontextuality hasn’t been the primary mode of operation for superhero flicks up to this point, but the universe is growing ever more complicated.
With dozens of films on the market, casual moviegoers won’t be able to tell one hero from the next – especially with 60 of them rumored for Avengers: Infinity Wars. Studios can combat these concerns in several ways. First and foremost, each new character introduced needs a simple yet compelling story, one without too much connective tissue (oh sure, Easter eggs are fine).
It’s also important to give each character some defining feature – which usually isn’t a problem with biggies like Superman or Iron Man. But when lesser-known characters like Star-Lord or Ant-Man crop up, general audiences may find themselves playing the “which hero is that” game too often and just give up on the whole enchilada.
Hollywood also needs to keep their output as minimal as possible to keep hero fires stoked and not turning into coals. As tempting as it is to crank out four or five superhero films per year (especially for Warner Bros/DC playing catch up), it’s vital to remember that each shared universe will drop at least two-four super-powered flicks per year.
2016 was an unprecedented year for on-screen superheroism, with three major studios releasing six movies. Next year will bring another ten pictures based on DC, Marvel, Valiant, and the Power Rangers franchises, among others. Going forward, each successive year promises at least eight to ten spandex-clad, laser vision-shooting, tall building-leaping epics for the public to open their wallets for.
Too many metahumans on the big screen could easily lead to superhero burnout and, not long after, the comic book bubble will burst.
At this point, as counterintuitive as it might be to studio heads, it’s time to cut back. Two pictures a year might seem scant when you’re trying to tell a sweeping umbrella epic, but at least you won’t overburden the audience with caped and cowled characters left and right.
Another way to keep things moving in the right direction is to keep hiring fresh eyes. As distressing as it is to see high-caliber indie auteurs like Taika Waititi and James Gunn leave their roots behind, they also offer unique takes on the superhero genre, and are willing to take chances with popular characters and plots which more studio-ensconced directors may shirk at.
In addition, assured helmers with strong artistic sensibilities like Patty Jenkins and Ryan Coogler are in a better position to tell deeper stories and push the artistic limits of four-color heroes past the bread and circuses and into the superhero avant-garde.
Playing it safe artistically is understandable when so much freaking money is riding on these carefully plotted Rube Goldberg universes. However, studios must take chances or risk frying out their audiences.
For instance, Tim Miller and Ryan Reynolds wanted to bring a certain raunchy comic book mercenary to the big screen. So they churned up a tight little story, amped up a few thousand fans, and whipped up Deadpool. Fox took a risk, and it paid off. Bigtime.
When faced with half a dozen or more musclebound do-gooders each year, a clever deconstruction or two now and again is a great cinematic aperitif. Put a few more women in positions of power without long, lingering torso shots. Make your R-rated Logan and Black Panther and Black Widow (please) and Brother Voodoo (wishful thinking here) epics and let your directors and screenwriters play with those muse-granted gifts of theirs — as long as it all connects comfortably anyway.
Studios can’t be afraid to make a tiny superhero movie (and I’m not talking about Ant-Man, but that was pretty good) or explore more unusual outlets (looking at you Dark Universe/Justice League Dark). There’s nothing wrong with taking offbeat characters like Squirrel Girl or an atypical hero like Neil Gaiman’s iteration of Sandman and giving them wings.
Fans will still flock to watch Justice League kick H.R. Giger-looking alien ass and the Avengers assemble to crush power gem-accessorizing purple guys. We love these butter-soaked eye-candy fests. But we’ll appreciate each metal-suit clad character and CG mega-battle even more if you challenge what it means to be a superhero from time to time.
aSuperhero burnout may be unavoidable in the long run, especially in an era of shrinking attention spans, instant fads, and constant social media flux. However, if the Western was able to sustain Hollywood for five decades, the superhero genre should at least have another ten years in it. You can keep it together, Tinsel Town, at least for another decade, right?