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2016 will make or break superhero movies

Entertainment Geekly: A tale of two futures.

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There are eight comic book superhero movies currently scheduled to hit theaters in 2016. We haven’t seen a spread like that since 2008, and that year’s crop was a different breed. We all remember the anticipated sequel that became a generation-redefining phenomenon (The Dark Knight) and the incipient franchise that became an industry-redefining megafranchise (Iron Man).

But there was also a gonzo auteurist romp (Hellboy 2) and a DOA auteurist burp (The Spirit) and a grungy-chic cultbait flop (Punisher: War Zone) and a couple of off-brand “Movies About People With Superpowers” that nobody ever remembers as “superhero movies” (Jumper and Wanted.) The genre was already popular enough to earn a horrible parody film (Superhero Movie) and last-great-Hollywood-star Will Smith deigned to put his own spin on the superhero story with the very weird Hollywood allegory Hancock.

The superhero cinema of 2016 looks very different. The films will almost unanimously represent massive Cinematic Universe franchises, produced by three studios with a lot riding on the idea that moviegoers can’t get enough superheroes. Disney subsidiary Marvel Studios will deliver Captain America: Civil War — essentially a Thor-free Avengers movie — and Doctor Strange, their latest attempt to expand their roster of solo franchises. And in 2016, Warner Bros. will finally get to debut its long-promised DC counter-attack to Marvel Studios. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will introduce characters who already have solo spinoffs in the works, while Suicide Squad will offer moviegoers a purportedly darker, villain-focused riff on the genre. And don’t forget Fox, which is releasing three films set in their pocket Marvel Universe: A new X-Men movie alongside spinoffs Deadpool and Gambit.

(There’s also a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which I will stop talking about after this parenthetical. Just remember: If Turtles 2 is a success, then one year from now there will be a Paramount executive — a smart man, a family man, went to Harvard Business school maybe, reads books for fun sometimes, has big dreams of putting an Oscar up on the mantel next to his daughter’s debate trophy, got into this business back in the day because he wanted to create something good and true and real, could quote you half the lines from Godfather if you asked — will have to use the words “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Cinematic Universe” in an officially recorded public conversation.)

2016 is the Promised Land that superhero fans have been waiting for. You cannot underrate the sheer Destiny Achieved absurdity here. The notion of linked-universe franchises was comment-forum fodder 20 years ago — even 10 years ago. Now it’s standard operating procedure. And if fans could always imagine a day when Batman and Superman would fight in a movie together, only the most magical thinking of comic book readers would have imagined a world where they would be fighting in a movie the same year Captain America and Iron Man are fighting in a movie the same year that an Oscar nominated British actor is playing Doctor Strange the same year that people like Deadpool and Deadshot are starring in blockbuster films the same year that freaking Gambit gets his own movie.

I guess what I’m saying is: We won, whoever we are, whatever winning means. One of these movies might get delayed — possibly Gambit — but that just means that 2017 will become the most superhero-crowded movie year ever. The schedule two years from now is already packed: Wolverine 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy 2Wonder Woman and Thor 3, a new Spider-Man, the first half of Justice League.

But the future changes all the time. There’s a Fantastic Four sequel scheduled for 2017, too.

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Fantastic Four is the lowest-grossing superhero movie this epoch. Comparisons to Green Lantern don’t cut it; it might not beat The Rocketeer. And people loathe this movie. It is a burning building that everyone involved cannot run away from fast enough. Forget the Twitter outbursts. Last week, Fox-Marvel steersman Simon Kinberg explicitly stated that Fantastic Four doesn’t share a universe with X-Men — a very quiet statement banishing the film into an interdimensional Negative Zone.

The critical and commercial demise of Fantastic Four caps a weird year for superhero movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron emerged out of a weirdly depressive press tour to a worldwide gross of $1.4 billion. Ant-Man emerged from its own weird PR fog to a current gross of $330 million. As my colleague Mark Harris wrote over at Grantland, these numbers don’t really tell us anything.

Or maybe they tell us two entirely different things:

1. Bad year for Marvel Studios. Age of Ultron grossed $160 million less domestically than Avengers, and it couldn’t beat Jurassic World or Furious Seven globally. This is tipping-point evidence that the wave is starting to crash. Ant-Man is the lowest-grossing Marvel movie since The Incredible Hulk — and whereas Marvel could reboot away from Incredible, they’ve already lined up Paul Rudd’s character for a role in Captain America 3.

2. Great year for Marvel Studios! Look, nothing will ever equal the impossible success of the first Avengers. Marvel is now less in the business of creation than curation: Maintaining a steady, consistent, appealing output. Age of Ultron doesn’t need to be the best Avengers movie. Age of Ultron just needs to make you not want to not watch more Avengers movies. $1.4 billion worldwide is evidence of healthy curation. And Ant-Man‘s box office is evidence of Marvel’s strength: This is a studio that can now guarantee a $300 million gross on literally anything at all, even a movie about a man who hangs out with ants.

But more urgently for our conversation today: It’s surprisingly hard to pin down precisely what people thought about these movies. I don’t know anybody who love love loved Ultron — and three months later, the only talking point that really sticks is the one about Black Widow, which is also a larger talking point about Marvel and Women, which is a talking point that does Marvel no favors.

Weirdly, Ant-Man actually feels like it was more warmly received by the people who saw it. (It got about one quarter of the Ultron audience.) Anecdotally, people seemed to enjoy its low-key charms — the sheer un-Avengers-ness of it all. Like, when you ask someone what they liked about the movie, they usually mention national treasure Michael Pena, who steals the movie with a couple montage monologues. I’m not sure anyone could explain, in an executive boardroom, why it was so important to just let Pena chatter.

And more and more, boardroom culture is all over superhero movies. Ant-Man begins with maybe the single worst scene in any superhero movie: The part before the title, when freakishly de-aged Michael Douglas tells a coalition of continuity-cameo all-stars that he’s quitting. (That scene should come with a special certificate of authenticity: EDGAR WOULDN’T WRITE THIS.) The particulars are Marvel-ish — it’s SHIELD, because everything’s SHIELD — but it feels like you’re in the room where executives plan things from far away. Boardroom Culture is the only explanation I can come up with for the general ruin of Fantastic Four‘s Act 2, which is set indoors at a remote location and stars Tim Blake Nelson as a Government Guy who keeps telling the Fantastic Four to do things, before he walks into a different room to talk about how cool it is when the Fantastic Four do things.

All creations reflect the circumstances of their creators. This is such an obvious fact — and superhero movies are usually so fundamentally silly — that it’s probably wrong to dig too deep into a meta-fictional interpretation. But there was a point in comic book history when every big story ultimately came down to a few ludicrously powerful beings talking in hilariously cosmic terms about all the awesome plans they had.

Like, did you ever read The Infinity War? The comic book version has presumably very little to do with the movies we’re going to get in a few years. Which is a good thing, because the Infinity War comic book is bad, bad, bad. Like, one of the first comics I ever picked up was Infinity War #4. There is a long segment of that comic when a couple heroes visit Eternity and The Living Tribunal. Eternity is a living representation of the entire universe, and the Living Tribunal is tripartite golden Meta-God who can’t go five sentences without saying words like “multiverse.” Rereading that issue now, I could understand why I was the only kid in my class who read comic books.

Theoretically, a comic book story that involves godlike beings should be the coolest comic book story ever, right? It is — if you’re the kind of person who thinks bigger is always better. But there’s a weird problem in comic book culture: You reach a point where the sheer bigness of the storytelling (more superheroes! more villains! more planets in peril!) starts to feel almost abstract, removed, inhuman. The comic book Infinity War came out in 1992, which is about when you hit the point in history that comic book sales spiral downwards and never entirely recover. The fact that they are calling two kamillion dollar movies Infinity War strongly implies that Marvel knows that most of fans don’t care about its history. Or maybe it implies that Marvel doesn’t know its own history.

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Is Marvel doomed to repeat that history? Will Warner Bros. follow suit? Appropriate for a genre that loves to play with alternate universes and parallel timelines, it seems to me that there are two distinctive futures ahead for superhero cinema in 2016. There’s the Dark Future, and there’s the Bright Future.

The Dark Future

Deadpool hits theaters one weekend after the surprising box office success of the Coen Bros’ Hail, Caesar just in time for Zoolander 2 to consume all the social media buzz. When Deadpool opens to a third-place $13 million gross, it’s spun as a moderate success: A character unknown to the mainstream, a cheap-for-superhero movie, a non-starry cast, and prohibative R-rating. Nevertheless, it’s further proof that what hits big at Comic-Con doesn’t always hit big in the actual world outside of Comic-Con — and the movie exodus away from San Diego continues.

The real shock comes in March, when Batman v Superman debuts with a $90 million opening weekend — a good opening in most conceivable contexts, but less than Man of Steel and much less than the Christopher Nolan Dark Knights. A few chilly responses to the reintroduced Batman lead to some sleepless nights at WB-DC central, but that’s nothing compared to the conversation that erupts over the film’s controversial portrayal of Wonder Woman. The presence of Aquaman in the film leads to a viral College Humor video where Adrian Grenier-as-Vincent Chase plays gritty bearded Aquaman in Aquaman: The Snyder Reboot, a video which specifically goes viral because Facebook declares that Grenier’s Aquaman is more entertaining.

While Warner Bros. reshuffles its slate of DC films — possibly pushing up the Batman movie, possibly declaring that the Wonder Woman movie is now a Superman/Wonder Woman movie — Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War owns the box office for the first two weekends of May, but grosses less in those first weekends than Winter Soldier. By mid-May, it’s been wiped off the map by the shockingly successful Angry Birds Movie and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, a movie that launches several dozen thinkpieces about how the gross-out comedy genre is now more feminist than the superhero genre.

This is all mere prologue to X-Men: Apocalypse, an outright calamity which grosses half what Days of Future Past made and almost exactly what First Class made. (Remember: Days of Future Past was “the movie that brings back all the X-Men you used to love,” while Apocalypse is “the movie that introduces all the X-Men you’re not so sure about.”) While Fox races to sign Hugh Jackman to a new 10-picture Wolverine deal worth $300 million, the summer box office is ruled by WarcraftThe BFG, and Ghostbusters, successes which send Hollywood into a flurry of deals variously auguring a new vogue for videogame adaptations, a post-Jackson wave of bright-wacky fantasy films, or a shocking and mysterious new era of movies which star human females.

Suicide Squad just barely earns than $100 million — a return which Warner Bros. casts in a positive light, given the film’s gritty subject matter and mostly-unknown-besides-Will-Smith cast. The film immediately develops a cult following, and ultimately leads to a Smith-free, R-rated, low-budget sequel in 2019 — by which point the dreams of a DC Cinematic Universe have faded into mist. (In late 2017, after the failure of Wonder Woman, the phrase “unboot” enters the lexicon following rumors that Warner Bros. is developing The Dark Knight Returns. Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan reportedly receive private Hawaiian islands as salary.)

Channing Tatum spends the Gambit press tour talking about how his superhero film really isn’t a superhero film at all, although he mostly answers questions about the upcoming Magic Mike stage musical. After Gambit‘s disappointing box office, Fox sends an envoy to Kevin Feige’s fortress. On Nov. 3, Feige hosts a livestreaming press conference, declaring that Avengers: Infinity War — Part 2 will now be retitled Avengers vs. X-Men. A teaser image shows Wolverine’s claws poking through the knuckles of Iron Man’s gauntlet; everyone talks about that, and no one talks about how Doctor Strange grosses less than Ant-Man.

The Bright Future

The culture is so, so ready for Deadpool, an R-rated movie that lampoons the excess of the superhero genre while pushing that excess past the breaking point. Deadpool creates a next-wave generation of superhero-fandom hipsters, teens who don’t remember a time before Bryan Singer was making X-Men movies, who know all the tropes of Superhero Cinema and demand something different. After Deadpool passes the $100 million in its third day of release, Fox immediately greenlights a sequel, slotting it into the release date originally reserved for Fantastic Four 2. This sequel gets announced in a video featuring Ryan Reynolds-as-Deadpool, brutally and hilarious gunning down stand-ins for Miles Teller’s Reed Richards and Kate Mara’s Sue Storm. (The video ends with Deadpool wearing an outrageous blond wig.)

This primes the audience for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In the post-Deadpool cultural context, Zack Snyder’s outrageous and overblown aesthetic reads as self-aware. Day-after thinkpieces connect Gal Gadot-as-Wonder Woman to Charlize Theron-as-Furiosa. The film’s opening weekend outgrosses Ultron‘s opening weekend. Repeat viewings keep ticket sales high; Warner Bros. declares ownership over March the way Will Smith once declared ownership over July.

Marvel Studios confidently releases a statement praising their colleague-enemies from the other universe, beginning a long stretch of unspoken detente during which no Marvel or DC film is ever released in the same month. Captain America: Civil War can’t hit the same box office heights as Batman v Superman, but it earns praise as the more radical/thoughtful superhero mash-up movie. The sheer difference in execution between BvS and Civil War make the entire superhero genre feel vibrant and diverse. Young, talented filmmakers — many of whom were nervous about joining megafranchises after the Trank Fiasco and the DuVernay Repudiation — start making their own pitch for their favorite B-list superheroes.

And that’s before the arrival of X-Men: Apocalypse, which successfully threads every possible narrative needle: Concluding the tale of the First Class X-Men; introducing an exciting new flock of young X-Men; connecting the strands of the prequel franchise to the original franchise; telling a compelling story about mutants without the presence of Wolverine; finding something new to do with the ’80s, the single most played-out chronological period onscreen since the ’60s. The film’s soundtrack does for ’80s disco what Guardians did for ’70s rock. Feeling very confident indeed, Fox announces X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga for May 2018 and X-Men: Inferno for May 2020. Sophie Turner prepares to spend the next decade playing 10 different versions of Jean Grey.

But the biggest box office success of superhero summer 2016 surprises everyone. Taking the late-summer Guardians slot, Suicide Squad is the first film to gross $300 million in a weekend. While the High Nerd blogging population complains that the film softened its supervillains into mere lovable antiheroes, Warner Bros. repositions their upcoming slate, with a Suicide Squad sequel leading into Justice League vs. Suicide Squad in 2019. Sony convinces Will Smith to reprise the role of Hancock in its upcoming Spider-Man reboot. The directors of all future superhero films will henceforth have to clarify whether they are doing an Avengers-ish movie (light, fun, lovable) or a Suicide Squad-ish movie (dark, weird, brutal.)

Gambit earns a comparatively modest $350 million worldwide, but it’s a critical darling, and Channing Tatum’s obvious devotion to the character sets the template for a new kind of superhero movie: a star-centric labor of love. Fox immediately greenlights a Storm spinoff film, starring Lupita Nyong’o; when asked whether the movie will be set during the timeline of the original X-Men films, or after the events of Days of Future Past, or between the events of the prequel movies, Fox tosses up a middle finger, gleefully admitting that their timeline will never make any sense, and nobody cares, hell, maybe the audience actually likes how nonsensical it all is. (After Wolverine 3, Fox announces a new Wolverine franchise that will take place across American history, with every film starring a different, hotter, cheaper actor as Wolverine. The audience loves this, too.)

But none of that prepares anyone for the surprise of Doctor Strange, which gives Benedict Cumberbatch a showcase role not seen in superhero films since Heath Ledger played the Joker. For his cerebral, half-crazy turn as the Master of the Mystic Arts, Cumberbatch becomes the first superhero nominated for an academy award for Best Actor. Sensing a change in the wind, Marvel starts to plan Robert Downey’s exit strategy; Iron Man’s noble sacrifice in Infinity War — Part 2 leads into a vibrant, far-flung Phase 4, with three new Marvel movies per year, dominated by the oddball romcom chemistry that develops between Benedict-Cumberbatch-as-Strange and Jessica Chastain-as-Captain-Marvel. Jennifer Lawrence earns her second Academy Award for Mystique: All or Nothing, wherein Lawrence plays every role — including a wisecracking drag queen sidekick and the tough-but-fair old mystic — via performance-capture.

In the fullness of time — say 2026 — Doctor Strange accidentally punctures a hole in the space-time continuum, leading to the simultaneous release of Avengers vs. Justice League and Suicide Squad vs. Guardians of the Galaxy. Not to be outdown, Fox releases Bryan Singer’s magnum opus, X-Men vs. X-Men: Xtinction, featuring the memorable sequence when Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine arm-wrestles with Ty Simpkins’ Wolverine.

In 2035, Michael Keaton’s Birdman 2 receives poor reviews.

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What do you think the future holds? Email me at darren_franich@ew.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.