Geekly Mailbag: Is there a post-superhero blockbuster?
Last week I asked a simple question: How many X-Men movies is too many X-Men movies? But the question has far-reaching implications: How many superhero movies is too many?
The year 2016 will see major superpowered features released practically monthly: Deadpool in February, Batman v Superman in March, Captain America and X-Men in May, Suicide Squad in August, Gambit in October, and Dr. Benedict Cumberstrange opening just one week before The Sinister Six in November. Maybe these release dates will shift; maybe more superhero movies will appear in between, like magic.
I theorized two possible futures for superhero cinema: A flourishing renaissance of movies made by a diverse array of creators, sort of like Marvel Comics in the '70s; and a complete glut of half-hearted content that leads to an industrywide bust, sort of like Marvel Comics in the '90s.
Neither future is set in stone, but one reader responded with an email that takes a new perspective on the superhero movie phenomenon. What happens after?
And, follow-up: Is there an after?
Your "How many 'X-Men' Films" article reminded me of this:
And (if you take requests) that led me to brainstorm some article ideas for the Franich-brain:
-What is the post-superhero blockbuster?
-Or what if there is NO post-superhero blockbuster? What if the superhero bubble popping takes down the major studios and theater chains? Without them, do movies even exist at that point or do anthology series take their place? (Is the next "Chinatown" the next season of "True Detective"? Or worse yet, is the next "Chinatown" just PewDiePie paying his water bill? :)
First of all, I do not take requests, unless the request is made in the context of karaoke, in which case I only take requests that pertain to turn-of-the-millenium Blink-182 albums. But I do love answering thought-provoking philosophical questions! And Erick asked a couple big ones.
First of all, I recommend everyone halfway interested in movies go read that THR article. Spielberg's comments are interesting for all kinds of reasons. Partially because he made those comments around the same time that another filmmaking uber-genius Steven S. was on an "End of Cinema" doomsaying circuit. But Spielberg's comments are mostly interesting in the context of Hollywood history. Because it's important to remember that, 30-40 years ago, Spielberg and his pal George Lucas were not elder statesmen: They were the young dudes who were ruining cinema.
Read contemporary reviews of Star Wars and Jaws and Indiana Jones, and you'll see some raves, but you'll also see plenty of people wondering just what the hell these kids are doing releasing a movie about laser-swords in the same cinema that was playing Taxi Driver last year. Steven Spielberg invented the blockbuster—accidentally, maybe, and certainly without the cynicism that marks a lot of franchise films today.
But there's a straight line to be drawn from the work Spielberg and Lucas were doing in the late '70s and the industry Hollywood has become now. So when Spielberg rails against modern Hollywood, we should take him seriously because he's a genius—and we should also appreciate the irony, even if the only irony is that time really is a flat circle after all. And we should also remember that today's popular youth-baiting crap is tomorrow's classics.
This is just how time works. The establishment dismisses Hitchcock as an entertainer in the '40s, and then in the '60s a gang of young French dudes declares him cinema's genius. Critics dismiss Star Wars as popular pablum, and a quarter century later there are books written about how Star Wars is the Joseph Campbell monomyth of our era. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is absolutely terrible, but watch 20 years from now somebody half your age is claiming it's the dark masterpiece of the superhero era. There's that line in Chinatown: "Politicians, old buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." Movies are like that, too.
So any attempt at predicting the future is fundamentally flawed. Let's give it a try:
What is the post-superhero blockbuster?
I'm a big proponent of the theory that we're cusping on a new era of space adventures. We've already had Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and two new Star Treks. Gravity is great. Guardians is a lot of fun. The first Star Trek was a hall-of-fame adventure film; the second one was a beautiful-looking embarrassment. Interstellar is a movie that plenty of people love. I found it the most incoherent and unbearable major film of 2014—it could've used more Wahlberg—but even Interstellar haters had a certain respect for the film's ambition.
That's a lot of critical and commercial success. And Hollywood is paying attention. Next month's Jupiter Ascending feels like it could be a wash—albeit a great-looking, pointy-eared wash that I absolutely have to see to believe—but later this year brings the quality-baiting The Martian, pairing Matt Damon with Ridley Scott. (Scott's also working on a sequel to Prometheus; I didn't love Prometheus, but I can't even imagine what a sequel would look like, which makes me excited.) This year also brings Star Wars: Episode VII, which will supposedly inaugurate a new era of annual Star Wars movies.
Paramount is in the process of re-rebooting Star Trek, with Fast & Furious steersman Justin Lin taking over the reins of the 2016 prequel-threequel. I know that some Trek fans are unhappy with how the last couple films have jettisoned the franchise's big ideas in favor of action-movie shenanigans. But let's be clear: If you're going to do action-movie shenanigans, there's not really anyone better than Lin, who took a cut-rate car franchise and turned it into a full-blown action opera. 2016 will also bring the first of three Avatar sequels—and I guess it's a reach to call Avatar a "space" movie, but the first film felt like an extension of the great space operas of the mid-20th century, with their utopian visions of faraway planets filled with hot blue people.
It's worth pointing out that the two main superhero megafranchises of the moment are going to gradually transition into outer space through the back half of this decade. Marvel's working on Guardians 2 and Captain Marvel; the two Infinity War movies will presumably feature their fair share of extraterrestrial activity. Warner Bros' DC Universe might follow a similar trajectory—if, indeed, it follows any trajectory but downwards after Batman v Superman—with the promise/threat of another Green Lantern movie way off in 2020.
So: Space? If we assume that Hollywood's next big thing will need to depend on pre-existing works, there's certainly no shortage of sci-fi literature devoted to the outer cosmos.
Then again, we should maybe not assume that Hollywood will stay rooted forever in this moment of geek-baiting digital-effects epics. There will come a time when TV shows can produce effects that are just as good as major movies; hell, whenever Neil Marshall directs a Game of Thrones episode, it usually looks better than any fantasy movie not directed by Peter Jackson. I have a weird suspicion that "the next big thing" might be a return of a genre that got no respect until it sort of disappeared: The cop movie.
Specifically, the cop action-comedy, a genre that was perfected right off the bat with 48 Hours and then hyperbolized with Lethal Weapon before it shuffled off somewhere around Rush Hour 3. It's making a comeback along the margins—The Heat, Ride Along, the renewed 21 Jump Street series—and it's a genre that can scale in a few different directions, towards PG-13 action shenanigans or hard-R comedy.
One thing's for certain: Whatever comes after superheroes, I think it will be considerably more female-centric across the board than the dude-heavy comic book movie genre. Did you know that Jennifer Lawrence was in two of the highest-grossing movies of 2014? Sure, Mockingjay and Future Past were franchise pictures, but both were, to a certain extent, sold on Lawrence's presence. (Look at this poster. Should Lawrence have been bigger than Jackman?) This was also the year of Angelina Jolie's Maleficent and Scarlett Johansson's Lucy: Two very high-concept films that nevertheless depended on their star's unique iconography and star power. (Pratt was great in Guardians, but Star-Lord really could've been Glenn Howerton; absolute anyone could've starred in Godzilla and been better than Aaron Taylor-Johnson.)
-Or what if there is NO post-superhero blockbuster? What if the superhero bubble popping takes down the major studios and theater chains? Without them, do movies even exist at that point or do anthology series take their place?
I'm inclined to distrust doom scenarios. The entire history of movies is a history of people saying that we've reached the end of the history of movies. "I know, I know, but this time, movies are definitely over." I don't believe that, not for a second.
2014 was a great year for movies made outside the usual Hollywood system. I'm talking Whiplash and Boyhood, but I'm also talking The Raid 2 and The Guest, Obvious Child and A Most Violent Year, the incredible low-budget action movie Blue Ruin and the simply transcendent sci-fi sex freakout Under the Skin. I was disappointed by A Most Violent Year but I'm very glad I watched it; I prefer the TV version of The Trip to Italy but I love that we live in a world where two middle-aged men doing impressions and experiencing melancholy on a road trip can get released as a feature film. Did you see Tim's Vermeer? My parents did! Before I did! How awesome is that?
But of course, we always tend to link "Movies as a Medium" with "Hollywood movies," which is what you're really asking. Say the apocalypse happens; say all the major theater chains shut down. That would be sad; but the multiplex era is not the only era movies have ever had. Maybe we move back into a world where every town has a couple privately-owned theaters. Or maybe "movie theaters" aren't sustainable in some areas. That would be a tragedy. But it's not like Broadway is everywhere. And the success of The Interview proves that there's a hunger for movies even on the small screen.
Let me be clear: It would be totally lame if movie theaters were things that only existed in, like, major cities. But it would not be the worst thing in the world if Hollywood in general became a more modest enterprise. Like, imagine a future where movies are all kind of like The Interview on a structural level: Modestly-budgeted (at around $40 million), with a minimum of special-effects pageantry, purposefully skewed towards adults because the kids are all busy playing iPhone games anyways. That is not the darkest of all possible futures. That does not sound as bad as another Green Lantern movie.
That said, I think it's more likely that the process of franchising will get refined. I know it's very me of me to say this, but I kind of suspect that whatever comes next will be more like Fast & Furious: "Original" films that get aggressively franchised into sagas, with a special focus on effects you can only get in movies (i.e., non-digital effects). And I expect that franchises will become twice- or even thrice-a-year releases. Like, when the Hemsworths of tomorrow sign a contract with Marvel, they'll essentially be signing on to a TV show that releases three two-hour episodes per year only in theaters. Some of these franchises will be good, and some of them will be directed by Zack Snyder.
Either way, movies will survive, if only because the kids of tomorrow will get really bored of Mom and Dad saying that TV is better than movies.