The Tipping Point of Superhero Cinema
In a world full of piping hot takes regarding movies, one of my least favorite is when people say they are bored of superhero movies because we are approaching a tipping point of superhero movie burnout. This belief, that superhero movies are a phase that simply needs to be weathered, is almost always loudly proclaimed by pretentious film nerds who would probably listen to Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman’s “I Love Films” mini-podcast within U Talkin’ U2 To Me? and not understand the irony. The pedantic bluster of the people insisting that each superhero movie released is bringing us one step closer to the end of the superhero movie phase is frustrating because it is so wrong and also so close to being right. We are in fact reaching a tipping point in terms of superhero movies, just not the one they think. I firmly believe the release of each superhero movie brings us one step closer to something far greater than the end of movie phase hilariously called boring by mumblecore jerks—the first live-action What If/Elseworlds movie.
So first, I have to address this notion that superhero movies are a phase. This trivialization of an established genre is an affront to those of us who spent time on the front lines, watching for years as Hollywood mangled our favorite characters. Oh, you’re disappointed that the box office is continually dominated by superhero movies? Let me tell you, that disappointment is nothing compared to what we felt in the trenches, attending midnight showings of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man 3. Superhero movies are a genre like spy movies or westerns. Not every single release is going to be amazing, but as the genre develops and deepens, the movies will get more and more interesting. All I’m saying is the John Wayne Cinematic Universe paved the way for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and we have yet to be blessed with the superhero equivalent of that film (although maybe we’ll look back and realize it was Logan).
Now, as superhero movies get more interesting, we have a good idea of what that will look like because the ages of the Cinematic Superhero Universes mirror the ages of print comic books. For print comics, the ages are as follows:
Golden Age (1938-1950): The debut of many famous characters, such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. This age features heroes in their most simplistic, archetypal form.
Silver Age (1956-1970): Superheroes once again return to popularity. DC responds by reimagining many of its classic characters and Marvel bursts on the scene with new creations such as Spider-Man and The X-Men. Because of the rise in popularity, this age is marked by a lot of throwing a lot of ideas at the wall and hoping some stick.
Bronze Age (1970-1985): This age is all about creators taking what was established in the Silver Age and pushing it to new heights. This age sees a focus on character development as well as a lot of writing that addresses social issues. Creators also begin dabbling in unconventional storytelling.
Finally, the Modern Age kicks in (1985-Present): The rise of the anti-hero, excessive pouches, holographic covers, and an over-reliance on massive crossover events. Also, the home of some really dope writing and art that isn’t afraid to push boundaries because the universes will probably be rebooted in a year and half anyway.
I’m sure people can argue the specifics of when those ages start and stop as well as if there is a fifth age between Bronze and Modern. But for my purposes, those are the ages.
The ages of superhero movies is a much less established timeline but I believe it goes as follows:
The Golden Age (1978-1997): A period of extreme highs and lows, beginning with Richard Donner’s Superman and ending with Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. This is a long age, spanning almost twenty years, and I credit that mostly to the budget/logistical restraints associated with making a superhero movie before CGI could do the heavy lifting. The cool thing about the Golden Age is there was a lot of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, which is why we got the unofficial trilogy of The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and The Phantom in the early 90s.
The Silver Age (2000-2007): Started with a bang with the first X-Men movie and ended with the whimper of Spider-Man 3. This is an interesting era for superhero movies. On one hand we had the X-Men franchise telling us we wanted a grown-up, dark and serious take on superheroes. On the other hand we had the Spider-Man franchise telling us we want bright spandex and fun storytelling. This seven year stretch was Hollywood struggling to reconcile those two ideas only to realize it didn’t matter what the films looked like, we just wanted an adaptation that kept the spirit of the comics intact.
The Bronze Age (2008-Present Day): The one two punch of Iron Man in May and The Dark Knight in July ushered in the Bronze Age. Like the comic book Bronze Age, this age is defined by creators taking what was established in the Silver Age and pushing it to new heights. For Marvel, that was creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For DC, that was putting out The Dark Knight and then living in its shadow for ten years. In this age, character truly gets to shine as we’ve been able to see characters develop over the course of eighteen films. Within the framework of the MCU, directors have been given a certain amount of freedom to experiment with ideas that would have been a harder set on their own (Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok). This age also gave us X-Men: First Class, the semi reboot of the X-Men franchise which stays true to the comics by making continuity confusing as hell, and Deadpool, a movie that crushed the box office despite fifteen years of people saying Deadpool could never work on screen.
Okay, so what is the importance of this Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age nonsense? The importance is that the Marvel What If comics appeared during the Bronze Age of comics and we are currently sitting in the Bronze Age of superhero cinema! That means categorically and undeniably we will soon get a live action What If or Elseworlds movie.
I personally believe DC will hit this arena first by putting out an Elseworlds movie, possibly Batman: Gotham by Gaslight or Superman: Red Son. The MCU is trucking along so strong at the moment that Marvel doesn’t need to rock the boat. DC on the other hand is struggling to play catchup with Marvel’s cinematic universe. I think the answer to DCs problem is to stop playing Marvel’s game. Instead of trying to build a cinematic universe, DC should build a cinematic MULTIVERSE. The true strength of DC is how iconic their core characters are. By going the multiverse route it enables DC to fully maximize their strengths by exploring different takes on those iconic characters. They can stunt cast all they want and actors won’t have to sign on for the rest of their lives. They can also bring in characters from the CW DCU.
If DC doesn’t go after the multiverse idea, Marvel sure as hell will and it will probably be with the Spider-Verse. That way they can give us Ben Reilly, Miles Morales, and Spider-Gwen. I also want to see a storyline that brings together different versions of Spider-Man that would include cameos from Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield but I know that’s insane and impossible. Honestly, I’m just excited to see where the Bronze Age of superhero cinema takes us and I can’t wait for whatever insanity it is that will push us out of the Bronze Age and into the next era.
In conclusion, people who complain about superhero movies need to get over it and they are not allowed to see the What If movies when they finally come out.