A Manifesto for a New Wave of superhero films

If Batman v Superman has proved one thing, it’s that audiences want to love superhero films, but the studios just aren’t delivering quality products. The film grossed an enormous $422 million worldwide over its opening weekend, but has been widely slammed by fans and critics alike. It felt like everyone wanted the film to succeed – audiences rushed to see the two biggest superheroes of all time battle it out on the big screen, but came away feeling underwhelmed, disappointed, and even confused.

The film had numerous issues, but one of the most frequent criticisms is that it focused so much on establishing an expanded cinematic universe for DC – an attempt to copy Marvel’s success – that it failed to work as a contained story. Sadly, this is not unusual for superhero blockbusters in recent years. Most of the major studios are scrambling to produce franchises that they can develop into shared universes, which means we can expect the future to promise an endless series of sequels, reboots, origin stories and ensemble pieces. It’s exhausting.

Much of Batman v Superman was spent setting up for the upcoming Justice League film
Much of Batman v Superman was spent setting up for the upcoming Justice League film

When Deadpool was released last month – although, yes, it’s part of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise – it felt like a breath of fresh air for a genre of films that was facing fatigue. It was unlike other superhero films. It experimented with the conventions of the genre. It offered a more sophisticated look at an origin story. Most importantly, it made fun of its blockbuster contemporaries. At the time, I suggested that Deadpool may herald a New Wave of superhero films. And although I recognise how hopefully optimistic that suggestion may have been, it did start me thinking about the whole concept of a New Wave. What would it look like? Why is it so important?

Thus, I present my manifesto for a New Wave of superhero films…

What is a New Wave?

The term New Wave is often applied when a movement radically transforms an existing form of art – film, literature, music, etc. Historically, New Wave movements have self-consciously rebelled against the dominant paradigms in their respective fields, encouraging experimentation of form/content and revolutionising the way the practitioners of those fields engage with their audience.

More specifically, the term does refer to particular historical movements. The French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) was a group of French filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s who sought to reject the conservative milieu that dominated film at the time, opting for experimental styles of filmmaking that were politicised and radical, engaging much more closer with the social issues of their era. The enduring success of the French New Wave offers a glimmer of hope for our current climate of superhero blockbusters: if this spirit of avant-garde change could be channelled by the right filmmakers, it might spawn a host of imitations.

A movement that might be more pertinent to superhero films is the New Wave that transformed science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement revitalised a stagnant genre, encouraging experimentation in both form and content in an effort to elevate the literary status of science fiction. It sought to distance the genre from the tropes of old pulp stories, to inject new life and focus into a tired form. Originating in England in 1964, when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds, it also opened science fiction to  greater diversity of voices, especially female writers. Its practitioners included Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, Harlan Ellison, Thomas Disch, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, and James Tiptree, Jr. These authors believed that science fiction offered more than the same old rocketship tales that had dogged its Golden Age. The call to change was similar to the one that is now being leveled at superhero films.

new worlds 1964
The New Wave movement began in the pages of New Worlds magazine

Why do we need a New Wave in superhero films?

Two words: genre fatigue.

Superhero blockbusters have come to dominate the film industry over the past twenty years. Each summer is overshadowed by a couple of major releases, guaranteed cash cows for the studios that produce them. While the sheer glut of these films in recent years indicates that the genre is certainly not declining in popularity, the stories/themes/concepts within those films have become increasingly fatigued after repeated use.

Origin stories invariably follow the same formula: a troubled character is gifted with incredible powers, which allow him/her to confront an enemy as well as confront the internal source of their troubles. What is really frustrating is that these stories also employ the same narrative structures that we have seen in every previous origin story. This means that average films such as Ant-Man (2015) would have received higher critical praise if they had been released ten years earlier, before audiences had become disillusioned with the same tired origin stories.

We also see the same themes repeated ad nauseam throughout the genre. Superman is always linked to themes of god and Christianity (we get it – he’s Space Jesus!), whereas Iron Man is always about hubris – he creates his own enemies through his past mistakes. Every Spider-Man film painstakingly reminds us that with great power comes great responsibility – it was amusing watching Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films try to convey this message without using those precise words. Although in many cases these themes have come to define these characters, their repeated use throughout sequels and reboots is becoming tiresome.

The sheer number of superhero blockbusters is ridiculous. We are seeing an saturation of superhero films, and we are facing a studio system that is actively encouraged to capitalise further on their successes. Thus, if a film does even moderately well at the box office and earns enough money, the studio will green-light a sequel. This system is self-perpetuating, regardless of critical response to these films.

Ensemble superhero films dominate the schedule for 2016
Ensemble superhero films dominate the schedule for 2016

Modern superhero films have become an endless parade of origin stories, sequels, reboots, and ensemble pieces. Spider-Man has now been rebooted three times since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. We’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s parents being murdered so many times that the story has lost all of its power. Robert Downey, Jr has appeared so much as Iron Man that I’ve forgotten he actually makes other films. If a film does poorly (Fantastic Four, 2015), or a series loses its financial momentum (Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films), the studio is more likely to reboot the concept or combine it into a wider franchise than abandon it altogether.

For all of these reasons – and more – there needs to be a revitalisation of the genre. Audiences are growing weary of the same old formula.

What would a New Wave in superhero films look like?

It’s impossible to define a movement before it has even started, but it is possible – through films such as Deadpool – to glimpse an outline of what a New Wave may look like.

The emphasis would foremost have to be on experimentation. This is not just restricted to the filmmakers’ individual style, but also the content of the film. Deadpool eschewed a linear narrative structure in favour of a in media res style of storytelling, one which allowed us to jump back and forth between present-day and origin-story. It turned an otherwise mundane superhero origin into a creative mode of storytelling. Filmmakers need to embrace more unconventional narrative structures if they wish to impress and engage audiences.

Superhero films are an unusual genre in the fact that their characters and story have already been adapted from one medium into another. Whilst film allows the explosions and fights to be so much more visually spectacular than their comic-book counterparts, they often lose the unique style that defines some graphic novels. Attempts to more closely adapt graphic novels to film have met with varying levels of success. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) was stylistically effective, whereas Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) was a disaster. Most filmmakers opt for a middle ground, happy to import characters and story from the comics, yet stick to a more traditional style of cinema.

Zack Snyder's Watchmen set a high standard that he has never been able to achieve since
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen set a high standard that he has never been able to achieve since

Would a New Wave move closer to the artistic style of comic books or steer away? Again, I believe experimentation is the key. All films that are adaptations of graphic novels run the risk of alienating mainstream audiences if they are too specialised, too stylistically faithful in their adaptation. Yet they risk alienating long-term fans of the franchise (and, yes, fans have an enormous impact on how these films are received critically by the wider public) if they deviate too far from the source material. At present, studios seek to satisfy fans of the comic books by maintaining strong links to the source material. But perhaps it is time to recognise that superhero films are a genre in their own right – something that has evolved beyond the confines of the comic book page – and that it is no longer necessary to maintain such strict links to the comics. There exists a whole generation of fans who have grown up exclusively on the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and television series, yet have never picked up a comic book in their life. Perhaps it is time to speak directly to these fans: to the ones who understand what superheroes can be when divorced from their traditional comic-book medium.

A superhero New Wave may also incorporate elements of other genres into its texts. We’ve already seen this used very effectively in The Winter Soldier (2014), which had strong elements of a political thriller, and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which is actually better realised as a Space Opera than a traditional superhero film. Deviating into television, Marvel’s Jessica Jones (2015) works brilliantly because it is foremost a piece of noir detective fiction. In these cases, importing foreign generic conventions was incredibly successful. This may be the key to revitalising the standard origin story or sequel formula. It combines one familiar framework (the superhero story) with another (the political thriller, or Western, or Space Opera, etc.), but their combination allows the hero to be realised within a wholly different context.

Jessica Jones seamlessly combined the superhero genre with a hardboiled detective tale
Jessica Jones seamlessly combined the superhero genre with a hardboiled detective tale

Finally, a New Wave would have to involve a change in the culture of film studios themselves. The endless series of sequels and reboots would have to stop in favour of new content and new heroes. This is easier said than done, however, and leads to the single biggest obstacle in the realisation of a superhero New Wave…

What are the obstacles to this happening?

As I acknowledged in my post about Deadpool, it is too late for the majority of 2016’s superhero blockbusters to begin making a radical change to the genre. Most of them are in post-production stages, meaning they are likely to adhere to a form that was established in previous years. Yet there is some hope for future superhero blockbusters if they choose to accept the challenge implicit in Deadpool: not all superhero films have to be the same. It would be great to see filmmakers taking real risks with the genre. However, the studio system itself may prevent this level of experimentation, an obstacle that threatens to undermine a New Wave movement before it even starts.

Regardless of the critical reception of superhero films, they are guaranteed to make money. Lots of money. And this encourages the studios to continue doing the same thing, time after time – employing the same directors, following the same formula, the same narrative structures, the same themes, the same tired sequence of sequels and reboots. When the bottom line is the pursuit of money, why change a system that works?

It has already been widely reported that Zack Snyder is about to start filming the Justice League film, mere days after the release (and subsequent critical crucifixion) of Batman v Superman. Warner Bros. has faith that Snyder can deliver a blockbuster, one that will generate a lot of cash for their studio. It also suggests that they are confident that he can continue to helm their franchise into the future. Any lessons learnt from the reception of Batman v Superman are lost when the studio is already rushing into their next wave of films. Quality is secondary to financial profit.

Sadly, it is the popularity of these films itself that may prevent them from evolving beyond their current creative malaise. Although a New Wave would revitalise a genre that is dangerously fatigued, the conditions that have created and sustained this genre mean that such a transformation may be forever out of reach.

We can only wait and see.

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