The rickety Amazing Spider-Man 2 has critics debating just how many superhero movies America can handle. This was the subject of Samuel Adams’s weekly survey at CriticWire, which led RogerEbert.com’s Matt Zoller Seitz to write a forceful essay declaring: “This genre is where imagination goes to drown itself.”
He levels many popular arguments against superhero movies, ranging from valid critique of some action cinematography to easy comparisons with junk food. But the fact that there are real criticisms to be made of the movies the genre has produced doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the genre, or that we should expect it to peter out soon.
The truth is, there aren’t nearly enough superhero movies available. By historical standards, we’re so deprived of superhero movies that there’s probably a shadow war being fought between paranormal forces of good and evil over the matter.
Here’s what I mean. Seitz smartly compares superhero flicks to other genre fare, like Hollywood westerns and zombie movies. Here’s his argument:
Thirty-six years after "Superman, the Movie," we still haven't seen a range of big budget superhero films as tonally different as post-"Night of the Living Dead" zombie pictures, or Hollywood westerns released after Vietnam, when the genre was allegedly dead. What do George Romero's ghoul films, "Dead/Alive," the "Rec" series, "Shaun of the Dead," "Zombieland" and the "Days" movies have in common besides a basic situation? Almost nothing. What do "Little Big Man," "The Wild Bunch," "Blazing Saddles," "Silverado," "Unforgiven" and "Open Range" have in common besides horses and ten-gallon hats? Almost nothing. What do modern superhero movies have in common? Entirely too much. Once in a great while you get an outlier like "Hellboy" or "Watchmen" or "Kick-Ass." There's a reason why anybody seeking to counter gripes of superhero film sameness brings up "Hellboy" or "Watchmen" and "Kick-Ass": because most superhero movies are not "Hellboy" or "Watchmen" or "Kick-Ass." They're "Thing Crashing Into Other Thing 3."
In other words, other box-office-dominating, pulpy, male-oriented movie trends of the past produced better, more inventive, and more diverse ranges of works than the superhero boom has. Hence, the superhero boom is, creatively and perhaps soon commercially, a bust.
But take a look at the following chart comparing the genres Seitz cites:
This chart, cribbed together from a few different sources, gives an estimate of the growth of zombie, western, and superhero movies from 1930 to 2013. It attempts to stick to American movies, although US cuts of foreign films have surely snuck in. It includes older double-heading serials and some direct-to-DVD fare. It is almost definitely incomplete. Even so, it’s clear that throwing superhero movies in with the other genres is, numerically, comparing flying apples to tobacco-juice-spitting oranges.
For example, superhero movies haven’t had nearly as much time to compete. The first zombie movie came out in 1932, which is why the chart starts there. But westerns had a lead of hundreds of short films and serials. There were “westerns” as early as the late eighteen-hundreds. Meanwhile, the first Batman movie didn't come out until 1966.
The chart also shows how long it takes to get to the “poets of genre.” By the time we get to High Noon, Shane, and The Searchers (all AFI Top 10 Westerns), there had already been more than 1500 movie westerns made. After accounting for the fact that many of the early westerns were only an hour long, that’s still more than 750 hours of lassos and revolvers.
Even when considering zombies as separate from the larger horror tradition (whose numbers have long surpassed westerns and was going strong in the ’50s), there had already been about 36 predecessors to George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. And many of the most lauded non-Romero zombie films, including most that Seitz lists, have come out in the last 10 years. That’s a 30-year gap filled mostly with titles like Curse of the Living Dead, Garden of the Dead, Return of the Blind Dead, and Deathy Deathy Death Death 3: More Death. Critics say that quality movies like The Incredibles and Hellboy are outliers, but your odds of finding a good superhero movie on average remain far greater than finding a good horror movie. So while Seitz is right that most superhero movies aren’t Hellboy, it’s actually truer to say that most westerns aren’t Silverado and most zombie movies aren’t 28 Days Later.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the quality of a genre is related solely to its lifespan. Genres don’t evolve in isolation. Last summer Zack Snyder with Man of Steel was not just having a frame-by-frame conversation with 1951’s Superman and the Mole Men. But even so, there have been many wonderful films in the past 50 years—shouldn’t the vast amount of good examples available to contemporary filmmakers have made everything much better by now? And yet garbage persists.
It seems that to get genre fare that approaches art, expect to wade through a lot of trashy entertainment. The quality and range of the western and zombie canons probably have little to do with the inherent crudity of genre, and a lot to do with having been around long enough to offer opportunities for different generations and artists to add their own touch.
The numbers also make it easy to decide whether we have “too many” superhero movies right now. As BadassDigest’s Devin Faraci pointed out last month, four superhero movies in one year are nothing compared to 70 westerns. Of course, to someone who thinks all the Marvel films are trash, then even four might be “too many” for their tastes. But, with the likes of Dallas Buyer’s Club, Twelve Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Grand Budapest Hotel receiving critical attention and turning a profit, it’s hard to argue that Marvel’s presence is killing great art.
And thinking about how few superhero movies there are, and how much less time the genre has had onscreen, actually suggests that Marvel’s specific achievements are critically undervalued. Consider how, out of the eight Avengers-related movies, none have scored under 65 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (yes, a metric to regard with caution). Most are highly regarded by critics and fans alike, and The Avengers was hailed as a near-perfect PG-13 blockbuster action movie. This is especially impressive given that 3D and CGI technology is still in the pioneering phase (remember, we’re only five years out from Avatar).
In fact, critics liked the first four Marvel shared-universe movies more than the original Star Wars trilogy. And remember that while most reviews of the first Star Wars movie were positive, Pauline Kael at the New Yorker described it as “an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success.” Likewise, the much-beloved Hammer Horror films were a critical guilty pleasure at best when they first came out.
The truth is that pulpy adventure stories and genre fare, whether they’re using old-school or computer-generated effects, will always have to do more to be taken seriously by critics who search for true beauty for a living. I doubt there will ever be a time when an article saying “all these formulaic Hero’s Journey plots are ruining everything” won’t find a readership.
If we really want to see poetic superhero movies, then we need to expect a few more Daredevil-style duds first. But luckily there is still a lot of potential for innovation: getting a major female superhero movie, letting Guillermo Del Toro do Dark Universe however he wants, and most importantly getting others in to compete with Marvel and take the genre new places.
Of course, there are good reasons to be skeptical that a high-art superhero wave will arrive anytime soon. Many of the genre flaws that Seitz rightly highlights aren’t native to caped crusader flicks but rather to modern blockbusters in general (including western The Lone Ranger and zombie movie World War Z). For example, several respondents to the CriticWire survey pointed out the exhausting amount of advertising and media space that goes in to marketing these movies. This could be a symptom of the bureaucratic corporate giants that now dominate what used to be self-sufficient studios, marking the slow death of a loved medium. Or it could be the sad reality that it takes 50 million dollars’ worth of shouting to get the general public off the couch and into the theater.
The most compelling argument against superhero films, I think, says we’ll never get a diverse range of works if the CGI-inflated cost of entry is so high that indie filmmakers can’t participate. But there’s reason for optimism on that front. There have only been a few tiny superhero movies in recent memory: The Specials in 2000 for $1 million, and Super in 2011 for $2.5 million. Slightly higher-budget were Kickass for $30 million, Dredd 3D for $50 million, and Hellboy for $66 million. These were all decent movies, although none ended up as bona fide sleeper hits financially. There’s theoretically no reason, though, that another Super-sized picture couldn’t break out if executed well.
So even if this decade isn’t the time for it, in the long run odds are we’ll see superhero movies that will make even the most reluctant critics happy. Sure, in 10 years Iron Man might be getting tiresome. But in 20, with luck, Terrence Malick's reboot of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen will rock.