Hollywood has a fever, and the only prescription is more superheroes.
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man 2 (sequel to reboot) opened last weekend, while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (reboot), X-Men: Days of Future Past (sequel/prequel blend), and Transformers: Age of Extinction (third sequel) are all opening this summer. A second Avengers and a Superman vs. Batman film are both slated to open next year.
Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic for New York magazine and RogerEbert.com, isn't mad, just disappointed in the relentless sameness of the superhero genre, but Tim Wainwright, writing in The Atlantic, instructs him to be patient. Superhero cinema is still in its larvae stage, he says, and the classics will come, as they did for westerns in the 1950s. But the causes of blockbuster sameness, which are rooted in the economic history of the movie industry, don't really predict an artsy future for blockbusters. Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it's become better at making relentlessly average movies.
First, a quick history lesson: Let's go back to the golden age of westerns in the 1950s, where High Noon, Shane, and The Searchers were all made within five years of each other. It's hard to imagine just how impregnable the movie industry was back then. In 1950, movies were the third-largest retail business in the America, after grocery stores and cars, as Edward Jay Epstein explains in his book The Big Picture. Watching films approached the ubiquity of a bodily function: Every week, 90 million Americans—60 percent of the country—went to the cinema, creating an audience share that's bigger than today's Super Bowl.
The six major studios (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Twentieth Century–Fox, and RKO) could basically do whatever they wanted and be sure to make money. Owning their own theater chains (which accounted for half their total revenue), they controlled the means and distribution of a product that was as essential to mid-century life as grilled chicken. Surprise, surprise: Virtually all their films made money.
But in the next 20 years, two Ts—Television and Trust-busting—broke up the studios and scattered audience attention. The typical American used to buy 20-30 tickets a year. Today, she buys about four. Fittingly, studios make fewer movies today, and they have to spend more money marketing them (about $35 million per film), since they've lost their guaranteed weekly audience. At the same time, the box office has globalized. U.S. and Canadian box office grosses are large but flat. The future of ticket growth is overseas.
What does all that mean? Fewer movies, bigger movies, louder movies, and safer movies.
Now that the studios are making fewer, more expensive films, there is much more risk riding on each project. Hollywood mitigates that risk in two ways: safer subjects and more testing. First, it relies on sequels and adaptations that it knows have a built-in audience, not only at home, but also abroad, where explosions translate easier than wit. The formula works, too. Thirteen of the 14 biggest movies of 2013 were adaptations and sequels. Zoller Seitz nails it:
The marketplace rewards each new superhero movie with a reflexive paroxysm of spending, guaranteeing each $200 million tentpole a boffo US opening that follows a boffo international opening (the new release pattern flips the old one). It's an entertainment factory in which the audience is both consumer and product. Its purpose is not just to please consumers but to condition and create them.
For critics, the problem with Hollywood's superhero movies (and, perhaps, with its blockbusters in general) is that they are just fine. They are average. But they are average on purpose. They are the product of Hollywood's exquisitely designed factory of average-ness, which has evolved as the industry has transitioned from a monopoly to a competitive industry that can no longer afford to consistently value art over commerce. Hollywood needs to know what its fragile audience wants, and when it asks us, we tell them: Make something like the last average thing I saw!
Hollywood, like other entertainment industries in the era of big data, is better than ever at figuring out how to give audiences exactly what we say we want. Scripts are revised by teams of editors and are studied by analytics companies to tell studios if the plot lines fit with audiences' expectations of horror movies or superhero dramas. When enough scenes have been aligned to approximate a first draft of a movie, screening companies arrange private viewings for Orange County moms and dads to watch undeveloped versions of the films and give their feedback. (No offense to California's test-audiences, but folks who happen to be free on a Wednesday afternoon aren't going to guide you to Godfather: Part II; they want Iron Man II.)
Hollywood's assembly line of double- and triple-checking the viability of its $200-million products isn't debased. As one industry vet told me, the exhaustive process of smoothing and refurbishing makes many bad movies better. But studios are so worried about what audiences think—and so skilled at soliciting their feedback—that they ensure that the next blockbuster always reminds audiences of the last blockbuster. The bad stuff gets less bad, and the brave stuff gets less brave, the same guy told me. So much gets pulled to the middle. So much becomes just fine.
Sixty years ago, audiences went to the movies reflexively. Now we go to the movies mostly to see things we recognize—actors, stories, and crusaders wearing costumes. If you're a critic, you might call this Hollywood's "superhero problem." But whose problem is it, really? The Amazing Spider-Man 2 got a Rotten Tomatoes score of 54 percent, meaning about half its critics thought it was good and half thought it was bad. But out of 155,000 user reviewers on the site, 73 percent—more than 113,000 people—have rated the movie "fresh." Even with a lukewarm domestic opening, it's the biggest movie in the world. Critics will keep calling average stuff average, but it turns out there are a lot of people who are fine with fine.