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.