If you took headlines as gospel you might reasonably jump to the conclusion that the superhero market had just hit its own Black Thursday. As the market plummets, The Great Zarbanzo, Crab Man and Ms Spectacular queue up to plunge fatally from the tall buildings over which they once leapt with a single bound. “Superhero films just don’t feel essential any more,” Forbes magazine blares. “Hollywood superhero movies have a quality problem,” the Los Angeles Times echoes. The gold rush is over and the folks who became millionaires selling shovels are heading back east.
Hold the analogies for a moment. We are only a few weeks away from the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. There is no reason to believe the (gulp) 32nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) won’t build on the success of previous episodes in that strain. It is not much more than a year since Spider-Man: No Way Home became the seventh-highest grossing film ever. The Batman did business last year. The seam is not yet mined out.
There is, however, little doubt that the licence to print money has been revoked. DC’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods just opened with a splat. Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania did well on its first weekend, but then slumped into a trough. The pandemic confuses our calculations. Chloé Zhao’s indifferently received Eternals landed as the fourth-lowest grossing MCU film ever in still-masky November, 2021. But No Way Home conquered the world just a month and a bit later. So the Eternals’ failure also matters. Writing in Forbes, Dani Di Placido sees a contrast between the two super-people houses. He notes that Marvel is encountering a “confused, fatigued audience” while DC has been “inconsistent and messy for years”. Still, the underperformance of the latter company’s ramshackle Black Adam does nothing to dispel the sense crisis in Spandex City.
Now we turn to the chapter titled: “Clarke would say that, wouldn’t he?” As the trade papers were getting their stories straight on the superhero slump, AO Scott, veteran film critic of the New York Times, was announcing his decision to step away from the big screen. Scott touched upon his understandable distaste for “modern fandom”. He talked about how fans of DC and Marvel had “swarmed” him on Twitter, before coming to the conclusion that the social media hordes represent “an anti-democratic, anti-intellectual mindset that is harmful to… the spirit of movies”.
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There have always been fans. Millions were inconsolable when Rudolph Valentino died in 1926. Frank Sinatra’s bobby-soxers could give the (Taylor) Swifties a run for their tunnel-visioned obsession. But the dedicated stans have never before had such an influence on the development of popular culture. The Comic-Con event in San Diego is now a vital stop on any comic-book movie’s journey from treatment to premiere. Often the most-discussed parts of a superhero flick are the post-credit sequences that point to later developments in the franchise. The influence is further shown in the growing obsession with “lore”. Comic-book films increasingly concern themselves with the social mores, imagined history and meta-texts of imaginary universes to the detriment of good old-fashioned story. (When I hear the words “great world-building” I reach for my laser blaster.) You can see the beginnings of this with George Lucas’s unbearably up-itself Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace from 1999. Nothing could concern me less than the tax regulations of the Outer Sprongle Quadrant. Why aren’t you blowing up more spaceships?
There is another way. Few fans are more dedicated than the followers of James Bond. Yet the producers of those films have never allowed the trainspotters to distract them from their populist mission. One can only imagine how an equivalent fan base would now react to the screenwriters’ cavalier dismemberment of Ian Fleming’s source novels. By the time of Live and Let Die in 1973, the film had so diverged from the book that a separate “novelisation” was commissioned to sell alongside the Fleming text. If the filmmakers changed one scene in adapting JK Rowling’s story, the Harry Potter (ahem) community would have had an epic conniption. In contrast, the Bond producers, swayed by the pop cultural tides, stuck a bit of Kung Fu into the Man With the Golden Gun and, in the wake of Star Wars, turned Moonraker into a sci-fi movie. Live and Let Die is plainly a spin-off from the Blaxploitation craze.
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The strategy worked. No Time to Die, the last Bond film, helped confirm theatrical exhibition could still thrive in the wake of Covid. “Fan culture is rooted in conformity, obedience, group identity and mob behaviour,” AO Scott continued. The superhero studios may not care about that. But they will certainly care if it proves to be bad for business.