With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Its Time for the Superhero Film to Evolve
As Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War continues to obliterate nearly all box-office records imaginable (including surpassing Star Wars: Force Awakens for the highest-grossing opening weekend ever), it is clear that that the superhero film has established itself as todays most popular and lucrative genre of filmaking.
However, with a now over-saturated market for superhero films, and the genre’s resurgence now lasting over a decade, it is now time for studios like Marvel to fundamentally change, and reevaluate their method of filmaking in order to keep audiences interested, and more importantly, keep them buying tickets.
INTRODUCTION TO THE MCU
Beginning with the acquisition of Marvel by The Walt Disney Company in 2009, the studio built upon the groundwork laid by Iron Man (2008), and released a slew of films including Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and eventually The Avengers (2012), which featured an ensemble cast made up from superhero characters from the prior films.
With The Avengers, Marvel reignited a fervent interest in the superhero genre of film-making, and solidified the colossal entity known as the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ or (MCU).
The MCU can be described as the interconnected series of Marvel films. With the release of each new film, it is clear that there is a narrative continuity throughout. This shared ‘universe’ has allowed Marvel to introduce a new type of ‘cinematic realism’ into cinema, as characters and storylines are able to be developed over the course of multiple films.
Further, the films have maintained a powerful connection with its audience, and the universe as a whole has earned over $15.7 billion in global box office sales since the release of Iron Man in 2008.
With all this in mind, it is no surprise that Disney’s CEO Bob Iger has stated publicly that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue “forever”, but with the 20th film of the MCU set to be released in July 2018, Marvel must begin to confront, and re-think its own established formula for sucess.
THE AUTEUR AND THE SUPERHERO
The studio’s enormous success can largely be attributed to a formula which is followed in nearly all of its films; a three act structure which relies heavily on a similar style of set-up, confrontation, and resolution, all facilitated through a cohesive and linear narrative structure, numerous CGI action sequences, and an almost maddening level of optimism displayed by each of the film’s protagonists.
This basic outline has allowed Marvel to produce some of the most successful superhero films to date, but has also led to predictable films, and a resulting ‘genre fatigue,’ signifying that newer films must fundamentally change certain elements in order to remain entertaning to audiences.
While Marvel has recently illustrated a desire to modify parts of its basic formula, (see: Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok), I would suggest that the studio look to films outside the MCU such as Wonder Woman (2017), The Dark Knight (2008), Watchmen (2009), and Logan (2017) and for inspiration, as each of these films present something personal and unique to the contemporary superhero film.
Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman, focuses largely on female identity and heroism, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, he explores the dichotomy of good and evil, in Zach Snyder’s Watchmen he utlizes CGI in order to imbue the film with his own distinct and unmistakable visual style, and finally in Logan, James Mangold completely subverts the normal conventions of the superhero film as he depicts brutal on-screen violence in a gritty and incredibly visceral film.
These films arguably stand at the intersection of commercial and ‘auteur’ filmaking; a movement which grew out of 1940’s France, originally popularized by French film scholar, critic, and director Francois Truffaut.
The guiding philosophy behind the ‘auteur theory’ was that every film must have an ‘author’, and as Truffaut stated, “one who brings something genuinely personal to his subject instead of merely producing a tasteful, accurate but lifeless rendering of the original material.”
Filmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Quentin Tarantino are some of the most well known auteurs, and have produced films which exhibit a personal style and flair, and contain some ephemeral trace of their personality.
While connecting the superhero genre of film to the philosophy of auteur filmaking may seem a bit illogical, as it is understood that superhero films must stick to a certain group of convetions and source material, I would argue that the groundwork has already been laid for this type of film.
The fundamental idea which envisions the director as the ‘author’ of the film has been realized and in several successful superhero films, with a prime example coming in Marvel’s penultimate film, Black Panther (2018), which did an exceptional job of incorporating the conventions of the superhero film, all while exploring black culture and identity, as well as drawing an allegory to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X through its main characters.
Further, Black Panther also diverges from past Marvel films most notably because of its predominantly black cast, as well as its director, Ryan Coogler, a celebrated black director famous for Creed (2015) and Fruitvale Station (2013), both films which deal heavily with racial identity.
Coogler’s filmography and connection to the film represents a prime example of what auteur filmaking is about and what Marvel should strive to produce; films which are ambitious, personal, and influential.