In the wake of the critical disaster of <em>Batman vs. Superman</em>, Marvel’s <em>Captain America: Civil War</em> comes as a beacon of hope for comic book movie lovers everywhere. The hype is due mostly to <em>Captain America</em> being arguably one of the most original series of recent superhero movies. The Russo brothers did an excellent job in <em>Winter Solider</em> deviating from the formulaic dredge of most modern superhero movies and <em>Civil War</em>, if reviews are to be believed, will follow suit. </p>
The question I raise now though comes at a time when Civil War is the exception to the rule. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe entering phase three and Marvel recently announcing Iron Fist, The Punisher, and The Defenders as upcoming television series, and DC’s movie lineup including The Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Suicide Squad, I have to wonder… are we ever going to hit superhero fatigue?
Superhero fatigue is something that many other writers have discussed in the past, and even Steven Spielberg weighed in, believing that, “right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving” but “that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture.” A lot of critics believe there is some sort of timeline, like a bomb with a fuse that will inevitably go off, and that people are merely guessing the length of the fuse.
In my opinion though, the issues that lead to superhero fatigue — the repetitive nature of the plots, the similarities between movies, and the recycled visuals — are arguably the very thing that will continue to sustain the superhero genre long past its best before date.
There is a theory of the “cultural industry” as proposed by Adorno and Horkheimer, two German critical theorists in the 1940s. The main concept of this theory is that when mass production of products began (a hot topic back in their time) so did the mass production of cultural artifacts like movies, books, and television shows. They argue that through mass-producing to the lowest common denominator we are numbing ourselves and our expectations of art.
It’s an old, dense theory, but stay with me here. It is not such a farfetched concept when you look at the trends of popular media. Let’s take books, for example. When Twilight became a success what dominated the young adult market afterwards? Vampire and supernatural love stories. 50 Shades of Grey? BDSM erotica. Etc.
These trends did die out just as the western genre of movies died out. They prove though that when a piece of art or media becomes popular replicas are usually mass-produced with similar formulas. But what really sustains superhero movies versus these other genres is the advertising and widespread easy appeal inherent to them.
Superheroes make bank no matter how formulaic they are. Period. You need look no further than Batman vs. Superman, that was a critical tank with 27 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes for being too predictable and “grimdark,” and still produced $170 million on its debut.
As Adorno and Horkheimer themselves said, “the triumph of advertising in the cultural industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.” And is that not the case of superhero movies? When people were polled in a 2013 survey that looked at viewer responses to trailers, 49 per cent of people believed that movie trailers give too much away, while only 19 per cent responded that it stops them from going to see the movie.
So if we know the basic plot by the time we enter the theatre, why do we still go, especially to superhero movies that are already notorious for being cut and paste?
It’s because it’s easy. There are no risks to going to a superhero movie; you know what you will be getting, almost literally. You know it will probably be enjoyable at the very least. And with original movies being smothered by the lucrative blockbusters, it’s not as if you have much choice otherwise. (Though let’s be real if you had to pick between some art house Swedish film and Iron Man, you and I are both probably picking the latter.)
Superhero movies truly represent an excellent insight into cultural numbing of art and the dying breed of well-made original movies. It’s not our fault though, at least not directly. Superhero movies are more of a cyclical issue. Studios will make whatever generates the most revenue and we continue to watch the movies because they dominate the market. We don’t take risks on our movie choices so the studios won’t take risks in creating movies. You can’t really argue with that logic, especially when it’s unlikely to change.
Before wrapping up it’s also worth addressing the counterargument that will no doubt crop up to defend the common denominator pandering of superhero movies. “Superhero movies are based off of comic books so they should in theory be low art and formulaic,” some may say.
Of course the source material these movies are pulling from represent an arguably “lower” level of popular media, one that was created specifically for pop culture. This completely ignores comics and graphic novels like Maus, Persepolis, and The Sandman have won Hugo and Bram Stoker awards. Persepolis, in particular, was made into a movie and receives a 96 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, but most people will never hear of it for obvious reasons.
So there is the capacity to reach higher or at least original level of art that inspires deep thought and imagination through comic book based movies. Even in most superhero comic books themselves, there is real heart, or else the books would have not become popular to begin with. We have the source material to make some really incredible comic book based movies, but we probably won’t.
What all of this comes down to, and where I am going with this look at the cultural industry in relation to superhero movies and superhero fatigue is that superhero movies aren’t going anywhere or changing. Superhero fatigue is a term getting thrown around but with such a culturally ingrained passive reaction to the repetitive story lines and our love of easy, fun movies I doubt superhero movies are going anywhere.
And in the meantime I will wait in excitement for Captain America: Civil War, because I am, after all, just as guilty.