Superhero movies – a ‘bane’ for the industry

The first and one of the more important things about writing a blog is, of course, the title. Sometimes it is the easiest part – name your blog ‘cough syrup’ if you are writing about that. But if you are writing about an alien drink that cures cough, while giving you super strength, super intelligence and can kill anyone who you think of while sipping it, then you need to work on a better title than calling it ‘the cough syrup’. That is the exact kind of dilemma I was facing. As it has been a while since my last post, I decided to go back to the basics – to choose a title that aptly reflects the post. But, if it was that simple I wouldn’t be writing a paragraph about it, now would I? So, after coming up with a name, I decided to mention the ones that didn’t make the cut: 1. Superhero movies – super villains for the industry 2. Superhero movies – enough already! 3. Superheroes are ruining our lives!
And just when I was worried if my creative eye had gone blind, a certain Bane gave me a nudge.

Before I start this, here is a small note – I am considering the cartoon-comicky ones as superhero ones too, like Transformers and TMNT.

With that, let me introduce the content to you – this is my rant on the recent upsurge in superhero movies – not the movies themselves, but the rate at which they are being made.

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of watching that latest superhero flick – the one that is rated 8.8 on imdb and 92% on rotten tomatoes – Avengers of the Galaxy, or was it Guardians of the Galaxy? I watched it and came home and immediately forced myself to sleep, which was my best alternative to blowing my head into bits. Not that the movie itself was bad; it was a half decent attempt at telling a story, intermingled with tremendous special effects, but then again, it fell short in many aspects and certainly doesn’t deserve the 8.8 (I will do a complete review of the movie soon, where I shall specifically bitch about the movie). So, clearly, what put me off was not that movie, but the whole parade of these bloated, VFX-heavy, and to a good amount unimaginative movies that have seemingly made movie watching a real tough task for me. And its not just me; I have many friends of mine sharing the same sentiment.

They all look the same to me :\
They all look the same to me :\

Just to give you a rough sense of scale, there were a good 38 superhero movies in Hollywood between 1990-99, and that increased to 50 in the 2000s. And coming to this decade, in the 4 years, do you know how many supsy movies have come out? Make a guess; I am sure you’ll fall short – this decade has already seen a staggering 35 superhero movies in the first four years and has more than 30 lined up for the next 6! Now you understand where I am getting at? When some folks might call this entertainment, I prefer the word overdose, though the right phrase is milking the cow. The Hollywood studios, like hounds that catch the sniff of prey, are going all guns blazing after people’s insane and sometimes bordering on unreasonable fixation on these superheros.

Some might say – what is so bad in that? Isn’t it a good thing to give audiences what they want and also keep thousands of artists, both technical and creative, employed? Its a win-win, right? Well, not exactly. Let me tell you why… Yes, jobs are created, especially if you are referring to the VFX industry, which has been struggling for the last few years. But the issue for VFX studios has not been just lack of work, it is lack of work that pays them what they deserve. If helping the VFX industry is really a motive, production houses should either: (a) pay the VFX studios what they deserve for the entire movie or (b) establish their own VFX houses and have a perennial inflow of projects+income. And only then VFX studios will not need to look for multiple simultaneous projects to fund themselves to work on some huge project for which they are being under-payed. And about the entertainment part, if you think entertainment means ten 150 million dollar non sense movies a year, then you definitely need to rethink. I know, these are strong enough arguments to convince anyone, so I‘m going to dig a bit deeper.

Below is a table that compares some stats of the last four years to those of the last decade’s.

No.of supsy movies
No.of supsy movies in top 10 highest grossing
No.of suspsy movies in top 10 best rated (imdb)
No.of suspsy movies in top 50 best rated (RT)
2000 5 1 (X-men, 8th) 1 (X-men, 3rd) 1 (X-men, 30th)
2010 4 1 (Iron-man 2, 3rd) 2 (Kick-Ass, 4th; Iron-man 2, 10th) 0
2001 0
2011 8 2 (Transformers-3, 2nd; Thor, 10th) 4 (Captain America, 2nd; X-men:First Class, 4th; Thor, 8th; Transformers-3, 10th) 1 (X-men:First Class, 43rd)
2002 2 1 (Spiderman, 1st) 1 (Spiderman, 2nd) 1 (Spiderman, 19th)
2012 6 3 (Avengers, 1st; Dark Knight Rises, 2nd; Amazing Spiderman, 10th) 3 (Avengers, 1st; Dark Knight Rises, 2nd; Amazing Spiderman, 7th) 2 (Avengers, 2nd; Dark Knight Rises, 19th)
2003 4 1 (Hulk, 10th) 1 (X2, 6th) 1 (X2, 32nd)
2013 7 2 (Iron Man 3, 2nd; Man of Steel, 5th ) 0 0
2004 5 1 (Spider Man 2, 2nd ) 1 (Spider Man 2, 2nd ) 1 (Spider Man 2, 3rd )
2014 6 (to date) 3 (Guardians of the Galaxy, 1st; TMNT, 5th, Transformers-4, 8th) 4 (Cap’n America: Winter Soldier, 1st; Transformers-4, 3rd; X-Men:Days of Future Past, 5th; Amazing Spider-Man 2, 6th ) 2 (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 11th; Cap’n America: Winter Soldier, 20th )
1. The total number of movies released for the above comparisons are almost same, with minute differences except for 2014. The movie count is 6/154 already… while for others it is more like 6/700
2. Movies like Pirates, LOTR, Harry Potter were not considered superhero movies, for obvious reasons.
3. Sources – wikipedia, imdb, boxofficemojo and rotten tomatoes

While each column in the above table has its own significance and can be interpreted in a unique way, I am going to compare some them to one or more others to make my points.

Explaining the trend of increasing superhero movies in recent years –

First – In simple terms of money, this increase can be attributed to their high box office hit ratio. Most of the superhero movies being made have stood in the top 20-25 grossing movies of the year, if not in the top 10. Even Green Lantern (2011), a shitty movie, earned 117 mill in the US box-office compared to the meek 44 mill that The Artist (2011), a non-shitty, oscar winning movie, managed. Given the high hit ratio, studios want to focus on such cash cows rather than experiment with new movies.

Second – from a creative standpoint, put yourself in the shoes of the writer or director for a moment. Now, would you prefer to make a movie about a culturally sensitive subject, which needs to be dealt with utmost caution to evoke the right emotions in the viewers, or would you rather make a movie where a legendary superhero destroys a city and goes ‘Aaaaaaaaaa…’ in the end? Yes, I am asking – would you choose 12 Years a slave or Man of Steel?
Here, the challenge is right on your face and so is the answer. Movies like 12 Years a slave, to kill a mocking bird, Taxi Driver, etc., though are brilliant, are bound to their native culture. You need to have experienced that culture to get the feel of it. I liked 12 Years a slave as a film, but when I talk about it, the first thing that strikes me is the beautiful long landscape shots, which is probably the last thing a director would want the audience to talk about, for such a film. So, though it might have local significance, it is a miss-hit for the global audience. Now consider Man of Steel, a movie that I myself watched twice in cinemas. There is no cultural significance whatsoever and it opens the gateway for a global audience. There is no brains involved in watching it. The film-maker has upto  pixel level control of each shot and has guaranteed shot to fame. So, it is understandable that filmmakers are also inclined to make these movies and cream the market while the craze lasts.

Now, you might be thinking – superhero movies are good for production houses and filmmakers, and the imdb rating column from above shows that people like these movies, so where is the problem.

The problem –

The above two trends have, are and will keep impairing other good movies at the box-office. As I mentioned earlier, movies like The Artist do not stand a chance until some awards committee recognizes them. While the low budget movies, like The Artist (15 mill), can take that hit, the big-budget-boys like Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow, just can’t. Let me digress here for a second: Oblivion was by no means a bad movie – 7 on imdb and 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, yet the 120 million movie ended up with 89 mill in US and 286 mill worldwide. Then, we have Edge of Tomorrow – a very decent and fresh sci-fi movie – which suffered a fate it did not deserve. The 8.1 imdb rated, 92% fresh movie, made with 178 mill grossed 98 mill in US and 363 mill worldwide. The effect of being sand-witched between high power sequels/ superhero flicks like Godzilla, X-Men, the Worldcup (don’t underestimate it) and Transformers was too much for it to take. How to Train your Dragon 2, with a similar release date, suffered a similar fate, though not as bad. From an economical stand point, the sequels and superhero movies are doing no good to the industry.

Let’s investigate the damage to the creative side of the industry caused by the bloated rate of superhero movies. From the aforementioned table it is clear that not all superhero movies are successful, which can be attributed to various reasons – ranging from bad schedules to blatant bad movies. There are several unknown variables which need to be tackled individually. Unfortunately, in their mad rush to squeeze the current trend, filmmakers are being forced to copy patterns from previous movies of the same or different franchises to produce acceptable results in the given time. These include similarities to: overall tone of the movie – Man of Steel copying the dark and detached tone of Nolan’s Batman; Pacific Rim copying the beats – positioning of high and low points – from Independence Day; and the latest – the 8.8 imdb, 92% fresh – Guardians of the Galaxy pulling itself out of character to replicate the contextual humour of the Avengers. This copying, formula-following method of film-making marks the tombstone to the industry’s creative abilities.

So, what do the above two things mean for the industry? Putting it simply, creativity will continue to exist, but only if it comes with a light wallet. Novel ideas will not receive the big budgets that they might need to transform themselves into film miracles. In place of creative, immersing and thought provoking movies, we will have bland sequels and high VFX, lens-flared, city demolishing, and head-ache causing superhero movies.

Over the past many decades, Hollywood has fed audiences across the globe a decent variety of films. We had both creative and technically brilliant movies even before the advent of CGI. If the era before the 90s was abundant with practical Fx, stop motion and 2D animation, the early 90s opened doors to the power of CGI. By the late 90s and early 2000s, filmmakers expanded their experiments with CGI and produced some of the best movies involving a fair-share marriage between the creative and newly mastered technical side of film-making. The Martix, Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, X-Men and countless such splendid pieces saw the light of the silver screen. The later part of the last decade saw an upsurge in computational technology and filmmakers made no delay in embracing that power. This was also the time when the fair-share marriage started getting a little biased towards exploring the depths of technology rather than focusing on the story telling aspects. In an attempt to show what technology could do, filmmakers forgot what technology should do. Larger than life movies using heavy VFX started to take center stage and kicked the essence of cinema out of main stream cinema. In all this, filmmakers forgot something – stories are not told through technology; MoCap, 3D or IMAX. They are told through characters and events, strung together by plot.

After all the ranting, I know you are looking for the silver lining, and I believe there is. There is no doubt that superhero movies are enjoyable, but they should be spaced out well enough to give audience some breathing space. Cinema is an audio-visual expression of human emotion. We need drama, romance and compassion much more than we need robots bashing each other. If there was an association to decide what movies get released, and if I were the president of that association, I would make sure that no superhero movies are further released in this decade. Since that is not going to happen, I just hope that a good mix can be found between the number of superhero movies and the normal cinema.

There is a second option that I was pondering. Television block busters like Game of Thrones, and Sherlock have shown how far the small screen series have come, both in terms of technical and creative abilities. I believe the way forward for the super hero franchises is Television. Think of it, why do we love Power Rangers, or Avatar – the air bender, or even TMNT for that matter in their original TV forms than the big screen adaptations? It is simple – more episodes enables better character building. And superhero stuff definitely need that. I hope Agents of Shield and Flash can pave the way for a smooth transition of the superhero movies to kick-ass TV series and relieve the cinema audience off this mess.

The following is a short bonus rant – the effect of this trend on us – the viewers.

Staring off with a pop quiz section:

1. Why should movies be made?
a. To teach life lessons (to educate, motivate, share something of importance)
b. To entertain
c. To give a visual form to some dangling idea

2. Why are movies being made?
a. To entertain
b. To make money

3. Why should movies be watched?
a. Value addition – to learn from others experiences, to learn about the past and to get an ability to dream for the future
b. To be entertained

4. Why are movies being watched?
a. To be entertained
b. Escape from reality

“Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them special effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story” – Steven Spielberg


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