One of the issues Marvel’s Kevin Feige has admitted to being concerned about over the last few years is possible superhero movie overkill. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows, there’s potential for audiences to get tired of not just that multi-series franchise but with the whole genre. We’re already at a point where most tentpole blockbusters are comic book adaptations, and as long as they keep proving to be the safest bets, that number may keep increasing. And now it’s not even limited to the summer and holiday seasons. Captain America: Winter Soldier is opening on April 4th, and that’s too early to even make the usual “summer starts early this year” comment. Eventually we’ll have major superhero movies debuting in the usual dead months of January and September.
This week’s Marvel Studios TV special, Assembling a Universe, might not have helped matters as far as not overwhelming the audience. It packaged the MCU’s past, present and future in a way that didn’t make the properties look all that distinct or independent, in spite of Feige stating on screen his idea that these movies (and now TV shows) offer a lot of variety, that the superhero movie genre is no longer really a genre because they represent a bunch of different kinds of movies and just happen to involve superheroes. Devin Faraci made a similar statement this week in a piece at Badass Digest tied to an interview he had with Feige. “Marvel has proven that ‘superhero movie’ isn’t so much a genre as it is an umbrella under which many genres can co-exist,” Faraci wrote.
As contrary as this is to the path Marvel Studios has chosen and likely has laid out for the next decade or so already, I think the best option for Feige and company is to really own up to that non-genre concept of the superhero movie. Let it drift away in sort of the same fashion that documentary has defined itself as not a genre but a mode of cinema linked to nonfiction storytelling. Superhero movies can also just be a category of titles without conventions uniting them together. And that means not just claiming a basket of like-minded genres like an action movie, a period WWII-set action movie, a sci-fi action movie and a political thriller action movie. Marvel movies are dissimilar in many ways but they’re all still action movies with superheroes. They need the superhero foundation, but what if Marvel made a movie without action?
Maybe it’s because I started out reading non-superhero comics, like Archie, but when I did start into the Marvel titles I often enjoyed the issues where character-driven stories and soapy relationship stuff took precedent over any action narrative. I’m not necessarily thinking that Marvel Studios can get away with a rom-com here and a serious drama there, but if they were looking at upping their output to 3-4 titles each year, it would be neat to see them offer some smaller and much more unique features. Lower budgets could help in the risk as they further experiment with a straight horror flick (an adaptation of Stan Lee’s “The Little Gypsy Tea Room” or something) or an old-fashioned detective mystery, say something with Colleen Wing and Misty Knight.
The latter is sure to be where they’re going with the Jessica Jones show for Netflix, and TV may be where they’re focused for smaller stories altogether. Feige even said to Faraci that the small screen might be taking the heat off his idea to increase the amount of movies per year. Still, if the studio ever wants to expand beyond the linked together MCU and be a full fledged production house, there’s no reason why they can’t be open to being as wide ranging as their literary counterpart has been. Marvel used to have sports comics and romance comics and war comics and all kinds of other genres of comics that didn’t tie into its superhero universe. They could devote one or two slots a year to cinematic equivalents. And they can even tie them to the MCU in a way if they want.
Perhaps the key here isn’t so much genre variety as it is isolated variety. As much as we fans love to follow the train from one movie and TV episode to another and see where they fit in a timeline or a narrative, something that will have to be done more in order to keep us from being burned out is more one-off tales — and not just the one-shot shorts included as DVD bonus features. That can be done with existing characters — have Thor go off on a great separate adventure that has nothing to do with Asgard or Midgard, Loki or the Avengers, Jane or Sif or anything we’ve seen already — or with newly introduced heroes. Why not have a Doctor Strange or Sub-Mariner movie that isn’t under the Avengers umbrella, or at least not too centrally beneath it?
Either way, it isn’t that Marvel doesn’t have enough characters, or that Marvel Studios doesn’t have access to enough of them to keep the engine going. They’ve got plenty of juice. And by the 2020s, they’ll probably just reboot everything anyway. The problem is instead that they’re too boxed in with the Avengers initiative. When Feige shelved The Runaways, which was sure to be its own separate entity, he showed us that there’s no desire to go off course, and that’s a shame. He deserves a lot of credit for doing something fresh initially with the way the MCU has been built up, but every great creator needs reinvention and hopefully he’ll eventually see the need to think outside that box he designed to think outside the other box.
Oh, and if Feige really wants to explore different genres, let’s get a Marvel mockumentary at some point. It’s almost there with the new Tales to Astonish doc shorts series, but next time they should take it all the way.