The next three years in the theater will be inundated with mutants, aliens, sorcerers, gods both good and evil, and sentient machines, all vying for your fandom and dollars. The reign of the comic book film may seem to have already been fully realized, with 2008’s Iron Man generally marked as the poured foundation in the house that Disney and Marvel Studios built, culminating in 2012’s The Avengers. Disney and Marvel’s combined audaciousness in envisioning and executing with unprecedented success the interweaving franchises of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and making Hulk work in spite of three films of which none of the original leads transition to the ensemble, is remarkable.
It’s a blueprint for success that, oddly, film historians decades from now may mark as the first nail in the coffin of a genre that needlessly accelerated its own demise, and which damaged the success and viability of smaller, less mainstream offerings under its super-powered umbrella at the expense of getting while the getting is good.
Warner Bros and DC, so late to the game in pulling together their catalogue of major players for a big ensemble run, may be limping before they truly have an opportunity to create an equally rich cinematic universe to compete. It’s going to be difficult to out-Marvel Marvel, when Marvel is trying to out-Marvel itself.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a juggernaut, and the offerings rolling in from Disney for the foreseeable future are arguably going to be fan pleasing, but they’re already milking their second-tier cast of characters, and they’re not really slowing down to take a breath. Casuals like me might need a chance to appreciate the novelty of super men, women, and otherwise, with a little absence to make the heart grow fonder.
I dig comics and graphic novels, but the last comic book I purchased without needing context for an upcoming film was the Death of Superman compendium in 1993. There are a lot of me out there, who have certainly enjoyed many of the comic-to-film offerings to this point, but with their increasing presence in theaters now bleeding happily into prime time and our online streaming services, the inclination of the average moviegoer might be that it’s a bit much. Because it is. Way too much.
To that, many will suggest that we simply avoid if we aren’t dyed in the wool fans, but that’s the rub. If the large(r) number of non-superfans balks at the volume, it’s going to hurt even more when the second and third phase comic films start being a necessity to produce while the big dogs recharge, re-imagine, and recast.
This year features big time players like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. As a fan of James Gunn, I’m five varieties of stoked about Guardians of the Galaxy, but Gunn isn’t a big name draw to a lot of average filmgoers. Do you know a slew of folks that caught Super? Plus, neither the characters nor the cast resonate loudly beyond established fandom. Regardless of its positioning in the greater narrative arc of what will lead to 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, you’re still betting on a lot of moviegoers who don’t know an Infinity Gauntlet from a power ring not being exhausted by not only Marvel’s output, but an ongoing mutant saga in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Columbia’s second installment The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The latter franchise is already announced to be keeping theater screens busy with super-fare in the form of another Spider-Man entry in 2016, with a Spidey Universe spinoff announced for Venom and the Sinister Six.
And remember, at this point, a Justice League ensemble is still floating in a nebulous future date. That’s depending on Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer’s Man of Steel sequel fires on all cylinders in 2015, and the various DC television offerings pulling healthy ratings. Even Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has not been immune to growing pains, and that’s with an established film presence to reference and a big screen anchor in Clark Gregg.
For established comic book fans, all of this new content is incredible news. For me? Film is a part of my career; I’m going to be viewing these movies and shows as much out of necessity as interest. I admittedly only know the Sinister Six having heard the term as a mostly passive fan of Spider-Man. That may not bode well on a larger, casual filmgoing scale for the massive long-term plans these studios have for the comic-to-film genre.
Which in a way is sad, because there’s a chance that a growing number of casual fans are going to miss some quirky gems, and I’m not talking Ant-Man, which may arguably be one of the more mainstream and successful of the second-tier offerings upcoming.
Guillermo del Toro’s Justice League Dark seems an increasingly real prospect, but the mostly no-name (to the uninitiated) cast of characters, plus his not entirely commercial sensibilities might not only push the film under the radar if it does get made, there’s a very real chance of it being backburnered or scrapped altogether if the intricate catch up game of WB and DC doesn’t produce results in a world where we’re already getting a full plate of super movies in the coming three years. That’s a lot of competing factors for box office success, no matter your filmmaking brilliance.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s genre-bending partnership with Neil Gaiman and Goyer on The Sandman will certainly draw interest from the graphic novel’s dedicated fanbase and JGL’s name, but by the time production becomes a reality, the association with DC might actually harm it if we’re still cruising through a world of caped crusaders and Sons of Krypton, regardless of how far outside the narrative norm Gaiman’s story is.
With so much occurring in the greater landscape of the comic book film, it would be a genuine shame to see the residents on the edges of these universes not get their proper due simply because we’re collectively getting fed too much, too fast, too soon. But even for the major players, we can all only binge so long without a purge.