Much like people have been predicting the imminent demise of cinema pretty much since it began, naysayers have been predicting the imminent demise of the superhero genre for the past decade or so. Audiences, the basic argument claims, will get sick of seeing the same thing over and over again, no matter how advanced the special effects and fight scenes, and stop turning out.
The only time I myself have suspected there might be truth to the doomsday theories was in 2013. It had its share of duds (the dour Man of Steel, the bottom-of-the-barrel Thor: The Dark World), and more concerningly, even the better releases (The Wolverine, Iron Man 3) felt like rehashes of the same old, same old.
But then came 2014. Captain America: The Winter Soldier brought the tensions of a Cold War-era spy thriller to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Guardians of the Galaxy burst onto the scene with killer tunes and all the irreverence of a 1960s outlaw film. While sprinkled with mediocrities here and there (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, all of the DCEU besides Wonder Woman), the superhero genre, on the whole, has managed to stay on the up-and-up through divergence, through approaching “superhero movie” as one of many elements of the narrative as opposed to the foundation.
Just consider the strongest entries in the superhero film genre of recent years. Logan, the only superhero film to ever receive an Oscar nomination for screenwriting, is a brutal swan song about mortality and legacy that just so happens to involve mutants. Spider-Man: Homecoming brings John Hughes style teenage charm into the 21st century—with superpowers. The joy of Black Panther comes not from fight scenes, but the exuberant Wakandan world-building while the Thor series finally amounts to more than being the unloved middle child through letting Taika Waititi bring his cheeky panache to Asgard in Thor: Ragnarok.
When you strip these films down to the basics—key themes, character dynamics—they are compelling concepts independent of the Marvel Comics component. That they involve beloved characters with exceptional abilities and dastardly super-villains who must be stopped is a bonus, an extra twist, a way of drawing in wider audiences because that is the element of superhero films that is really most exciting. The brightest cinematic future for the superheroes is one where studios look at the success of things like Logan and Black Panther and see that what the genre represents is a way to be bold, to do something daring on a large scale, with reduced risk.
Just look at the latest example, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. At first glance, it seems unbearably trite—the fourth reworking of Spider-Man on the big screen in eleven years, the seventh theatrical release Spider-Man film in the past two decades. But instead, the film is the exact opposite. As our own Brad Gullickson writes in his review, it’s “an electric shock to the system of superhero cinema” that marks the first time a superhero movie has actually adapted the nuances of the comic book form and style for the big screen. And he’s not alone. Critics everywhere describe the film as “a conceptual dare,” “fresh and exhilarating,” and “an astonishing shot of cinematic superhero adrenaline.” In tethering their story to one of the most well-known superheroes of them all, the filmmakers used the beloved platform of Spider-Man to be hugely innovative and original in other ways.
Animation is a fundamentally unlimited form. While live-action cinema is based in the checks and balances that define photography—certain things are easier and cheaper to shoot, other things far more expensive, fantastical things require various manipulations, etc.—animation is rooted in the freedom of painting and sculpture (in the case of stop-motion). And yet mainstream animation is depressingly uniform. Disney and Pixar have told plenty of captivating stories, but stylistically their films remain incredibly standardized, pushing animation towards mimicking the restrictions of live-action instead of wholeheartedly embracing the freedoms of the medium. While the diverse but tragically under-appreciated world of animated shorts illustrates the wide-ranging potential of the medium, little of that creativity makes it to feature-length animation. When the occasional artsy title like last year’s oil painting animation Loving Vincent manages to make it to theaters, it is an arthouse instead of mainstream release. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is unparalleled in its utilization of a unique style of animation in a major mainstream film. It uses the relative security of having a built-in audience as a Spider-Man title to be daring in other ways.
This year has been a huge one for superhero films from start to finish, from Black Panther to Avengers: Infinity War to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But in looking ahead, the hugeness of Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Endgame does not mark the way forward. The films have value as proof of concept, but that is about all. It’s a one-trick pony situation; the novelty of spending nearly two decades building up a cast of characters to bring them all together in an epic showdown. Once you do it, it’s done. There is no room for innovation or evolution with the concept, it’s already too jam-packed with characters and the number of narrative threads required to include so many characters do anything else.
It’s like that time I was seven and thought it would be a good idea to combine all of the sodas in the soda fountain into a super-soda. The end result was nondescript sugar water, with all of the individual strengths of the various components lost in the mix. The experiment was a success in the sense that my curiosity was satisfied, but I never tried it again. Infinity War similarly sacrifices all the unique styles and flavors of its individual components by throwing them all together. Thor keeps his new and improved haircut but the verve introduced in Ragnarok has otherwise vanished; the wonder of Wakanda is reduced to a few indistinct rooms and a field; the Gen Z flair of Homecoming gets lost in the shuffle. Instead, the film becomes an endless series of more or less the same battle sequence being fought in different nondescript locations with varying combinations of characters.
Endgame, as plenty of people on social media, have already pointed out, is a silly title because we all know the MCU already has plenty more titles in development, but hopefully, it does mark an end—the end of the mega-team-up. Now that the MCU has checked the super-crossover off its bucket list, the superhero genre should move on. In 2018, we have seen a clear path forward, and it’s one of divergence, not convergence.