The Life, Death, and Re-Spawn of Genre

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Video game adaptations are poised to be blockbuster fodder, it only took years of trial and error.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

“We were around when the Western died,” Steven Spielberg stated in an interview, “and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.” He was expanding on his previous statements regarding Hollywood’s reliance on big budget superhero films. Spielberg said that Hollywood was due for an “implosion.” While many took Spielberg’s comments as a battle cry against everything they love and hold dear, some were quick to address a core assumption at the root of his statements: superhero films are a genre and genres can lose relevancy.

“We were around when the Western died, and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.”

Much like the lifecycle of an average video game character, a genre’s life is about birth, death, and re-spawn. During the lifecycle of a genre, the aesthetic and thematic concerns solidify. Subsequently, the genre dies a slow death as it loses creative vitality with each progressing year. Potential realized, it lays dormant until a new wave of creators awaken it from its slumber to reassemble it as best they can with stolen aspects of other genres to increase its longevity, such as the use of noir conventions in science fiction like Bladerunner or western conventions in a post-apocalyptic film like Mad Max: Fury Road. Genre reinvents itself sometimes in a relevant way and other times it fizzles out. To make Spielberg’s vision of permanent superhero genre death a reality, Hollywood would need another genre to fill that marketing gap. In this case, it looks as though video games adaptations are still a viable possibility.

If this seems like a stretch, there are more direct connections between the superhero genre’s formula for success and the video game adaptations’ potential for success. Both genres have a built in demographic that is willing to spend a lot on their source material. Comic book sales in the United States alone are consistently over the 100 million mark. Video games are a $61-billion dollar industry in digital sales alone. Both genres will have big name, talented filmmakers as vocal fans. Video games have Guillermo Del Toro, J.J. Abrams, and Jonathan Nolan, just as Joss Whedon, James Gunn, and Sam Raimi were comic fans who made films about their source material. Finally, video games have their own iconic characters. Lara Croft, Mario, and Master Chief are just a few examples. Each character has their own iconography ready and able to be co-opted into a well-crafted blockbuster.

Currently, Assassin’s Creed’s marketing campaign is gaining momentum in anticipation of its release date. Ubisoft’s adaptation of The Division starring Jessica Chastain and Jake Gyllenhaal is about to go into production. On the Westworld red carpet, J.J. Abrams confirmed that Half Life and Portal films were in development. Walton Goggins was cast as a potential villain in a new Tomb Raider franchise. Those are just a few of the upwards of 50 video game films in development. Many of these films will not make it into production. Others may endure but fail at the box office. But one of these films will find the magic formula, seducing lifelong fans, enchanting the uninitiated, and driving the genre into the next stage in its development. Then ten years from now some other intern will be writing a piece about the next best genre.

It is evident from the tenacity with which studios are courting these films that they are subscribing to the Sally Bowles “maybe this time” model of success. This is not the first time studios have gambled on niche source material to generate a global phenomena. Superhero films have not always been the mainstream pop-culture juggernaut they are now. Writers, filmmakers, and studios took years creating bad superhero films to get to the interconnected seamlessness of the Marvel universe or rich symbolism of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Superhero movies are not foolproof. What makes the superhero genre thrive is balance. For every Green Lantern, a Deadpool. For every Batman & Robin, a Dark Knight. There was experimentation, failure, and then success. A film became successful and elements from that film were added to the next. Until, the elements that received a consistent positive reaction were added to every film with slight flourish to make it somewhat distinct to audiences for style but similar in overall substance.

Warcraft (2016)

Warcraft left a majority of commentators comfortable in their belief that video games are just unadaptable and unwatchable. These critics dread a wave of subpar video game films, ignoring the 23 years of experimentation that brought comic book films of up to par. With upwards of 50 video game movies in development, one of which is helmed by franchise reviver J.J. Abrams, one film will birth a new genre. From that paradigm, all others will follow. A pessimist mistakes a misstep for catastrophe. An innovator turns a trip into a test case and moves on. “It’s only a curse until someone makes a good one,” Michael Fassbender said of Assassin’s Creed, “and then it’s a different story.”

Writer and law student.