Well, if there’s one sure way of showing critics who suggest that the superhero movie genre is running out of steam that they’re wrong, it’s making sure that Captain America: The First Avenger has a more successful opening weekend than any other superhero movie this year with the exception of Thor (More successful than Batman Begins, for that matter). So does this mean that superheroes are here to stay?
I’ll admit, I was one of those who was convinced that this year’s crop of superhero movies – Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America and X-Men: First Class – was going to be a tipping point for the genre; before we entered the summer season, I was sure that Thor would do well, and then it’d be a case of diminishing returns, with Cap doing the worst of all of them – well, maybe not Hornet, but that wasn’t a summer movie, and you know what I mean – but as soon as First Class opened well and advance buzz on Cap started getting as positive as it did, I started wondering whether the genre had somehow transcended the usual genre glut rules and successfully become a mainstay. And then, last week, both Entertainment Weekly and Deadline Hollywood individually ran articles warning about the “death of superheroes,” just before Captain America‘s opening weekend proved them all wrong. So: Are superhero movies not going anywhere anytime soon?
The answer, at least in the short term, is “Sure.” This was the risky year for superhero movies as a genre: Outside of X-Men – a franchise that had been critically devalued by X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine – there weren’t any names really recognizable to a mainstream, non-comic-reading audience in this year’s batch of superheroes, and each movie had the additional problem of struggling with the problems of introducing new characters, explaining their origins and mythos and also giving audiences enough of a story that they wouldn’t feel like they’ve been expositioned at for two hours (Not that every movie managed that completely, as those of us who’ve seen Green Lantern know all too well). That audiences turned out in such numbers, and with such enthusiasm, suggests that there’s no sign of “Superhero fatigue” just yet – and with next year’s superhero movies genuinely counting as “highly anticipated” (The Dark Knight Rises? Avengers? Come on, those are gimmes to be massive hits), the genre is safe enough until at least 2013.
What happens then – Once audiences have been given the climaxes of two franchises (Admittedly, one of multiple climaxes, in terms of Marvel’s Avengers franchise, but it’s clearly the thing that the movies have been building to since Iron Man 2 last year) – will be the next stress point for the genre. DC Entertainment faltered with Green Lantern, and there’ll be a lot of pressure on both Man of Steel and The Flash to provide the goods, while Iron Man 3 may prove to be an anti-climax after seeing the character team up with all those other superheroes just the year before. Given the potential promotional overkill that we’re likely to see surrounding next year’s The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers (to say nothing of The Amazing Spider-Man), I’d argue that 2013 should be like 2010… an essentially superhero-free summer, to let audiences catch their breaths and start to miss the colorful sturm-und-drang of the genre.
If this summer has proven anything, it’s that superheroes are a successful genre, when treated sensibly; that it’s not particular characters that audiences want to see, but well-done stories in that general genre and tone – This is the summer that showed superheroes passing from fad to something more permanent… as long as it’s treated with the care and attention it deserves (Part of that really is knowing when to stop overwhelming your audience, which might end up being the part that defeats Hollywood in general, considering its lack of history being a culture that understands the idea of “too much of a good thing”). Do that right, allow the genre to have slow periods to match the four-movies-in-four-months years, and… yeah. Weirdly enough, it really might be the case that superhero movies could end up being here to stay.