MovieBob - Intermission
Are Too Many Heroes Coming to the Big Screen at Once?

Bob Chipman | 11 Apr 2014 12:00
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Avengers - New York

Manohla Dargis (who, let's be clear here, is A. a legend in her field and B. an important voice) is of a generation and disposition wherein The Avengers and their attendant mythologies would never have been expected to be on the radar of serious culture watchers. That having a working knowledge of Ant-Man's background and supporting cast could be a vital job skill in an entertainment newsroom is likely a bewildering thing for many to witness, especially since it comes attached to professional anxiety ("Am I going to lose my job because I don't know which Blue Beetle is which?") that's all too real. There are only so many spots to fill in this business, and the current crop of "now" relevant film criticism is utterly dominated by Gen-X and Millennial internet upstarts who've grown up marinating in the so-called "geek-culture".

But there's another aspect to this, bigger yet more inscrutable than the way "superhero movies" divide two epochs in the history of movie journalism. The Marvel and DC universes have both been around for decades (wow... it just this moment occurred to me that I'll probably live to see Superman turn 100 years old), so why are their characters becoming the go-to icons of popular-entertainment now? Especially when you consider that the majority of the more popular superheroes date back to the 60s or (in DC's case) as far back as pre-WWII?

My theory? Globalism.

The world, particularly in the realm of art and entertainment, has never been more interconnected, and Hollywood has found itself in a new position of no longer being able to treat the international box office as a "bonus round" after the main event of figuring out what Americans want to watch. In the not-too-distant past, American films could count on doing well overseas regardless of content simply by virtue of being bigger, flashier and more star-powered than the local product. But now it now faces big-scale blockbuster competition from Bollywood to Eastern Europe and everywhere in between. A Russian-produced 300-style IMAX-3D retelling of Stalingrad broke records in its home country. A single eccentric Chinese billionaire spent $130 million on an action epic about mermaids that he hasn't bothered to release yet.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun

In other words, the days of Hollywood being able to build blockbusters strictly around America-specific heroes with America-specific outlooks and still expect international audiences to just "deal with it" in exchange for a requisite amount of big budget spectacle are drawing to a somewhat abrupt close. "Americana," certainly, still has a place in smaller scale, more personal offerings (you can't get much more American than The Coen Bros, for example), but the singular nationalism of a Top Gun probably isn't going to (please pardon the pun) "fly" anymore.

Hell, even Michael Bay - a filmmaker who has practically appropriated The American Flag as his own personal signature - is now making movies set partly in China.

Superheroes, though? They seem, quite by accident (as in, I can guarantee you that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were not thinking "four-quadrant international-blockbuster" when dreaming up The Mighty Thor) to have arrived uniquely well-suited to a globalized movie scene. These are characters whose origins, philosophies and mythos are (for the most part) unmoored from specific nations or geography in the broader ways that count. They aren't bound to a specific moment in time or a specific national sense of self like Cowboys (or Samurai for Japanese audiences), and the nature of their conflicts can be universally related to. Iron Man is an American who has fought Middle Eastern, Russian and domestic terrorists, but the gist of his character (a onetime builder of weapons trying to clean up a mess he feels partly responsible for) makes sense from anywhere. Captain America, whose very name sounds like a parody of the kind of character who shouldn't work in a global 21st century movie market, has been proven to resonate worldwide - largely because he fights more for an ideal than for a country.

Imaginary men (and women) fighting imaginary villains, whose struggles of good and evil are so broad as to be compatible with almost any perspective. It's the perfect solution for selling big movies to the whole world. Maybe the question shouldn't be "Why so many superheroes, and when are they going away?" but why not more, and why would they go away?

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