The Superhero Decade
This piece was originally published on January 5, 2020 under the title 2019 at the Movies: The State of Superhero Cinema. It has been lightly edited and revised in advance of re-publication.
It’s been over a decade since The Dark Knight and Iron Man, but the impact of those two films was still being felt by the end of the 2010s, perhaps more than ever. In the intervening years, studios have either built upon or chased Christopher Nolan’s and Marvel’s formulas, to varying degrees of success, leading to two movies this past year that — in ways both literal and figurative — feel like an end of an era. Though the comic book movie is still clearly thriving (though whether it too can handle the pandemic may come down to how Wonder Woman 1984 fares on HBO Max), 2019 felt like an inflection point for the genre, with Avengers: Endgame and Joker serving as a culmination of sorts for a period that started eleven years prior.
2008 saw the release of the two most important movies for understanding the state of superhero cinema today: Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the second in his revamped Batman trilogy, and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Marvel’s big swing that marks the first entry (of 23 and counting) in what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Both films were box office smashes (~$533M domestic for Dark Knight; ~$318M for Iron Man) and critical successes (Metacritic: 84% for Dark Knight, 79% for Iron Man), and The Dark Knight fared better at the Academy Awards than any previous film of its ilk, with 8 nominations and 2 wins, including Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar for his supporting turn as the Joker. Despite the accolades, much of the story lay in the nominations The Dark Knight did not receive, namely a Best Picture snub that almost certainly contributed to the expansion of the category to 10 films the following year — a change that did not bear fruit for the superhero genre until the nomination of 2018’s Black Panther, seen by many as a high-water mark for the now-dominant MCU. Marvel Studios parlayed their gamble with Iron Man into a years-long cultural phenomenon, comparable only to Star Wars or Harry Potter in its ubiquity, and over 20 movies later arrived at Avengers: Endgame, the last (we think) hurrah of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, among other original MCU heroes. Whatever you may think of Endgame’s cinematic bona fides, it is a feat unlike anything previously seen on the big screen — ironically, Endgame’s uniqueness stems from its similarities with the type of art typically seen on the small screen, its long-form storytelling reminiscent of the pre-prestige television era where each episode in a season told a mostly independent story while also contributing to the broader narrative arc, the threads of which wouldn’t be pulled together fully until the season (or even series) end. Like a season finale, Endgame may play fine on its own, but the creators are relying on viewers having seen a substantial portion (ideally, all) of the installments leading up to the big finish in order to maximize the emotional impact. This simply hasn’t been done at this scale before — not only are there few film franchises whose entries even reach double digits, those that do span a dozen or more movies are closer to the James Bond series in nature, with soft or hard reboots every so often and little inter-connectivity outside of the broad strokes. Marvel was smartly able to predict (or, some would say, actively manipulate) a future of blockbuster cinema where the idea of the franchise evolved not only to something more akin to television, but also to their own area of expertise: comic books themselves are a prime example of long-form storytelling, action-packed soap operas that can remake themselves into perpetuity — a formula that Marvel appears hell-bent on replicating in Hollywood. DC and Warner Brothers, on the other hand, have spent most of the decade chasing Marvel and frequently taking the wrong lessons from their rivals. After following up The Dark Knight with critically-derided misfires in Jonah Hex and Green Lantern, they found themselves at a loss after Nolan’s bat-trilogy concluded with 2012’s gleefully anarchic The Dark Knight Rises. To DC’s detriment, 2012 also saw the release of Marvel’s The Avengers, an overwhelming box office and cultural sensation that served as vindication for the MCU strategy. The Avengers works more than anything because of Marvel’s patience, using five movies over four years to lay the groundwork for a crossover event that felt unprecedented. DC, in a move that feels born out of panic, tried to play catch-up, tabbing Zack Snyder (the director of Watchmen, DC’s one moderately well-received film made between the Nolan Batmans) to oversee a shared universe their own iconic characters to combat the MCU. Try as they might, however, DC just couldn’t replicate the formula. The problem was two-fold: First, likely due to feeling like they were only falling further behind, DC moved quickly, bringing their three biggest characters (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) together in only the second movie of their rebooted series, 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Only Henry Cavill’s Superman was introduced in his own film, compared to the reintroductions of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Hulk in standalone features prior to The Avengers. With no time to settle in with the characters, Batman v. Superman felt like a poor imitation. Second, DC’s takeaway from the Nolan films focused on the perception that what audiences liked was how “dark,” “gritty,” or “more mature” they were, and tried to infuse that into their movies. Of course, Nolan’s success has much more to do with his creativity and skill as a filmmaker, and the Snyder films just couldn’t make par. The most interesting DC movies from the era are actually those single-hero films that lean away from the doom and gloom: Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and this year’s Shazam. With that trio, it seemed as though DC had righted the ship and decided to focus their efforts on fun, idiosyncratic efforts from talented and independent directors, but alas, 2019 also brought us Todd Phillips’ Joker. Despite a prestige sheen and a genuinely impressive central performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Joker is ultimately hollow, relying on empty nihilism to carry an altogether unpleasant film. Regardless, Joker has been incredibly profitable (DC’s third highest grossing movie of all time), received 11 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay), and won 2 (including Best Actor for Phoenix). Joker feels like a return to the Batman v. Superman style of heartless and ugly superhero fare, and one wonders whether its success will lead DC and Warner Brothers to drive back into the skid they had seemingly managed to veer out of. The future of superhero filmmaking isn’t limited to Marvel and DC however, and as we look toward the next stage in the genre’s evolution it seems likely that some of the most fascinating work — if not necessarily the biggest blockbusters — will come from outside the big two. Not that the smaller brands don’t produce their share of failures: 2019 saw the release of one of the worst superhero movies in recent memory in Hellboy, a grotesque reboot following Guillermo Del Toro’s two-film take on the character (Hellboy II: The Golden Army is the forgotten superhero movie from 2008, overshadowed by The Dark Knight and Iron Man, but it remains one of the most visually inventive of the genre). But 2019 also gave us the manga adaptation Alita: Battle Angel, deconstructions of the superhero myth in Glass and Brightburn, and original and diverse storytelling in Fast Color. The degree of success among these films varied wildly, with none approaching DC or Marvel’s output in terms of box office or cultural prevalence, but the ideas and filmmaking behind this set of projects speak to the potential the genre still holds as a creative and artistic endeavor. Existential crisis facing the entire industry notwithstanding, superhero cinema appears to be at a crossroads. More popular than ever, the creators and stewards of the next ten years of stories must be conscientious of the potential for stagnation and toxicity that comes with the territory. Despite the warning signs that have reared their heads in recent years (the Disney monopoly, an increasingly gatekeeping-focused online fandom, Warner Bros.' HBO Max pivot), superhero stories persist because of their ability — like their protagonists — to transcend their perceived limitations. Comic book movies are escapism, but escapism is a wonderful service cinema can provide. However, the storytellers should take note that viewers are not going to be satisfied with tokenism or mere lip service in these films moving forward. The beauty of the concept, in its purest form, is that anyone can be a superhero, no matter who they are, what they look like, or where they came from. As long as the versions of heroes we see on the big screen reflect that ideology, there’s no reason why the genre can’t evolve, transcend, and continue to be a vital (though hopefully reasonably-sized) part of the cinematic landscape.