Anghus Houvouras on 2016 being a “make or break” year for comic book movies…
2016 is a pivotal year for the comic book movie, and maybe not for the reasons you think.
Not just because Warner Bros. finally arrives to the party with their shared cinematic universe. And not because we’re seeing more second class characters getting their own feature films. Hollywood has dipped into the dollar bins before trying to make big screen successes out of second tier characters like Swamp Thing, Jonah Hex, Elektra, and The Punisher with varying degrees of success. In the case of those four examples, ‘success’ is merely referencing the fact that the movies were financed, produced, and released. Creatively they were toilet bowl expeditions looking to see who could make their way deepest into the drain and the public was all too eager to flush.
Deadpool arrives in theaters this weekend and the stakes have never been higher. ‘Why’ you ask?
Because comic book movies have become tiresome, predictable affairs.
Deadpool is a risk. A word Marvel Studios has been unfamiliar with since launching their cinematic universe in the days before big daddy Disney came in and made financial solvency a second thought. Since Iron Man jettisoned into cinemas in 2008, Marvel has been terraforming the entertainment world with a ridiculously successful formula. Unfortunately, that formula has become watered down. There’s so little difference between each of the Marvel movies. The difference between Iron Man and Ant-Man is so very slight. Like looking at a book of fabric swathes and trying to determine the difference between ‘Ivory’ and ‘Eggshell’. Creatively and structurally they are very much the same movie.
Even the Marvel properties currently managed by Sony and 20th Century Fox could only be considered slight variations on a very popular theme.
Deadpool though… Deadpool looks like something different. A comic book movie that embraces the gonzo roots of the character with wacky hijinks and fourth wall breaking meta moments. Rather than running Deadpool through the filter of previous comic book adaptations, it allows the source material to set a unique course. Sure it’s an origin story and features some of the same structural elements of other comic book movies, but Deadpool’s potential success could show that audiences are ready to have the scope of these superhero stories broadened. The same holds true for this summer’s Suicide Squad, which also has the tonal familiarity of previous comic book films but looks to strike its own unique chord.
In terms of a timeline, we’re about to end the Silver Age of Comic Book Cinema. The first would encompass the entire end of the 20th Century. From 1979’s Superman to 1999’s Mystery Men and everything in between. This was the infancy of the genre, at a time when studios weren’t taking the medium very seriously. The Silver Age started in 2000 with X-Men, where studios started to see the value of these properties and how they could merge good storytelling with the more bombastic elements. Comic book movies found their legitimacy during this age, all of it bolstered by Marvel’s dominance of the global box office.
Even though the genre found legitimacy and experienced huge breakout success, the movies were all still stupidly similar. From story structure, production design, even wardrobe choices are oddly the same. Superman’s costume and Spider-Man’s costume look like they were crafted by the same tailor. The X-Men, the Falcon, and Black Panther all look like they have the same stylist. These adaptations of comic book worlds all have familiar sights and sounds.
For comic book movies to survive, they must begin to deviate from the established structure that has dictated their construction since everyone started aping the Marvel Moviemaking Model. Deadpool’s R-Rated irreverent style and Suicide Squad’s villainous brood are exactly the kind of deviations needed to show studios that the ticket buying public is interested in something different.
I’m sure Marvel is smart enough to have realized that their current formula needs the occasional tweak, which is why Phase Three is widening their creative horizons with more nuanced characters like Black Panther and Doctor Strange.
The success of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and X-Men: Apocalypse (and to a lesser extent Doctor Strange) seem fairly predetermined. Civil War and Batman v Superman will make a mint. X-Men: Apocalypse will continue to be profitable enough to continue the franchise. Doctor Strange seems more than capable of pulling in the same revenue that Ant-Man and Thor have delivered.
If Deadpool and Suicide Squad can produce big numbers, it could open the floodgates for edgier comic book fare on the big screen. We could get proper adaptation of fringe characters instead of soulless, cookie cutter adaptations that strip the character of everything unique to fit a particular sculpted codpiece (cough) Green Lantern (cough).
While all of these comic book films may be ‘money in the bank’, creatively this is the year that could help define whether we get a decade of some riskier adaptations or more of the same.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.