With the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s highly ambitious, consistently masterful Batman Trilogy has ended, standing head and shoulders above competition as the highlight of what could be referred to as a golden age of superhero movies. After all, the comic book adaptation has become the predominant trend in modern blockbuster filmmaking. But if Nolan’s films have brought the comic-book movie to new heights, why have so few superhero films tried to match them? It’s not as if Iron Man or Thor’s stories don’t have potential to be great movies. But there’s a decreasing level of ambition in most recent comic-book adaptations. It isn’t that there aren’t a number of great directors willing to put their own stamp on the material. Rather, it has more to do with a modern version of the Classic Hollywood studio system that gives projects out to workmanlike filmmakers, limits creativity of great filmmakers, and displays an extraordinary lack of imagination in restarting franchises.
More than any other modern movie studio, Marvel Studios resembles an Classic Hollywood type studio that exerts a tight rein of control over their product. To be fair to Marvel, most of the films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America) have been perfectly solid pieces of entertainment, so the problem isn’t that their newer films are duds. Rather, the problem is that they’ve all become homogenized. With the exception of Joss Whedon’s culminating Avengers film, few of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films bear the mark of a distinctive creator, and most of them have the same visual template and feel to them. It’s part of a world where films are product more than art, like something off of an assembly line.
Case in point: Iron Man (2008). The first film to kick off the most recent wave of Marvel movies, Iron Man was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2008, a superhero action blockbuster with a sense of fun and a sharp sense of humor. The cast is ideal, Robert Downey, Jr,’s snarky persona meshes well with playboy billionaire character Tony Stark, and the romance between Downey as Stark and Gwenyth Paltrow as Pepper Potts has the charm straight out of a 1930s screwball comedy like Bringing Up Baby or It Happened One Night. But while director Jon Favreau hits all of the superhero origin story beats well, the film doesn’t really succeed in making its own mark as a superhero action movie. Each action scene is competent enough without ever really being thrilling, and the final battle between Stark and villain Obadiah Stane is painfully forgettable. The problem, at the end of the day, is Favreau’s lack of ambition. He’s capable of putting together a virtual entertainment machine, but he has a harder time of truly wowing with his blockbuster-by-numbers directing and his approach to the story, which follows the “origin story” template provided by the original Superman well but only scratches the surface of the Tony Stark character.
It might not be fair to put all of the blame on Iron Man and Favreau. After all, when most summer blockbusters are dumb, Iron Man was an intelligently made and thoroughly entertaining movie. But every Marvel Cinematic Universe film that followed Iron Man has followed its example far too closely: rather than following up his hit by increasing his ambition, Favreau more or less chose to make Iron Man 2 (2010) a repeat of its predecessor. The film has most of the same elements of the first Iron Man, but it’s all to a lesser effect because there’s nothing particularly new here. The action scenes are still forgettable, the villains are still letdowns, and Favreau turns most of Stark’s more interesting developments (fallout with his love interest and best friend, crippling alcoholism, the looming threat of an early death) into sideshows; they were things to be dealt with rather than important characteristics. rather than the juicy character bits they are. Iron Man 2 also brings greater focus to the muddled politics of the Iron Man movies: Tony Stark is a billionaire who produces weapons of mass destruction only to turn back…and then develop a new weapon, which he refuses to give to the inept government…but big business is just as untrustworthy. It’s hard to see what Favreau’s perspective on any of this is, and it highlights his lack of ambition.
What’s more depressing is when superhero movies give more talented directors a great hero without giving them anything new or interesting to do with them. Joe Johnston may have spent most of his career as a middling popcorn filmmaker, but his early film The Rocketeer is a wonderfully pulpy piece of intentionally corny rah-rah patriotism that recalls the giddy mythmaking highs of Flash Gordon or Star Wars. Captain America (2011) captures that goofball charm better than any of Johnston’s other recent films, but it otherwise feels like a standard superhero movie. It’s a film that competently follows the Iron Man “give a snappy origin story as quickly as possible” template, with the same visual style no less, without doing anything new or interesting with its character. Sure, Captain America might not have the same depth as Iron Man or Spider-Man, but couldn’t a Captain America film reach the mythmaking heights of something like the first Superman (1978)? Couldn’t a look at one of the original superheroes call into question what it means to be a hero in a less perfunctory way? These are gigantic figures with their own gigantic stories- turning them into wonderfully detailed myths is essential if they’re to have any impact.
More dispiriting still is Thor (2011), directed by Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh but curiously nondescript. Gone was the eccentric showman who gave the world Henry V and the flawed-but-fascinating Hamlet. Thor was instead another dull, CGI-wonderland for its first thirty minutes, and aside from some amusing fish-out-of-water business in the middle section, it didn’t feel much like a Branagh film. A pairing of a larger-than-life director with a larger-than-life character should have made for a truly grand Thor film- an eccentric version of the superhero-god myth previously seen in Superman (1978).
One development that could have been promising for the superhero subgenre is the ability to reboot a series. It isn’t that different from what happens in the comic-book world. If a story ends or a series collapses, just restart it and pretend like the previous installments didn’t happen. This could have enormous potential for a series- rather than try to ape the previous director, he could bring his own unique vision to a character. The problem is that more often reboots are used for studios to exert more control over a project. X-Men: First Class (2011) restarted a franchise last year, but it didn’t come from a new vision. Rather, director Matt Vaughn aped Bryan Singer’s original series, albeit without much in the way of subtext. Where the openly gay Singer brought in a layer of allegory in how the mutants were discriminated against, Vaughn mostly just let the 1960s period speak for itself without commenting on how the X-Men are a product of their era. The film was perfectly entertaining, but it strives too hard to replicate the style of Singer’s films and comes off as a studio project more than anything else. It’s understandable to bring everything back to square one after two duds in a row, but a better idea would have been to give the series to a new creative team.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) didn’t fare much better this year. After Raimi quit the series fearing another compromised vision like Spider-Man 3 (2007), there was plenty of potential for a new Spider-Man movie. The good news is that director Marc Webb didn’t try to replicate Sam Raimi’s unmistakable combination of crackerjack pulp filmmaking combined with campy humor and bigger than life emotion. Bad news? He didn’t try to do much of anything else, either. The Amazing Spider-Man shows Webb’s talent dealing with light romantic comedy between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, but the action sequences felt like blockbuster-by-numbers, and Webb never managed to do anything new or creative with the Spider-Man origin story. Everything felt like a bunch of story beats that everyone decided they had to hit. It’s a film without anything new or interesting to add to the Spider-Man myth.
Marvel’s attempt to create one large cinematic universe around four major superheroes is unprecedented and needs steady ground, so part of their concern is practical. It’s also completely understandable that a studio might take control of a franchise after it initially crashes and burns. But the result is more commonly the completely anonymous The Incredible Hulk (2008) rather than something like Batman Begins, and when stories with great potential are turned into products rather than art, film turns into a bland, impersonal disappointment for fans of both comics and cinema. The important question, at the bottom of it all, is what we seek when it comes to comic book movies. We’re in a golden age in the sense that any and every superhero has a chance at a big movie, but is that enough? Is it enough to see Captain America’s story, or is it better to see it through a unique and distinctive vision? At the moment, it’s not really a golden age: it’s just gilded.
Max O’Connell is a senior film studies and theatre student at Ball State University. When not watching films or reading/writing film criticism, Max enjoys arguing with people. Right at this moment, he is arguing that anyone who thinks E.T. is anything but a masterpiece is a low down dirty dog. He also bears a striking resemblance to one of the guitarists of the now defunct indie band Ponytail [Editor’s note: only sorta]. Go read more of his blatherings about film here.