Blame it on the Superheroes. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Few of us were complaining when Superman swooped down to theaters in 1978, nor Batman eleven years later. Ditto Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and several early entries in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe, for those of you who’ve spent the recent past on Mars). But that was then. Talk used to center on sequels and trilogies; now it’s phases and brands. Something has changed.
No longer do studios endeavor to present a product that stands out from the pack. They don’t have to. They’ve found a winning (read: lucrative) formula. After all, why try for something good when all you really need is good enough?
As a result, the last fifteen years of superhero films have rolled smoothly off the corporate assembly line, each new entry hardly different from the last. This would still be bearable if even half of them shined with a promising spark of depth, intelligence, subtlety or originality.
No such luck. In one fell swoop “either you die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” was handily usurped by “I am Groot.” For how can you craft stories with even a modicum of sophistication when your nine-year-old demographic must be able to follow every narrative and emotional arc with ease?
“But,” some may counter, “how many blockbusters have ever aimed for, much less achieved, true sophistication?” Admittedly, few. Indeed, why would Lucas conjure Star Wars, or Spielberg E.T., if not to satisfy the kid in all of us?
Yet, while one or two child-at-heart spectacles are welcome, half a dozen is another story — and those are just the superhero movies. Which brings us to the most insidious aspect of this cape-and-spandex invasion.
One can handle three MCU entries every year, plus whatever comic-book offerings the other studios have managed to produce. If you’ve had your fill of quantum spiders and iron gods, you can avoid the theater once every-other month. But what about every weekend?
Make no mistake: Star Wars, The Fast and the Furious, Jurassic World, Transformers — these aren’t just sequels and franchises; they’re superhero films. Perhaps not in name or likeness, but certainly in their steady stream of sophomoric, conveyer-belt content. And one could make a compelling case that none of them would exist in their present form without the success of the MCU.
Thanks to this glut of homogenous hype machines, as well as the demise of the mid-budget movie (a story for another time), there’s little for the traditional blockbuster fan to hang his hat on. One Chris Nolan film every three years just won’t cut it.
To be clear: this isn’t about hating Marvel films; it’s about loving movies. Which brings us, inexorably, to another point worth making, which can be summed up in a single question.
Where have all the endings gone?
Every story worth its salt is undergirded by three key components: a beginning, a middle and an end. But what if you only had the first two — not for a week or a season, but for years? Any way you slice it, easter eggs and after-credits sequences are no substitute for a definitive denouement.
Like the comic books on which they’re based, nearly every superhero story “ends” to be continued. This means that most narrative elements tend to lose their luster by the time you’ve swallowed your last morsel of popcorn. After all, why should you fear for Spider-Man’s life in one film when he’s already been “green-lit” for two more? Long before today, the MCU perfected the art of releasing each of its entries as just that: an entry, or episode. The entire enterprise has now become — or was always meant to be — a glorified TV show.
Naturally, Marvel isn’t the only offender — here’s looking at you, dysfunctional DC and Universal monsters. But they were the first and remain most prominent. And their doctrine of world-building has spread to several other franchises (see aforementioned list).
“So,” others grant, “a majority of blockbusters now constitute the building blocks of TV shows. Is this so bad?”
Maybe not. Television, after all, is popular for a reason. Its extended format allows for detailed character development and more expansive storytelling. Curiously, then, one would be justified in questioning whether Marvel has even taken advantage of these narrative tools. But either way, this creative knife cuts both ways; there are still some things only movies can do.
Take closure, for instance. If a viewer wants to experience the complete story of Christian Bale’s The Dark Knight, she has to watch three movies. They’re on the longer side, but can still be strung together, even in one sitting. If it can work for The Lord of the Rings, it can work for Batman.
Yet, to follow Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, that same viewer will need information from more than twenty films, released over the course of a decade. We’re talking nearly fifty hours of content. For all its similarities to TV, the MCU is hardly bingeable.
And if that’s too many Nolan references for you, consider the (J.J. Abrams) Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes franchises. Each installment ends with a look toward the future, but also a story that is clearly finished, self-contained. Their “universes” will not continue with the next blockbuster three months down the road.
Then comes the immediacy factor. There’s simply something special — a certain energy — about sitting down for a movie and knowing the next two hours are going to deliver a complete narrative experience. All else being equal, each emotional twist holds more weight, every bone-crunching car chase hits harder than that of even a limited series. It’s simple mathematics — the less scenes you have, the more each of them matters. Even a bad movie is better than the first two episodes of a bad television show. The former at least gives you the full picture.
For all their impact, though, immediacy and energy still may take a backseat to scale. Scale — it’s an element you feel more than see. That’s why a story about a father saving his family can seem bigger than a hero saving the world. It’s not the body count, it’s the execution — and the format.
Show Me The Money
For, beyond a few notable exceptions (The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Yellowstone, etc.), there’s a reason TV is known as the ‘small screen.’ It has always been a medium best suited for telling intimate, episodic, character-driven stories — not painting conflict or love on a vast canvas, nor mining suspense from knife-edge plot turns.
Again, this explains how a sub-par Hobbit film still feels bigger and more impactful than The Rings of Power TV series that is certainly longer and probably better. Or why each time the Avengers gather to save New York, or Wakanda, or the Multiverse, it will constitute an exercise in diminishing returns. Nor are superheroes the only culprits. Everyday, it seems, Hollywood announces a new series that might’ve been better as a movie.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that this all makes perfect financial sense. Streaming television is where the money’s at; crafting juvenile, CGI-filled franchises is the best way to lure viewers back inside theaters. One need only spy the top of the leaderboard for proof. Top Gun: Maverick now holds the dubious distinction of being the only film on the all-time top-five box office list NOT directly related to a theme park ride.
Any movie-lover can learn to live with these changes, as long as the culture around her recognizes that they’ve taken place. Are we finished, for the time being, with adult-oriented blockbusters like Gladiator? The Bourne Ultimatum? Mad Max: Fury Road? Fine. Just don’t try to sell us on the fact that Captain America, Jungle Cruise or even Avatar are commensurate substitutes. We must keep a sharp eye on the original prize. Otherwise, it gets that much harder to, someday, find our way back.
After studying journalism in college, Zach went on to pen film reviews for two local St. Louis outlets. He's since published two novels and continues to write about movies from his home in the Missouri countryside.