James C. Banks

Superhero Movies and the Conservatism of Hollywood

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2011 at 4:38 am

Could the American film industry be on the verge of reform or beginning a slow, painful dissent of aesthetic decline?  This is the question that I’ve been asking myself recently after seeing the monotony of superhero films which, anymore, dominate the summer experience.  I enjoy these movies myself—or at least some of them.

The problem is not that audiences do not enjoy seeing pictures with similar themes and ambitions more than once.  If box office numbers are any indication, than they most certainly do.  However, the increasing trend of comic book movies at the expense of more individual, unsourced blockbusters as were so prolific from the late Seventies through the Eighties is a certain indicator that movie studios are attempting to hedge their bets.  They are going with what is safe.

It is hard to blame anyone for “playing it safe” when, if the anemic economy persists, this period may become America’s “lost decade”.  But it is also difficult for me to believe that the conservative strategy will continue to pay.  Already, the superheroes are becoming so obscure (at least to an individual for whom knowledge of comic book narratives is all secondhand) that the merit of its source will turn irrelevant to theater attendance.

The superhero is, in a sense, more than a escapist frivolity; while he (or, rarely, she) is not nearly as important to American mythos as the cowboy, superhero narratives are capable of functioning as mythological systems, with competing literature of which most in society have some opaque notion, though they may not be able to cite specific passages.

There are only so many superheroes, though, supported by a broad base of common popular culture knowledge.  Everyone’s heard of Superman and knows that he doesn’t like Krypton; I’d guess the average American could get the question right on a quiz that asks whether or not Batman is an orphan.  But these names can only be reused so many times during a given period.  New Superman and Spiderman franchises are in the works while the corpses of the last ones are still warm.

It is hard to say how long Hollywood will be able to keep this formula for financial success running, but sooner than they like to think they will need to start learning to adapt, or preparing to die.

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