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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Do You Have Superhero Movie Fatigue?

Superhero Movie Fatigue -- it's everywhere! Symptoms may include a chronic inability to develop interest in even the raddest Thor: Ragnarok trailer, cynicism in the face of the pure joy of the afrofuturistic design of Black Panther, and a tendency to self-diagnose with superhero movie fatigue and write thinkpiece after thinkpiece after thinkpiece about it. If you or someone you love is suffering from Superhero Movie Fatigue, life may seem hopeless, summers, joyless. Well, we here at GeekRex have studied the disease, and we have some good news and some bad news for you: On the upside, Superhero Movie Fatigue may not actually exist; on the downside, the problem may be far, far worse than you thought.

First, a confession: I sometimes think I myself am coming down with superhero movie fatigue. Each new Marvel Studios movie I see, once a yearly event I greatly anticipated, ultimately leaves me feeling... fine. Not particularly good, not particularly bad, just... okay. DC is a mess, despite the success of Wonder Woman, so I'm hardly anticipating Justice League. And, let's be honest - I like a number of Valiant Comics, but even I'm hardly excited at the prospect of a Bloodshot film, and I'm an easier sell than most for that kind of thing.

So, this essay is personal. I still like superhero films. I want to see what Taika Waititi can do with them, and I'd much rather see Deadpool 2 than, say, Live Free and Die Harder or another Avatar. And yet, I haven't rewatched Doctor Strange since I saw it in theaters. I left Spider-Man: Homecoming with little more than an urge to rewatch Sam Raimi's superior Spider-Man 2. Raimi's film has worse effects, weaker banter, less of the high school connection I typically so enjoy with the character... but it has something that makes me keep coming back to it while Marvel Studios' more faithful take fades rapidly from my memory.

But I was also inspired to write this by conversations I've had or seen in film discussion groups on social media, both from critics and from more casual viewers. I was always a little uncertain in those conversations. I both like superhero movies and am clearly growing fatigued with some aspect of them, but at the same time, I would disagree strongly with their language. They often would talk of a glut of superhero films, and my reaction was always the same: A glut? Really? Just a couple years ago, there were more Westerns, widely considered a dead genre, released theatrically than superhero films... and as long as other films were still getting financed and released, it's not as if there's a law saying you must see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or Suicide Squad. It seemed odd to complain about a handful of movies you don't plan on seeing coming out each year. And yet... I felt the same way!

Well, about some of it. Because I noticed something odd. The idea of superhero fatigue wasn't just something that was brought up in the conversation around superhero films. The same language - sometimes even down to the word superhero - was being used by many of my savvy cinephile friends when talking about movies that didn't really, well, fit the bill. What is it, I began to wonder, that linked Spider-Man: Homecoming - a movie that is by and large fairly critically well-received and enjoyed by audiences - with something like The Mummy or Transformers: The Last Knight to these viewers?

At first, I thought that what we all had was, in a way, 'Bad Movie Fatigue'. But that doesn't quite work, in my opinion, for a few reasons. Bad movies have always existed, and while they may cost more and take up a bit more of the national conversation today than twenty years back, let's not pretend like the 2000s or any decade prior was full to bursting with cinematic masterpieces every summer. Hollywood has always tossed good money after bad and hoped we wouldn't notice until the box office had been recouped and the next piece of trash was on our screens. Beyond that, many of the films that so fatigue us are actually quite popular, both with critics and with audiences. While popularity and even critical acclaim are hardly the same thing as quality, that does suggest something else. But if it isn't quality, what is it? This is where, I think, the problem began to metastasize.

Look, there are some people who just don't like superheroes. That's fine. But it's hard to imagine being truly fatigued - that is, going from loving superhero movies to no longer caring or being interested in them - off a handful of films each year, not all of which you will see. But the trends started by Marvel Studios, the 'universification' of film franchises? That is rapidly becoming omnipresent. It's not just that Marvel puts out two films a year and DC puts out two films a year. It's about 'The Conjuring Universe' going toe-to-toe with 'the Universal Monsters Universe', about the potentially upcoming 'The Fast & The Furious-verse' and needing to outperform the already-announced Transformers spin-offs, all of which are gunning for Disney's throne with the join Marvel and Star Wars Superfranchises. 

In a Superfranchise, every film is a half-finished ad for the next film rather than a story in its own right, a neverending daisy chain of almost-finished arcs asking you to tune in next time. In a Superfranchise, the real big bad is always hovering at the periphery; what you're seeing now is just eternal prelude to the Big Event. The Superfranchise is safe and samey -- there will be no Black Widow film because it's not 'on brand' for every other film in the Superfranchise. Regular franchises have long since earned, if not respect from the critical establishment then at least a grudging acknowledgment that they weren't going anywhere. But what Marvel Studios ushered in when Samuel L. Jackson appeared at the end of Iron Man to talk about 'the Avengers Initiative' is not a franchise, just like Wal-Mart or Amazon, the modern superstores, are not merely 'big box' shops like Barnes & Noble.

This helps explain another persistent issue I have with the normal 'superhero fatigue' model of the discussion: Why don't normal audiences seem to be feeling it? My parents hardly like superhero movies, but they've never claimed to be fatigued, and they'll still see them the way they will any movie: If one becomes dominant enough in the cultural conversation, they'll check it out. The rise of the Superfranchise helps explain that, too; they don't know that there are 18 more Marvel movies and 12 more DC movies already planned, announced, and cast. They haven't heard about the massive marketing blitz, or noticed the easter eggs promoting upcoming #content, or realized that the reason the end of the movie felt so disconnected was because it had to set up a sequel and two spin-offs that are already under production. For those who keep up with film news, these moments are the long, naked arms of producers and marketers moving pieces around the board in lieu of genuine story; for those who are largely disconnected, it's just an off moment in an otherwise engaging spectacle. An avid bookstore shopper might notice the rapid closure of first indie stores and later big boxes in the face of Amazon; a casual consumer just notices how low the prices are.

If you're at all like me, then I don't think you have Superhero Movie Fatigue; you have Superfranchise Fatigue.The hand of studio meddling has become much more naked to us all, visible in the samey visual style and board-setting storytelling decisions. It may have started with Marvel Studios, but it has grown to envelop franchises as disparate as Universal Monsters and The Fast and the Furious. To me, that's bad news for us all, because that will be a much, much harder trend for American film to buck than the kinds of clothes the heroes of our beat-'em-ups wear
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