Superhero movies and the deeper question of quality vs. fan devotion

There’s no denying the fact that we’re enjoying a golden age for comic book films. We’ve reached a point where characters as obscure as Ant-Man and Deadshot can headline a film, and it can actually make money.

But across the spectrum of superhero filmmaking — looking to the DC, Marvel, Sony and Fox fare, specifically — we’re also starting to see the cracks and growing pains inherent with anything as it reaches a saturation point. Just because you make a comic book movie, that doesn’t mean it's going to put butts in seats. Just because you’re following the playbook and building a connected universe, that doesn’t mean it’s actually going to be good

Though it’s splintered more than many fans care to admit these days, superhero and sci-fi fans are by and large a fiercely loyal bunch. And that’s not inherently a bad thing. Comic fans took a chance on films like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger over the years, and Marvel raked in enough cash to reward them with Joss Whedon’s superhero masterpiece The Avengers. From Captain America: Civil War to the upcoming standalones like Doctor Strange, that "investment" just keeps paying dividends.

On the DC side, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad have proven to be solid box-office hits, despite a general consensus that the quality of those films is lacking. Some fans are understandably just psyched to see their favorite heroes and villains brought to life on the big screen, and for them that’s enough, so they keep investing in the product and just hope it’ll continue to improve as the universe builds (and w certainly looks to have the potential for both critical, and commercial, success next year). But despite decent hauls, both films failed to have long box-office legs — a troubling development for these would-be tentpoles.

It all begs the question: Will fans continue to support these films to keep the assembly line rolling, or will the law of diminishing returns finally start killing off some universes and franchises? We’ve already seen 2015’s Fantastic Four crash and burn in a pile of debt and ash, with arguably one of the worst productions of the past few years. So yes, if it’s bad enough, a superhero movie — even one based on Marvel’s First Family — can certainly flop and flop hard.


Taking it a step further, let's look at the issue a bit more abstractly: Is there a reason fans should continue to support these types of films anyway, to give the studio the opportunity to keep making these movies? Should I give up a $10 ticket to nap through Dawn of Justice if it means Warner Bros. will keep moving full steam ahead to make the investment and create a (hopefully awesome) Wonder Woman film? Should I muddle through Thor: The Dark World, so long as it gives Marvel the confidence to dive headfirst into the excellent Captain America: Civil War? And beyond that, something like Captain Marvel? As silly as it sounds, it can make a weird kind of sense.

Should fans support a sometimes-mediocre genre film to help ensure the genre keeps digging deeper? To a degree, we’ve obviously already seen this start happening with a vocal contingent of DC fans surrounding Warner Bros.’s efforts to launch its shared universe. It’s taken more than a few dark and silly turns, such as floating conspiracy theories about critics conspiring to sink DC movies (for reasons!), and calling for the laughably absurd shut down of review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes due to bad reviews, but there’s still something great about fans supporting things they love (or at least want to love).

Was Suicide Squad great? No, not really. But would I still like to see more of Will Smith’s Deadshot, or Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, in the future? Absolutely. With the film hitting $600 million worldwide (making it a solid, if not great, success), there’s a decent chance that will actually happen. If you loved Suicide Squad, or Dawn of Justice (or even Fantastic Four!), that’s great you found something you could connect with. It’d have been even better if more people could’ve been that fortunate.

So sure, it’s understandable why some fans are literally campaigning to support these so-so films, with hope that DC will eventually get it figured out a few more movies down the line. If they view the existence of a shared DC universe as something genuinely important to them, it makes sense they would want to support it regardless of varying quality. For some, the fact that these characters exist in film is equally (or more) important as the actual quality of the product itself. And that’s fine. Love what you love, and prioritize what you want to prioritize. 


But, with this unwavering support, you have to wonder: Is it all just enabling studios like Warner Bros. to continue churning out mediocre superhero films? By ensuring films like Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad continue to put up respectable box office hauls, will it just lead to more and more superhero films-by-committee and Zack Snyder GRIM DARK and “Martha” resolutions? Hey, if that’s what’s turning out $600-$850 million at the box office, why mess with the (arguably by many, flawed) formula?

Fox ate a big loss with Fantastic Four, along with the poor souls who actually took the chance on plunking down their cash to watch the muddled mess. But, it showed the studio that fans wouldn’t stand for a film that bad, so the franchise has seemingly been put on (indefinite) hold until they can figure out what to do with it next. Here’s hoping the next attempt will actually get it right. It might mean less Fantastic Four films in the immediate future, but God willing, it’ll mean better Fantastic Four films down the line. Hopefully.

You can also look to Sony’s Spider-Man experiment, which sent a rebooted wall-crawler to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) after Amazing Spider-Man 2 stalled at the box office. It’s early, but it seems to be a huge success (at least judging by Tom Holland’s excellent turn as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War and the early buzz for Homecoming). Sure, we’re not getting more Marc Webb-led sequels and a half-dozen spinoffs anymore, but Sony got the message and changed course — giving us a live action take on Spider-Man better than anything since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 more than a decade ago. Is that trade off worth it in the end? Less is more, as they say.

Which is the fundamental question surrounding Warner Bros.’s monstrous hydra of DC films: Should fans be happy with these good-enough projects, or put the studio’s feet to the proverbial fire by voting with their pocketbook and sending the message that quality matters? There’s no easy answer. Is it more important to have these DC heroes brought to life on the big screen, and hope they’ll figure it out by Phase 2, or risk not having them at all in the short term, in the hopes that Warner Bros. can do a better job down the line?

You’re the judge — so vote with your cold hard cash accordingly.

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