How Superhero Movies Became Too Big To Fail

Why even a bad movie like 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' can break box-office records around the world

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill square off in 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.' The superhero movie suffered withering reviews and broke box-office records this weekend.
How Superhero Movies Became Too Big To Fail

There's a scene roughly halfway through Batman v Superman in which Bruce Wayne's loyal butler cautions his billionaire vigilante boss against going to war against the alien savior of Metropolis. "Men fall from the sky and gods hurl thunderbolts," Alfred tells his master. "That's how it starts." 

Spoken like a man who's seen a few superhero movies in his time. In a film that sketchily traces Wayne's history in the cape and cowl, Alfred's observation is one of the few overt nods to the fact that Batman has been around the block, cleaning up the streets of Gotham. And yet, if Alfred were truly as well-versed in this stuff as he claims to be, perhaps he would have finished that thought: "Everyone shakes hands, soberly surveys the wreckage, and promises the audience that their next battle is going to be even more exciting … That's how it ends."

Audiences have long since come to understand that superhero movies, whatever their virtues, function as glorified advertisements for the next installment of their franchises — just as studios have come to understand that perpetually sustaining the inertia of hype is a better financial strategy than delivering a truly satisfying experience.

You don't have to see Batman v Superman (henceforth BvS) to know that its title is a farce — not even the film's trailer has the nerve to pretend that the two most iconic figures of the DC universe are actually going to remain enemies for long. "Fight night!" is what Lex Luthor labels the brief and hilariously resolved clash of the titans, but since we've already been informed that these adversaries will be on the same side in the next movie, watching them go at it feels more like having front row seats to an all-star game. And ever since the Age of Ultron inaugurated the current phase in which caped crusaders are brawling with each other, it's become clear that these heroes are throwing phantom punches. Nobody is playing to win. It's just about putting on a good show for the cameras.

One of the great joys of comics and graphic novels is that absolutely anything can happen — matched only by soap operas as Western culture's most fluid narrative form, they can follow their bliss wherever it leads them, their stories flowing like river water. Superman famously died in the early Nineties, and was thereafter replaced by four different iterations. It doesn't work like that in the movies. At all. Hollywood literally can't afford to abide by the same rules. To paraphrase Peter Parker's Uncle ben: "With great budgets comes great responsibility." Superhero movies are too big to fail.

Denied the flexibility that powers their source material, these films push around their characters like pieces on a chessboard, teasing endless variations and gambits yet only capable of moving in a finite number of directions. Nobody can die; in the rare case that they do, they're resurrected shortly thereafter for a TV show. Nobody can fall in love, but distant stares and secret families are okay. Nobody can change; they can only have brief episodes of insanity. Lip service can be paid to ideas, and every ideological conflict ends in a stalemate. Characters can only be rebooted if they're Trojan-horsed into a franchise already in progress (it's the difference between The Amazing Spider-Man and the sleek new web-slinger who drops in to Marvel's upcoming Civil War). The superhero genre isn't a bubble, it's a balloon that's growing more transparent as it inflates to the breaking point. And BvS is nothing if not full of hot air.

At first, Zack Snyder's magnum opus appears as to be an overdue corrective to a generation of weightless superhero movies — one for which he is partly to blame. The Man of Steel director has been taken to task for his Superman's inability (or indifference towards) preventing collateral damage, and BvS opens by essentially rewinding the tape and revisiting the mondo destructo climax from a more human perspective. Cloaked in his civilian identity, our new Bruce Wayne runs headlong into downtown Metropolis while Superman and General Zod raze it to the ground. Ben Affleck may be history's beefiest Batman, but he's introduced in a moment of profound impotence. In stark contrast to the lip service that Iron Man often pays to "what happened in New York," (the way in which Marvel leverages the character's PTSD as an anguish of convenience has been cheap at best, and insulting at worst), it's viscerally clear how Batman's fear could drive him to wage war against an invincible foe.

Superhero movies aren't killing the film business. The film business is killing superhero movies.

But it's all a joke. After exhaustively laboring to justify why his two heroes should want to kill each other, Snyder undoes 90 minutes of motivational groundwork in the span of a single arbitrary coincidence. Batman resolves his playground tiff with Superman because he learns that their mothers share the same first name. The moment is intended to pierce through the fog of Bruce Wayne's rage. Instead it exposes how thin Batman really is underneath his steroidal armor. 

Clark Kent, meanwhile, is the perfect synecdoche of how the movie works as a whole. Invincible and larger than life, the Kryptonian immigrant struggles to reconcile his desires as a man with his self-imposed responsibilities to mankind. He wants to have it both ways, to be a citizen and a savior, but the world holds him accountable for so much that his choices are ultimately made for him. Nobody is saddled with such a clear understanding as to why superhero movies are stuck between a rock and a hard place. And what's he going to do about it? Naturally you'll have to see the next installment to find out. 

Alas, size isn't everything when it comes to why these films are so dramatically inert. Enter the Merc with a Mouth, who (re)introduces himself to the film world by looking into the camera and promising that he's the answer to our prayers. "You're probably thinking 'This is a superhero movie, but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kebab.' Surprise, this is a different kind of superhero story." If only. 

The kind of parody that's provoked into existence when a genre becomes petrified by its tropes, Deadpool was so outrageously successful in part because people have grown bored of costumed sound and fury signifying nothing. Shot on a wing and a prayer after "leaked" test footage sparked a support from the fan community, the R-rated megahit was made for roughly the same amount of money that BvS spent on Ben Affleck's protein supplements. A refreshingly grounded origin story about a recently disfigured hunk who's afraid to show his new face to the woman he loves, the film's scale makes Ant-Man seem colossal by comparison. 

Unfortunately, Deadpool tried to have its meta cake and eat it too. Too cheap to compete with the big boys (the action in this film is uglier than its hero), but too expensive to risk alienating viewers by fully embracing its self-reflexive streak, it tried to bowl a seven-10 split and ended up sending the ball straight down the middle. It's an annotated guide of what's creatively bankrupt about superhero cinema: Another origin story, another British villain, another climactic fight on an airship. For all of its naughty language and inside baseball, Deadpool is ultimately just a less serious, less spectacular version of the movies that it was made to mock. 

The risk/reward ratio is now too imbalanced to underwrite a healthy creative process. Filmmakers know this, and as a result are fleeing from the genre — there's a reason that an auteur like Edgar Wright was bounced out of Ant-Man, just like there's a reason Deadpool has a first-time director. Ryan Coogler's Black Panther film and Taika Waititi's Thor sequel offer slivers of hope, but it's tempting to think that Marvel will continue to keep using bold ideas (e.g. an adorable humanoid tree) to continue disguising the painfully generic aspects of their storytelling. 

As the genre continues to expand at an exponential rate, these films will only push harder against the narrow confines of what's possible for them. Audiences will begin to feel the walls closing in with every new installment, and even hardcore fans will be pulling at their collars. With Civil War right around the corner, 2016 is shaping up to be the year that we're forced to amend one of the most persistent fallacies about our current blockbuster landscape: Superhero movies aren't killing the film business. The film business is killing superhero movies.