On Brand: What the "Superhero Genre" Tells Us About Hollywood


Illustration by Alexis Emma

<comment>For many, it seems like there’s no escaping the "superhero genre," just as if we were some civilian onlookers watching a superhero and supervillain duke it out from the streets below. Their omnipresence in a way has made them a very revealing window into the clash of cultural and corporate forces that is the entertainment industry.

There's a lot to be gleaned about this dynamic from the successful adaptations of 2017, including from the Marvel Cinematic Universe's (MCU's) continued prominence or Fox's unique strategy for success with the X-Men. 

Yet, the superhero projects which didn't work last year — as well as what they specifically failed to do — are almost more revealing about Hollywood than the ones that were a success.

Death by Brand Management

In 2017, there were a lot of stale (“The Defenders”/”Iron Fist”) and lifeless (“Justice League”) superhero stories that entered and then promptly left our collective consciousness. These adaptations felt less like creative projects than pieces of brand management — marketing endeavors being checked off on some corporate spreadsheet as a piece of intellectual property that’s now been made into a source of revenue.

What’s almost not funny is the overly simplistic train of thought studios buy into with the projects that most epitomize this trend. There seems to be this notion in Hollywood that if a story, character or group originated from a Marvel or DC comic, audiences in 2017 will automatically watch it in droves. However, this isn't always the case. For example, we might not know exactly how many people watched “Iron Fist” because of how tight-lipped Netflix is with its viewing numbers, but ... well, did you even remember “Iron Fist” came out last year? My point exactly.

To be fair, there is data that conflicts this. In particular, one study claims the adventures of Danny Rand was Netflix’s most-binged drama premiere. Perhaps the remarkable blandness of this Marvel show played a role in the subsequent lower viewership for “The Defenders.” Regardless of the hard numbers, however, it is apparent how poorly these Netflix shows have "stuck" or remained a part of the zeitgeist. And with two uninspired installments in close succession, audiences may just check out next time, just as was the case with “Justice League” after “Batman vs. Superman” and “Suicide Squad.”

While there are certainly worthwhile and engaging stories to tell with DC characters, that specific project had no point in existing other than to *try* and turn a profit for its studio. Yet, when you have a film so vapid, it shouldn’t be surprising when it fails to perform at the box office. Nevertheless, the takeaways from cases like “Iron Fist,” “Justice League” and “The Defenders” shouldn’t be that the "superhero genre" is a bubble waiting to bust. The conclusion one should draw from all three of these is that audiences don’t want to watch bad or boring entertainment.

Just look at how 2017 was also a year saturated by more Marvel films than ever before: including critically and financially successful films like "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," “Spider-Man Homecoming” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Additionally, a "superhero bubble" suggests a common sort of source material automatically makes a genre.

The Marvel Genre

Yet, perhaps the MCU is partially why “superhero” is considered to be a genre. At the very least, its ubiquity may have engendered the feeling that a (financially) successful superhero film in the modern era has to be cut from the same tonal and visual cloth.

People's opinions may vary on how perceivably different each MCU installment truly is. Some of the MCU's entries in the past haven't always had the creative space to establish their own identities. They've had to spend their runtime or energy on building future films, making various elements of its shared universe feel cohesive or even introducing a new character/high-profile actor. No matter which it is, they each entailed prioritizing the shared universe itself over the viewing experience of an individual film.

However, if 2017's entries are any indication, Marvel Studios deserves credit for loosening some of its restraints on individual films' directors. James Gunn continued to make Guardians of the Galaxy 2" feel quite distinct from the rest of the Marvel universe, while Taika Waititi managed to make a Thor film that quite clearly feels like a film made by the same person who directed "What We Do in the Shadows."

Still, this is all happening in the shadow of the growing monolith that is DisneyBarring any regulatory hold up, Marvel Studios will acquire from Fox the film rights to "X-Men," "Deadpool," and "The Fantastic Four" come the end of 2018. It's easy to be worried about there being fewer and fewer creative voices behind Marvel films entirely. 

While there are numerous, more existential reasons to not be a fan of media mergers, Fox in 2017 seemed to finally be figuring out what to do with the characters they had. Instead of trying to compete in the shared universe arms race (*eyes emoji* DC) Fox smartly made adaptations like "Logan" and "Legion" that were noticeably different from Marvel Studio's (a.k.a. Disney's) forays. The same sort of thinking seemed like why we're also getting an atypical and intriguing looking superhero film like "The New Mutants." It will be an added shame if the Disney-Fox sale results in an increasingly homogeneous library of superhero adaptations. 

The distinct ambition of the likes of "Logan" and "Legion" also illustrated that grouping all superhero adaptations together as one genre isn’t a fitting way to look at them as a whole. Our previous article "Why All of 2017's Best Superhero Adaptations Worked" more precisely examines the contrasts between these seemingly comparable pieces.

Envisioning More Than the Bottom Line

You may or may not agree that the creative distinctions between superhero adaptations are apparent enough to say they all don't fall under one genre. However, it’s hard not to speculate either way that many of these projects were initially scheduled because they were DC or Marvel adaptations — both due to their aforementioned perceived prospect for multi-million dollar profit and studios’ desire to utilize all of the intellectual property at their disposal. In most cases, it’s hard to imagine it was in fact because someone approached these studios with a creative vision in mind.

Yet, in the case of all the adaptations that worked this year, various storytellers were able to ultimately envision a purpose for each. Thus, it was ensured that such projects weren’t purely a line item on a movie studio’s spreadsheet. It’s admittedly a very backwards set-up —  "project, then creative vision"  — particularly in comparison to the countless pieces of art created this year which exuded the opposite.

Still, as upcoming superhero adaptations like Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” or Damon Lindelof’s rumored “Watchmen” series exemplify, these are the ventures even some of the best filmmakers and show-runners have to choose in 2017. Or at the very least, among the few types of projects to which studios will actually allot blockbuster-sized resources.