Batman, Superman And The Dusk Of Superhero Uber-Masculinity
“Dawn of Justice” shows us where superhero movies are going next — just not the way you think.
Back in October, I was on a panel for New York Comic-Con’s Super Week, and during the Q&A portion one audience member asked the oft-repeated question: when will the current craze for superhero movies end? When is this new golden age for nerds finally going to be over?
His question was at least partially based on Steven Spielberg’s misunderstood quote that, “there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.” Spielberg was just noting the cyclical nature of films, that we wear out the welcome for any particular genre through overuse, then “rediscover” it decades later with fresh, new, and sometimes overly reverential eyes. It wasn’t even like Spielberg was hiding this second part of the idea, it was in the sentence after the sentence about superhero movies going the way of the Western; just the associated geek press decided to ignore that second half of the statement and freak the f — k out.
But back to the audience member’s question, I clarified that we’re not on the cusp of superhero movies going away any time soon; and if anything, they’re not going to disappear entirely, they’ll just morph into something new. Superhero movies aren’t just a genre, they’re a new way of looking at action movies. What car chases were to the ’70s and overly muscled quip machines were to the ’80s and ’90s, superhero movies are to the 2000’s and onwards. Just like car chase movies morphed into “Fast & Furious” movies, and overly muscled quip machines have been replaced by other overly muscled quip machines, we won’t see the bottom drop out of the superhero genre, but we will see things change.
The bubble won’t burst, it’ll just change shape into a slightly different looking bubble.
On that faraway day in October of 2015, I even plugged a rough date on when that change would happen: 2019. The reason? We’re currently in the Marvel age of movies, and are just starting to see this more colorful, more complicated form of superhero storytelling rubbing off on other blockbusters and studios. Look no further than the series that arguably kick-started the current superhero trend, 2000’s “X-Men,” which famously has had characters joke about how stupid colorful costumes are multiple times throughout that movie and its sequels… And now that they’ve looped back to the ’80s with the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse” are embracing the comic book aesthetic for the first time.
Marvel is the current powerhouse, and barring some disaster, will continue to put out two-three movies a year in their current style through their end-game film(s), “Avengers: Infinity War,” parts one and two. Add in DC Comics’ films, which have already locked in 2016’s entries (“Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad”), started filming one of 2017’s (“Wonder Woman”) and unless “BvS” tanks, will also jump right into filming the two-part “Justice League” reportedly back-to-back.
If the release dates for all of those stand (and they could move but we’ll assume everything else not mentioned is in flux, and leave these be), both “Infinity War” and “Justice League” parts one and deux hit in 2019. There are plenty more superhero and comic book based films to explore, but those are the pillars the current wave will hang on, if I can mix metaphors. I’m not saying those interconnected universe of films (sob) won’t continue past that (and they probably will), but at that point, something new will have to come on the scene, and things will have to change.
Because like Spielberg said, they always do. Superhero movies won’t implode… Unless moviegoers decide, “You know what? I like Sundance movies and being nice to people now” — which is to say that human beings start going against their basic nature — both of those second parts will be massive hits and studios will keep making superhero movies in some form for at least five years afterwards. But they’re diminishing returns. You don’t have to look further than the comic books they’re based on to see how mash-up events that bring all the heroes together start to look and feel repetitive. Hollywood won’t get rid of the superhero movie, but they will have to change how it’s made. The studios know it, too, and Marvel at least has gradually started to set up that change by attempting to create franchises (“Dr. Strange,” “Ant-Man,” “Black Panther,” etc.) that don’t depend on their current stars.
So that’s, in essence, what I told the guy at the panel, and in a sense it’s still true. But after taking a long, hard look at the marketing campaign for “Batman V Superman,” I want to move up my timeline for change to right f — king now.
The idea of Batman and Superman fighting onscreen isn’t a new one, it actually dates back to a year after “X-Men” hit theaters, when “Seven” screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker pitched the idea to Warner Bros., with Akiva Goldsman — who had written “Batman & Robin four years earlier — soon rewriting his script. It never got made (obviously), but the gist of the idea (also obviously) hung around for over a decade and hits theaters in March.
What’s becoming increasingly clear from both fan reaction and the marketing, though, is that “Batman V Superman” is the last dying gasp of the old guard of superhero movies… And the one breathe of fresh air is Wonder Woman.
There’s a couple of reasons for this, and the most obvious is that we’ve seen Batman on screen, we’ve seen Superman on screen, and we’ve seen superheroes fight before. Even if we haven’t seen this iteration (and I’ll be honest, when I saw footage of the movie screened in IMAX I all but melted into a puddle of screaming sobs because that’s how I’m wired), it’s relatively speaking nothing new. Heck, for comic book fans it’s not just nothing new, it’s something waaaaay old that’s been debated and depicted for decades.
Wonder Woman on screen is a different story. We’ve had a TV show, another failed attempt at a TV show, and a few other live and cartoon appearances, but a live-action Wonder Woman, on screen, with a big budget, has never been seen before.
There’s another, deeper issue at play here though: “Batman V Superman” is an uber-masculine concept coming at a time when society is resolutely in the process of moving on from a focus on masculinity, to a focus (at least when it comes to entertainment) on femininity. TV has been leading the way, as usual, but the discussion about which sex is leading entertainment has reached a fever pitch last year, and will become unacceptable if it isn’t changed this year.
“The Hunger Games” series, I’d argue, has been a key component of this change, allowing a complicated female lead mostly unconcerned with romantic entanglements to take the forefront and dominate the box office. Over the course of the series, reporting changed from “female led box office, can it last?” to just praising the series for its overwhelming amount of tickets sold.
“Hunger Games” isn’t a superhero series, but its success has helped shepherd copy-cats, and spark a discussion about how audiences will go see movies regardless of whether a man or woman is in the lead. Like any good pendulum, that discussion has swung further in the direction headed away from discussion, and into action. Now, even the most minimal of slights — see the recent uproar about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” main character Rey’s omission from a Monopoly set to understand how this isn’t just a tempest in a teapot, it’s a perfect storm — leads not just to enormous Internet and fan uproar, but real life protests, news reports, and reaction from companies.
The aforementioned Rey example was so prevalent, a news report on it was playing on my taxi TV on a recent trip to Chicago, and it made international headlines. Not because leaving Rey out of a Monopoly set is an international crime on par with genocide, but because we’ve reached critical mass in terms of how much s — t fans have taken when it comes to female characters, and enough is enough.
#WheresGamora begat #WheresBlackWidow begat #WheresRey, and we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
So back to “Batman V Superman.” I don’t think there’s any denying that on the surface, it’s a hyper-masculine product. You don’t have to look farther than Batfleck’s insane musculature, or the amount of glowering, or that the basic idea of superheroes beating the s — t out of each other can be traced back to “man” pursuits like wrestling, or even further to gladiator matches. That’s not to say women (and girls) can’t like that sort of thing, too, and they do; but “Batman V Superman” basically puts the mark back in marketing. Mark being a man’s name, in case that wasn’t clear.
Part of that can also stem back to the “who would win in a fight” debate being as cliché to the fanboy experience as having more comics than friends, and living in your Mom’s basement. It’s not true across the board, not even close. But never has a movie been so squarely aimed at male fans as “Batman V Superman.” Even the similar superhero throw down “Captain America: Civil War” put the character’s feelings at the center of the first trailer, emphasizing character conflict over smashing each other through buildings and asking about the existence of each other’s blood and whether one would like to see said blood on the outside of their body.
[Side-note: I’m not saying ladies exclusively like feelings and dudes exclusively like smash-smash; but that’s how marketing works, so let’s move on.]
And certainly it’s been working. I’ve had dozens of conversations with fans who are flipping out over “Batman V Superman” in real life, and any time I write anything even mildly negative about the movie men come out of the woodwork on Twitter to yell at me for attacking their enormously budgeted blockbuster, because if I say something bad about the movie there’s a good chance it’ll tank. That’s just how powerful I am.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the movie theater: that consistently angry sub-section of fandom aside, way more people freaked out about the idea of seeing Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in the flesh when the Comic-Con trailer was released. The second trailer even ended with her saving Batman and Superman, as the climax of that three minute clip. And when DC aired its recent teaser special on The CW, at least when I checked online, the first footage from Wonder Woman was far more talked about on both Twitter and Facebook than nearly anything else shown from the movie.
Recent clips have pushed the trend. In two 30-second TV spots, each focused on either Batman hating Superman, or Superman hating Batman, a split-second shot of Wonder Woman on a plane was included. Guess what thumbnail image was used for most of the rips you’ll see on YouTube, and even the official clips themselves?
That’s only part of the story, though: “Suicide Squad” is the first time we’re seeing Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) on screen, and I can tell you from experience that the fandom for the character is huge, bubbling below the surface, and far more diverse than that stereotypical view of comic book fans mentioned above. A good portion of it is also female, and if I was a betting man I’d say there’s a good chance “Suicide Squad” is going to surprise people by besting both “Batman V Superman” and “Captain America” at the box office. I’d peg a large portion of that interest to Harley Quinn.
Look, Hollywood is slow. It takes one off-beat hit to make a change, and then another two years for Hollywood to release their clones of that change. But for the past two years, female led action movies (and therefore superhero movies) have been slowly building steam, becoming less of a derided anomaly, and more impossible to ignore. “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Star Wars,” “The Hunger Games” and many, many more have already moved the future of action/superhero movies away from manfests, and towards more equality.
The problem is, the major slates don’t embrace that yet. You have “Wonder Woman,” you have “Captain Marvel,” you have “Ant-Man & The Wasp.” But otherwise, the franchises are all led by dudes.
Guys, and I say guys because mostly it’s guys still running movie studios: it’s too late for dude led movies. Their time is over. Dude time is over. Marvel, DC, Fox, and whoever else wants to get in the game needs to start developing and putting multiple female led superhero movies into production right now, if they want to be ready for the next few years. Because by 2019, it’ll be too late. The bubble has already changed, and you don’t want to be holding the prick that bursts it.
Or superhero movies will go the way of the Western.