How can this be you ask? When collectively the two most recent movies in the genre hovered up almost $2billion in ticket sales? Well, the problem is that, for the first time, two mediocre films (one much worse than the other) made serious bank (fuelled by huge overseas grosses).
Now it’s true, I didn’t care for “Venom” but then that hardly put me in the hot take category and yet – a bit like “The Greatest Showman” – Sony’s Spider-Man-less Spider-Man movie surprised everyone with its box office legs, certainly making a mockery of my prediction that it would spell yet another dead-end in Sony’s attempt to build a shared universe. It turned out that canny marketing and a wilfully coy publicity strategy of teasing out the ‘will he or won’t he?’ subject of whether Spider-Man (Amazing or otherwise) would make a fleeting appearance was more than enough to get people to fork out for a ticket. But the movie still isn’t a good movie. Oh, sure, it has some good moments and some cool scenes – which are in and of themselves probably responsible for the kind of repeat business a movie needs to generate to post the kind of numbers “Venom” managed – but for every good bit, there are half a dozen terrible things and the whole muddled mess doesn’t add up to much of anything.
Likewise, “Aquaman” is a perfectly likeable superhero action adventure movie. It’s pretty good fun even if it still feels a little awkwardly self-conscious and eager to please. But it’s not atrocious and that seems to go a long way in winning over audience sentiment for the current DCEU (see also “Wonder Woman”). Not being as bad as the movies which preceded it has become the hallmark of success for the DCEU and while that’s at least got the franchise moving in a better direction, they still seem to aspire to be ‘adequate’ whereas they should be at ‘awesome’ by now.
Up until now, that’s not been too much of an issue. The good films make good money, great ones make great money and poor ones fall by the wayside. But now, one poor and one decent movie have made great/ spectacular money and that is bad news. Because the lessons the studios will take from this won’t be ‘hey look, people really responded to these characters so we need to invest in making them even better in the sequel’. No, it will be: ‘ we don’t need to be so worried about the quality of the writing or the special effects or even the performances – people are turning out to see these things anyway without all the fussing and fretting over trying to make high-quality films. Good enough is, finally, good enough.’
Quality has never been a guarantee of box office success (the only kind of success studios really care about [for obvious and existential reasons]) otherwise we wouldn’t be here discussing the astonishing commercial success of “Aquaman” and “Venom”, we’d be lauding the receipts rolling in for “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse”. But we’re not and there will be a lot of studio heads figuring they can re-look at their burgeoning superhero slate and start trimming the budgets because it probably won’t make a lot of difference. Mediocre makes money and therefore the money will be ploughed into making more mediocre.
Short term, that’ll work out great. And then the general audience will cotton on to what’s happening and bring this tale to a very unhappy ending. The audiences will begin to avoid new superhero movies and even the quality ones will suffer. In the end, the big money will dry up and the tent pole blockbuster machine will move on somewhere else.
The success and therefore volume of superhero movies being produced was never a threat to the genre, provided they were good or better movies and continued to make money, and the bad ones flopped. But once bad or, worse, middling movies make money, and great ones don’t, it’s the start of a slippery slope that the genre will struggle to recover from.
A lot will depend on this year’s crop. Not the sure-fire behemoth of “Avengers: Endgame” which will inevitably destroy the box office (and in doing so mask the growing structural problems with the genre’s marketplace) but the next tier: “Captain Marvel”, “Shazam!”, “Dark Phoenix” & “The New Mutants”, “Hellboy” or even “Spider-Man: Far From Home”. If they’re good and make money or bad and don’t, then we can reset the clock and cancel the cinematic superhero apocalypse but if they’re decidedly average or worse and yet still rake in the cash, the studios will set themselves on a self-destructive course which will wring as much cash as possible out of the genre in the short-term while choking off its long term future.
What do you think? Do you think the genre is doomed to a slow death of mediocrity or do you think I’m being too pessimistic and that Logan (below) has the perfect counter-argument? Let me know in the comments below.