How Can Superhero Movies Escape A Formula?

Superhero films are facing an imminent, existential crisis of their own making, resulting in a dot-com-sized bubble that’s poised to burst. Even though the genre continually dominates the global box office, wherein each film is a major blockbuster event, there’s a prevailing sense that superhero films have peaked. Either no one at the studio’s executive level knows or cares, because the 2018 calendar (and beyond) is bursting with superhero films. As any fan of Westerns will tell you, no genre can afford to be complacent.

Superhero films all share one major narrative element: the dreaded “formula,” which generally entails: the pursuit of a McGuffin (Tesseracts, Mother Boxes, etc.), cardboard villains, and third-act battles that are little more than visual effects spectacles. This formula is not unique to the superhero genre, but considering that most of these films are links in a handful of sprawling universes, the repetition of such plot beats in each subsequent, connected film becomes tedious.

The problem for superhero-spawning studios like Disney, WB, Fox, and Sony is that these movies are getting more and more expensive, while fewer and fewer people are buying tickets — a clear signal of a coming downturn. Again, not a superhero-only problem, but a microbudget film like Stephen King’s It ($35 million) has a lot more wiggle room than behemoth like Justice League ($300 million).

Audiences are beginning to rebel against formula; voicing their complaints across the Internet via Reddit, YouTube, and the comment sections of media sites everywhere. Their major concern — albeit anecdotal — is that the major studios are content to adhere to formula so long as the dollars keep rolling in. However, empirical evidence is mounting. Enter WB’s Justice League, which debuted to poor reviews, a massive drop in audience, and an estimated loss of over $100 million — this is a film some thought might challenge Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but ended up as only the fifth highest-grossing superhero film of the year.

So, what can superhero films, franchises, and universes do to grow (or at least sustain) their core and mainstream audiences? The obvious answer is to break out of formula, and go in directions no one expects.

Smaller Stakes Equals Bigger Emotional Arcs

Deadpool and Logan stand out as clear examples of non-formulaic genre films, partly because they were R-rated and made with modest budgets, but also because both focused on personal rather than global crises, essentially downscaling the stakes. So many superhero films (particularly the big “team” movies like X-Men, Justice League, Avengers, Suicide Squad) are fixated on world-ending plots — how many times do we need to save the world before the very notion becomes stale? (Hint: we’re already there.) Fortunately, there’s hope! For example, Captain America: Civil War focused on a massive hero-vs-hero conflict about the very nature of government control and vigilante justice, but it ended with the violent breakup of long-time-allies Iron Man and Captain America — a very emotional and gutwrenching ending that was the very definition of smaller stakes. Bravo!

Make Better Villains, and Stop Killing Them!

Three of our most-enduring, movie super-villains are The Joker, Loki, and Lex Luthor. What do they all have in common? They’re not dead. For some reason most of our contemporary superhero movies conclude with the deaths of barely defined (and often lackluster) antagonists. Does anyone remember anything about the Red Skull, Malekith, or Ares? Nobody? Bueller? We barely got to know anything about these villains before they died — and a superhero is only as good as his nemesis. Until superhero films place more emphasis on developing ongoing villains, the genre will continue to suffer.

Tell More “What If” or Anthology Stories

There’s a reason that James Bond has endured for generations (and multiple leading actors): the movies are almost all one-off experiences. Sure, there are a few enduring threads throughout the Bond pictures, but most of them stand entirely on their own. Back to Deadpool and Logan, each are derived from the X-Men, but their recent films are entirely independent of the larger X-Men franchise, and consequently they were free to tell their own stories. Wonder Woman is another a fine example, though contractually connected to the larger Justice League arc, this film was 99.99% interested in only telling the core story at hand, not building a larger universe.

There are a bunch of other things that these films can do to avoid the trap of formula, such as leveraging more practical effects and relying less upon CG. Mixing sub-genres is another technique being explored (Ant-Man and the Wasp is a rom-com; Hellboy is a horror-action hybrid; Thor: Ragnarok is a buddy-cop/road picture). So, clearly there are moves afoot to push the genre forward, and hopefully this is the trend that emerges next year. This is a great genre with so much potential to tell unique stories, let’s do our part and keep making noise, audiences can and should demand more from our favorite superheroes and the studios that create them!