Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why Superhero Films Are Failing

Originally posted at Big Hollywood: LINK

There’s been a lot of discussion this summer about the failure of so many superhero films. They’re making money, but not nearly as much as expected. And until Captain America came along, it seemed to be getting worse with each passing film. Any number of explanations have been offered for this underperformance. Some suggest ticket prices are the problem. Others say it’s because the current crop of superheroes are second tier guys, i.e. the B-Team. Some blame oversaturation. But I don’t find those answers satisfying.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The B-Team.

If ticket prices were the problem, then you would see a drop for all films. But there’s been no such drop. The “second-tier superhero” argument doesn’t wash either. It’s hard to argue that Iron Man or X-Men were “first tier” superheroes before they hit it big in theaters. And nothing is more first tier than Superman or the Incredible Hulk, yet both have struggled -- not to mention Wonder Woman, who can’t even get a series off the ground.

The oversaturation argument is intriguing. On the one hand, oversaturation cannot be THE problem because people wouldn't turn out for surprise hits like Captain America if they were just sick of superhero films generally. Also, if oversaturation really was THE problem, then why don’t slasher flicks or romcoms suffer from this? Those genres have been steadily turning out the same film year after year for decades. Still, I do think oversaturation plays a part in this puzzle. In particular, oversaturation makes these films less special, which makes people more selective. Being more selective means people are less likely to see films they don’t think are worth their time or money. But what is it that is causing people to choose some superhero films over others? In a word: plot.

Hollywood is using a bad formula for superhero films.

Hollywood wants to appeal both to fanboys and the public at large while also setting up the franchise for future films. But this requires catering to seemingly contradictory desires. The public wants a film that doesn't require them to read the comic book series to understand the movie. Hollywood thinks that means they need to provide a primer on the series. But the fanboys want a deep, new story and don’t want to see a Cliff’s Notes version of the comic book series. And nobody wants to feel like they’re watching a movie that is just setting up future movies.

Hollywood tries to solve this dilemma by giving the public the origin story for the hero and the villain in the first half of the film, which is meant to teach the public the backstory and set up the franchise while making the public think they are seeing a full story. Then, in the second half of the film, they jam in a truncated version of some story from the series to please the fanboys. Then they finish with an “epic” 40 minute CGI fight to turn you into a drooling idiot and wipe your memory before you can leave the theater and warn people how much you hated the first 80 minutes.

This. . . satisfies. . . no. . . one!

Moreover, the formula used for the origin story stinks. This part of the story is presented in disguised-vignette form, connected only by the thinnest strands of plot. That plot is designed to feed you the information you need to know to establish the franchise and usually takes the form of a romance which connects the hero to the villain in some way. There are two reasons for this: (1) romances attract female audiences and (2) the romance gives the film a semblance of being one single story, even though it is really separate stories connected only by the love interest. The vignettes themselves are predictable and lame. They involve the hero discovering their powers, followed by a cliché-ridden 20 minutes of tired comedy as we see the hero learn how to use their powers through trial and error, the introduction of all the characters you need to know for the franchise and a quick glimpse into their lives, and a short version of the villain’s origin story. Then suddenly it’s off to the second plot, where nothing you just saw is relevant.

“I’ll be in Lex’s story for a while. There’s kryptoniteloaf in the fridge. See you in the second half of the film.”

Think of this in Star Wars terms. Luke Skywalker: Curse of the Jedi Phantom Monster’s Vengeance would waste the first third of the film with Luke bumming around at work until he discovers he has hilarious Jedi skills: “Dude! I can make the coffee droid fly and make my boss change my evaluation.” This would be interspersed with scenes of hip, angry, young Darth Vader, a rich corporate titan who has the hots for Luke’s girl, who just happens to work for Vader LLC. The entire backstory of Vader’s life, i.e. the three prequels, would be condensed to about two minutes of whiny exposition as he woos the girlfriend: “Obi-wan never loved me and the emperor tricked me. . . now the world is going to pay. . . you smell purty!” Then suddenly Vader falls into an industrial grinder, ends up in the black suit, shoots a henchman, kicks a puppy, finds plans for a Death Star on eBay, builds it overnight, and kidnaps Luke’s girlfriend because that's the only connection his story has to Luke. This forces Luke to use his powers to fight Vader in a 40 minute CGI death struggle as CGI buildings explode all around them. Roll credits. AndrewPrice slams own head into wall.

"I find your lack of faith in my TPS Reports disturbing."

A better approach would be to pick one of the stories from the comic book series that really struck a chord with readers and produce that. Forget trying to sample the whole series and forget giving the complete history of each character up to that point: people won’t miss it. Think about it. Do we care that we didn’t see a young Quint getting sunk aboard the Indianapolis or buying his first boat or catching his first shark in Jaws or that we never got to see James Bond’s training before he showed up in Dr. No? Heck no! We do want backstory in our films, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend forty minutes showing it. It’s usually best to bring it out through the dialog as the film progresses.

This is what Hollywood needs to realize. You don’t need a primer to set up a franchise and you probably shouldn’t start with the origin story. Audiences want real stories they can get into, not background information presented as barely-connected vignettes followed by a huge fight scene. And whatever information the casual fans need can be presented as the film goes along in the dialog. Trust me: give the audience a genuine stand-alone story and they will respond.

Know any good superhero films?


Outlaw13 said...

I do know some good superhero films. I really enjoyed Captain America. I am only aware of the comic books, I never read them but as I understand it the movie was pretty faithful to the origins of Cap. I enjoyed The Rocketeer which by a coencidence was driected by the same guy who did CA.

I found the first Ironman to be really entertaining and finally Kickass was offbeat and enjoyabloe to me as well.

There is a common thread to these films in the story is about not someone with superpowers, but through smarts, hard work, science and just stupid luck became a "superhero" but was still sort of an everyman and I think more relateable as a character.

In someways when I did read comics I think that's why I gravitated more toward Marvel characters as they seemed for the most part mre "real". I aslo left out the two recient Batman movies which were very enjoyable to me as well.

I think the films that "fail" are so far out there that people not familiar would rather spend their money on something else. I think joe six-pack that doesn't read comics can understand and accept a guy in a suit that has rocket power etc. He might have a more difficult time dealing with some green dude with a lantern...and say "I don't get it, why bother"...or I'll watch it on Netflix.

Star Wars in 1975 was popular because of teens and others and it was different and new...and what else were you going to do that summer play "breakout" at the bowling alley? People today have a lot more entertainment options.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, I think story is absolutely the key. And story means giving the audience characters that they can relate to and situations that they find interesting. I think too many films today give us this "generic slacker" character because that's what Hollywood thinks the average American is like -- you see the same thing from Madison Avenue. But that's not America.

I also think there really is something to the "underdog" superhero -- the little guy with the big heart who comes through in the end, rather than the perfect guy who seems fated to become the hero.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. You asked about Captain America when I wrote this the first time. I've been thinking about that. It does kind of fall into the formula I'm disdaining, BUT it's actually got a solid story to it. The hero is likable (not a slacker) and it has one other huge element -- it's deeply patriotic! This guy wanted to fight for America. I think that may have helped a lot with bringing in audiences.

P.S.S. I'm finally getting caught up on some real life work, so I'm hoping my future BH articles aren't "retreads" of things I've already written here.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

Obviously Superman I and II and I enjoyed the Tim Burton Batman films also.

Watchmen was interesting as well.. though like the comic -- it's a bit of an outlier.

I think Darkman is a bit underappreciated though not the classic like Spiderman of course.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, I liked Superman I and II, but not the new superman films. I like Dark Knight and some of the earlier Batman films (including the campy original). I liked X-Men a lot as well.

I enjoyed Darkman a good deal, though I don't recall anything about the sequels.

I am undecided on Watchmen. I love the concept and I thought the execution was good. I'm just not sure I liked it. I probably should like it more than I do, and I'm not sure why I don't.

Of recent vintage, I also liked Kick Ass.

Mike Kriskey said...

You've angered the nerds, Andrew.

How dare you imply that the Green Arrow is not a first-tier superhero?!

AndrewPrice said...

Oh Mike, Don't I know it!

A couple of them followed me around and thumbed down all my comments just as fast as I could write them. How childish.

And apparently, they don't understand two concepts:

(1) Just because a movie generates cash does not make it a success -- you have to subtract what it cost to make the film and then compare it to what you were expecting to make as a return on your investment. In their world, the fact that these movies earned money means they were a stunning success and I am Satan for suggesting the contrary.

(2) Just because a small collection of comic book nerds likes a particular comic book does not make it something the public knows anything about.

And I love so much of the circular reasoning. I'm Satan because I dare to suggest that making the nerds happier will improve attendance at films... how dare I suggest that Hollywood cater to the nerds because nerds will not be catered to! They just want Hollywood to start doing what they want! Huh?

And I love the guy you were arguing with who kept saying that only a small group of hardcore fans can truly tell you what the public at large knows and thinks. How does that work?

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, What's funny too, is that so many of them are so angry about it. Several started out with just absolute attacks on my articles -- then they would go off on these tangents that had nothing to do with the article.

One guy went on for two pages about how wrong my article was and then attacked me for a "failed analysis" because I never explained what I meant by "fails." Of course, the whole thing is explained in the first paragraph as "did not perform up to expectations".

I think I see why almost no contributors bother responding to people anymore.

Mike Kriskey said...

I was a little snarky to that guy. I know if I were talking to him face-to-face I'd probably find him endearing. I don't intend to work up a sweat debating about superheroes.

Mike Kriskey said...

We're cross-posting!

Maybe it would help not to look at them as attacks, but intense interest in what you've written, as expressed by people with no social skills?

I'm not sure how that would help, exactly. You could try.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, It's hard not to get snarky with someone who is so emphatically stating something that makes no sense.

In truth, the internet is both a great thing and a horrible thing. One the one hand, we get to meet people we would never meet. You and I for example, would probably never run into each other without the internet.

But on the other hand, the lack of face to face contact makes people harsher than they would normally be and it lets some people (like trolls) really take advantage of other people. In particular, I've noticed a lot of people say things that you know they would never have the guts to say in person. And that raises the tension and makes everyone unhappy.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, Some of them are attacks. BH has a troll problem. I would say there are between 5-10 trolls -- 5 obvious and 5 more cleverly hidden ones. They come to BH to undermine the conversation and you'll see them follow the same patterns in article after article.

The real key is to separate those who have a legitimate disagreement and simply aren't good at expressing themselves from those who are just blowhards or trolls. Unfortunately, that's not always easy.

It's easy here because we know everyone. But over there, there are so many people that it gets hard to keep up with them. Though snide and condescending comments are a pretty big clue.

Mike Kriskey said...

Okay, so what superhero movies do I like? Superman & Superman 2 -- although I haven't seen them in over twenty years, so my tastes might have changed.

I remember liking the early Batman movies, but I can't recall anything specific about them.

Iron Man was good, and The Dark Knight was better.

But see, the genre doesn't appeal to me in itself. When I was a kid, I liked them because I thought they were neat. Now I need more than action.

But that's not fair to the genre, because I'm complaining that the films haven't grown up with me. I'll just let the kids enjoy them, and catch the few that offer something more.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, You know, it's funny you should say that because I think most modern superhero films are aimed at adults, not kids. They've got adult stories, adult angst, adult characters and adult situations. They have largely become bad dramas with lots of special effects.

If you want to see the difference, look at Dark Knight with its themes of sadism, insanity and terrorism, and compare that with superhero movies from way back... like the original Batman film (1968) which was melodrama with clowns for villains and heroes who were still telling kids to wear seatbelts.

In many ways, the superhero film has entered a no-man's land where they aren't really seen as being for adults, but they aren't for kids anymore either.

Outlaw13 said...

Andrew, I agree that without a good story your movie will usually fail...but that goes for almost every kind of movie there is not just a superhero movie.

Speaking of nerds and websites, do you ever read some of the comments at Ain't It Cool? Sometimes I will go by and lurk...some of that stuff will make your head hurt.

I guess everyone needs something they really enjoy in their lives, but some people are in dire need of some perspective.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, That's really a good point and something I've been trying to get across all day -- people respond to story first in any genre. There is nothing inherently different about superhero films that makes this untrue... except that the studios have decided it's not true.

But suggesting that has made me distinctly unpopular. LOL!

I have not been to Ain't It Cool, but I'll go check it out. People can get pretty animated about their hobbies. Indeed, I'm still amazed at the war between the "Trekkies" and the "Trekkers." What a thing to fight about!

tryanmax said...

I didn't want to get lost among 399 comments and counting on BH, so I popped over here. What can I say? I crave validation.

I'm not sure if I have a favorite super-hero movie, but I am a fan of the genre. I've never turned the cover of a hero comic in my life, so I always go into these things blind. As such, I have to wholeheartedly agree that the heavy-handed exposition of an origin story is largely unnecessary.

Hollywood doesn't seem to give their audiences much credit. We are far more capable of resolving ambiguity than they think. A bit of well-crafted dialogue goes a long way. Flashbacks don't need to last more than a couple minute. If back story is essential to the character, reveal it along with the narrative. It's "cinema"! Time is a paint on the palette; not everything has to be linear.

Regarding good superhero films, I'm going to join the consensus on Batman 1989.

I'm going to offer up The Shadow. It's stylish, moody, and quite bizarre. It's also got Alec Baldwin before he abandoned the Cary Elwes method of acting and just became a cartoon of himself. (I must incidentally mention Bruce Campbell in order to round out the triumvirate of absurdly handsome actors, IMO.)

I am also an avid fan of a sub-genre I like to call "slaction films." This includes works like Kick-Ass and The Green Hornet, as well as Zombieland, though not a superhero movie. In this same sub-set exists a piece called Super written and directed James Gunn and starring Rainn Wilson and Ellen Paige. If you don't know it, it is Kick-Ass meets Ghostworld with a healthy dose of Troma. Whether it is "good" is debatable. There are definitely "taste" issues. I would love to discuss it with anyone who has seen it.

It's not a movie, but I would feel remiss if I didn't also mention the British TV series "Misfits" while I'm on the topic of slaction superheroes.

tryanmax said...

Oh, I also wanted to say that I thought The Incredible Hulk 2008 did an excellent job of blending storyline and exposition. Unfortunately, it didn't deliver on the action scenes like a superhero movie should. It felt more like a monster flick at the end, which I guess it essentially was, but... *shrugs*

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Welcome! I can understand not wanting to get lost. It gets really hard to keep up with everything over at BH when the numbers get that high.

"I crave validation" -- LOL!

I agree with your points. I think the biggest problem is that Hollywood doesn't respect its audience. It thinks we need to be fed these linear stories that include every little detail that could possibly be relevant. It reminds me of how they write children's stories. Hollywood needs to start seeing audiences as more adult and give us more credit than that.

And oddly, I think the evidence is there for them to see that. The films that have blown the box office away (like Dark Knight) have rejected this silly formula and really given the audience a true film... rather than a child's story. But for some reason, Hollywood won't see the obvious.

I thought Kick Ass was great. It was funny and had a lot of heart. I've actually reviewed/discussed it (HERE) if you're interested.

I did not like Green Hornet at all, but I did enjoy Zombieland. I also liked The Shadow quite a bit as well.

I have not heard of Super, but I'll look for it. It sounds interesting and I'm always up for something original!

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I actually did enjoy Hulk 2008. I thought it was good, not great, but good. Though I wonder if it wouldn't make more sense to make the story "smaller" in the future -- in the sense of making the plot less grandiose and more personal?

Thanks for dropping by!

tryanmax said...

Oh, I agree that Green Hornet was mediocre at best. Seth Rogan was an unbearable ass! But that is part of the charm of slaction, IMO: marginally likable protagonists in the hero role who accomplish more than they deserve to.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I definitely see that as the charm in these films. What bothered me about Rogen's performance though was that he was picking on people who couldn't defend themselves -- employees. It just rubbed me as abusive and really wrong.

tryanmax said...

No defense from me. Rogan's Green Hornet is the least redeemable slaction hero to date.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Other than Rogen, I have generally enjoyed the subgenre... though I have to admit I've never heard it being called "slaction heroes." LOL! Nice!

Outlaw13 said...

I saw Super and I think "dark" would be a good way to describe it. If you have a twisted sence of humor you'll like it. there are parts of it that I tought were well done but it was soooo strnage it would be difficult to say that I "liked" it. It was interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, I never saw it. But I've added it to my list of films to see as I am curious about it. I don't mind dark, in fact I've seen several films that I didn't "like" but which impressed me. And I'm always looking for something off the beaten path.

AndrewPrice said...

By the way, for people still upset at the use of the word failure, let me point this out. There is another recent article that talks about Prince of Persia and how its worldwide box office of $335 million "isn't too shabby."

But it is.

The film cost $200 million to make. It cost another $100 million to market worldwide.

That means they risked $300 million to earn $35 million in profits. That's just over 10%. That's not good enough, especially since that 10% will be split between multiple investors and producers.

So while the raw number sounds great, it's actually a failure as a film.

tryanmax said...

I just want to repeat the one word that says everything:


That is all.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's ok, I am familiar with their work.... the Toxic Avenger in particular.

Koshcat said...

Liked the article but some of the comments...let's just say it gave me double vision.

Personally, I think CGI has harmed this genre the most primarily as you pointed out that it lends to lazy story telling. Sometime a backstory works and is needed and sometimes it doesn't. Ironman it worked. Batman Begins sort of. The original Superman it does. But it works here because it provided depth to the character. Kickass is interesting because we get an extensive backstory on kickass himself but only a short one on Hitgirl and the villain. The first Batman didn't have much of a backstory. In the Dark Night, we got no backstory on the Joker and that to me just made his character that much more disturbing.

I think the other problem is often they make the superhero into a wuss. " Do I save the world or the little boy with the lost puppy?" ugh. Here, I'll shoot the boy so you can focus on destroying that comet coming at us.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I think CGI and the way they've thinned out the heroes into generic personalities is definitely part of this as well. In fact, I think CGI is a huge problem for Hollywood, but they seem addicted to it.

And you're right that sometimes backstory works and sometimes it doesn't. I think the key is to either do the backstory as the whole story, or only provide the parts that are needed for the story. But right now, Hollywood typically tries to mix the backstory in with some other plot and it just ends up a mess.

Yeah, some of the comments were way out there. There was a good deal of anger at minutia and a lot of people who just don't "get" how the world works. Several, for example, kept saying "it made a lot of money" and just would not understand that it isn't how much the film makes that matters, it's how much it makes COMPARED to what it cost that matters. And several were determined to prove to me that their favorite obscure comic book is worshiped by the public at large.

The doublevision guy was just determined to prove that he's smarter than everyone else, but nothing he said made any sense and he kept mischaracterizing my argument and then arguing against his own interpretation rather than against what I actually said. He was also very good at elevating his opinion to fact. That's not much you can say to people like that.

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