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Can the Superhero Era Ever End?
I mean, they have to come up with a second idea someday, right?
The Jeffdal Test
I will only go see a movie that ...
1. Has at least two characters who are humans. Not superheroes, demons, robots, monsters, aliens, or wizards.
2. They have a conversation with each other.
3. That isn't about superheroes, demons, robots, monsters, aliens, or wizards.
Of course, nobody who goes to a movieplex today can obey this rule.
For a change, I'm gonna write about movies. I've been watching all the big blockbusters, and it really feels like we're at the end of something.
I have always been a fiend for movies, of all sorts from all eras. This is very useful. Every writer should also be a consumer of media. It's a great source of inspiration and a way to keep in touch with the humanity you're trying to depict.
Though there's only one sort of high-profile movie now. Fantasy of some sort. Superheroes, wizards, time travel, dinosaurs, whatever the heck is going on with John Wick.
It couldn't last, of course. But it was impressive how long the superhero wave lasted. One billion dollar Marvel movie after another, seemingly without end. Even though they were all basically the same movie, for decades.
Disney live-action remakes of their cartoons were making fortunes, even though they were all uniformly overlong and dreadful. (Seriously. Who looked at the classic old The Little Mermaid and thought, "This needs to be an hour longer.")
But now? The Flash is a bomb. The new 8 hour The Little Mermaid will struggle to break even, which, when you're Disney, is very bad. Disney+ subscriptions are down. (They did it! They killed Star Wars!) Plenty more examples of fantasy underperformance at the end of the post, but 4 out of the last 6 superhero movies tanked.
Of course, I am never optimistic about anything. Nothing ever gets better. Hollywood needs international sales to make the current model not explode, so old-style movies, about humans doing human things, are never coming back. The superhero movies will just be replaced with something worse.
I do go see action and fantasy movies, because they give me quality time with my family. I only sneak off and see movies about humans when they are seeing something the second time.
I saw four big, new movies this summer, and I had thoughts about them. The current wave of big budget action is grinding to a halt, and the next wave hasn't appeared yet. It's the end of an era, which is fascinating in itself.
So let's check in with the dinosaurs, as the meteorite just starts to kiss the Earth ...
John Wick: Chapter 4
This movie is long. It's so long I'm still watching it.
It's well made. The actors are having fun. What I love is how John Wick turned from a goofy action series about a guy who REALLY loves his dog to a straight up fantasy series.
This is the literal start of the plot summary on Wikipedia:
In New York City, John Wick prepares to exact vengeance against the High Table while hiding underground with the Bowery King. He travels to Morocco and kills the Elder, the "one who sits above the Table".
WHAT IS THIS!? I mean, what the hell even is going on here anymore?
Yeah, they know how to film an action scene, which is an extremely difficult skill. You get to watch hundreds of dudes get shot in a wide variety of ways. There's a bad guy who is completely unstoppable with his pistol despite being blind. Because he's a wizard, I guess. It's pretty cool.
But it's almost 3 hours. Three hours of guys gettin' shot. It's exhausting. I had to take a ten minute break in the middle to get coffee. It's sad, because when you hit a really inspired scene (like the long staircase sequence at the end), you're just numb.
(Also, FYI, a huge part of the movie is a tribute to the 70s cult-classic action flick, The Warriors. I really recommend The Warriors.)
You get your money's worth, but an inability to edit is a really common trait with the new blockbusters, and it does not help.
It was fine.
If this isn't the last John Wick movie, it's very close. There might be one or two more. Side stories, prequels, that sort of thing. But they're about to have to make a new setting, and they can't do anything wilder than what they've already made here.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
The Guardians movies are my favorite of the Marvel movies. They're fun, clever, move quickly, and take place in these really wild, pretty Heavy Metal settings. It's been observed that the Guardians are this generation's Star Wars, which lines up with what I've seen from my kids and their friends.
Also, the soundtracks are great. It's Dad Rock 101. This movie will introduce a multitude of zoomers to Radiohead AND Heart. What's not to like?
But this is clearly the last movie in the series, and it's easy to see why. This story has gotten way too top-heavy. Too many characters, each of which needs their appearance. Too many storylines.
It's the sort of movie that gets action movie legend Sylvester Stallone and only uses him for ten seconds because there's too much other crap to get to. Some gnarly dude who shoots a magic arrow by whistling HAS to have his character arc. (Will he get his confidence back and be able to shoot his magic arrow again!?!?) (He does! OMG!) (The “Will he get his confidence back in time?” story arc is never, EVER interesting.)
It was a lot of fun and looked gorgeous. The starbase made entirely of flesh was a standout and very cool. The characters were still charming and had great chemistry with each other. You got to see cute animals be horribly tortured so that you could feel like you’re watching something deep and artistic. (Deadpool did that EXACT storyline 7 years ago, right?)
It was fine. Too long. Competently made. Fun to watch. Fine.
It's also done. At the end, there is a new set of Guardians, all extremely uninteresting characters. If they make a movie based on them, it will sell four tickets.
So now they have to make a new thing, and they can't do anything wilder than what they've already done. Let's wish them luck, because The Marvels looks DIRE.
The Fast & Furious movies have gotten spectacularly big and dumb, but they are a fun date night tradition for me and my wife. The ninth one had a bit where people drive a car IN SPACE. Like, where can you even go from that?
But these movies are running out of road. Fast X will probably break even, but it is also the first part in a series. Anyone who doesn't go to this one will not be going to the next one, because they won't know anything that is going on. Also, repeating, “It’s about family!” fifty times isn’t a magic spell to make people care.
Like Guardians, this series has gotten incredibly top-heavy. So many characters. So much lore. I've seen them all, and I still wasn't sure who half these people were. Also, every character who died in an earlier one has been brought back to life, and every former bad guy is a good guy now.
To get into this series, you have to watch all of them, and if you watch too many of these movies too quickly, you WILL suffer brain damage.
Also, how do you make an action movie with Helen Mirren and Chita Rivera and not put them in a car chase together? I will not understand that until my dying day.
The marquee feature for Fast X is bringing in Aquaman in to be, basically, The Joker. He's not really a character. He's a collection of tics and goofy lines, boilerplate evil and wacky and nihilistic. Jason Momoa is a surprising amount of fun, but this is going to wear a little thin after one or two more movies.
(Bet on one more movie. This is not making enough money to justify two more. Again, nobody who misses the first part of a trilogy is showing up for the second.)
Also, this movie is well over two hours. Did you know that the standard length for movies used to be 90 minutes? A simpler, better time.
(A fun writing exercise: For each 2+ hour action movie, figure out who and what to cut to get it below 2 while improving the movie. You can always do this.)
Anyway, the action was ok. The cars were pretty. It was fine. Intensely dumb, but fine.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
So this one stands out among the four, because it's actually really popular and exciting. It's sort of kind of different!
Yeah, the characters are flat. The plot makes less sense with every second you think about it. The main villain is kind of dumb. The whole alternate universe gimmick is increasingly played out. But, who cares? The animation is AMAZING.
Like, next level. Disney/Pixar is grinding along, doing slightly shinier iterations of whatever they did before (mainly perfecting the 3D version of CalArts face), but they haven't done anything actually innovative or surprising in a while.
This movie actually bears up under watching twice! First viewing to track the plot, second viewing to just appreciate how cool and varied and unique the visuals are.
Be warned, it's well over two hours, and it's also the first part of a two parter. Because in 2023 nobody can comprehend making a story about a mutant boy-spider that goes less than five hours.
Unlike the previous three movies, this one still feels fresh. It's neat! I can see people going to wild-looking Spiderverse movies five years from now. So there is hope.
End of the Current Era
It costs a ton to make these movies. It costs a ton more to market them. When they play in a theater, the theater gets a cut of the sales (40%?). In other words, to just break even, they have to make a LOT.
These four movies are part of hugely successful, beloved franchises, but… The first three are at the end or near the end of their series. The fourth probably has a couple more movies in it, but super-sparkly cartoon Spiderman won't hold up forever.
Marvel has gone through all its most popular characters, the ones left are uninspiring, and sales are way down. DC never took off to begin with. Disney is scraping the bottom of the barrel for live-action adaptations. Pixar is looking sickly and they're running out of non-human things to act like humans. (Their next movie is about a spoon who wants to be a fork.)
The successes are less profitable, and the bombs are frequent. I feel like a 20 year cycle is coming to an end, and something new has to happen. New ideas, or a financial road accident. Avatar can't carry the whole industry by itself. The Mission: Impossible movies are still fine, but Tom Cruise can't carry Hollywood on his back either.
These movies are all fine. You know. Not great. Not bad. Fine. In this world of infinite entertainment options, "fine" will only get you so far. Time for some new ideas. And soon. (Don’t worry, video games! Sure there’s no warning for you here!)
Long story short. If you need a movie, I recommend Buster Keaton, the first action star. They're free on YouTube, they're short, and they're really cool. He broke his neck making one of them, which shows moxie! That kid is going places!
Subscribing is free, and you get all these in your in-box. Paying doesn’t get you anything extra, but the handful of people who do pay really inspire me to keep writing these.