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The Future Of Superheroes

Moving on to the category of non-insane newspaper articles about superhero films, A.O. Scott's piece on the genre in yesterday's Times is characteristically smart, and its thesis--that superheroes movies have peaked this summer and are likely headed for decline--is eminently plausible.

Still, a few quibbles. First off, any argument that situates Hancock at, or anywhere near, the apex of the genre is to be viewed with suspicion. Yes, it tried to take the superhero film in a different direction. Scratch that: It tried to take the superhero film in at least two not particularly compatible directions, and in so doing, fell completely apart.

Scott is on much firmer ground with Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Still, when he writes that he's "willing to grant that 'The Dark Knight' is as good as a movie of its kind can be," I think he's granting a bit much. For all its ambition, the film had flaws, including at least one large one. (The last 20 minutes are probably the weakest: Harvey Dent's ultimate evolution seems rushed and not entirely persuasive, and while the final scene makes thematic sense, it has significant narrative problems.) So, good--yes. But as good as it (or any superhero film) could possibly have been? No.

Scott continues, "to paraphrase something the Joker says to Batman, “The Dark Knight” has rules, and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated." This is an odd claim to make in this context, given that two of the three films Scott has cited don't really adhere to his theoretically inescapable convention. Hancock does conclude with a fight with a villain--though an uncharacteristically unsuper one--but not in order to dramatize any hero-villain symbiosis. (The scene's purpose is to develop Hancock's relationship to other characters in the film, not the two-dimensional baddie.) And while Dark Knight does end with the described symbiosis, it doesn't really end with a fight--at least not in the typical superhero-movie sense.

That said, I think there are reasons to suspect that the superhero genre may have peaked. The first is just the law of averages: Both Iron Man and The Dark Knight are good enough that it's likely that few future superhero movies will meet or exceed them. (It's the same reason that, much as I hope to be proven wrong, I doubt subsequent Bond flicks will be as good as Casino Royale.) The second reason is simpler still: Many of the most interesting, resonant franchises--Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men--have already gotten their bites at the cinematic apple, and an awful lot of the superhero movies currently in various stages of development--e.g., Thor, Sub-Mariner, The Green Lantern, and (shudder) Billy Batson and the Legend of Shazam--are likely to be lousy for reasons that have little to do with the inherent limitations of the genre.

Update: I'd meant to cite the upcoming Watchmen movie, but forgot until I was reminded by commenter Rhubarbs. If it's done well (I'm somewhat skeptical; the trailer is here), it could quickly put to rest any question of the genre being spent.

--Christopher Orr