Recently, Steven Spielberg made headlines for telling The AP that he doesn’t believe superhero movies are sustainable. At first, I didn’t want to let myself think that he might be right, because the disappearance of my favorite film genre would, in a word, be crushing. I’m not so sure about it anymore, though, and I think the answer to the question, “is this a thing we can keep doing?” is more complex than a simple yes or no.
My short answer is right now, no, this is not a sustainable genre. There are a lot of things that factor into this.
My long answer is this, and I use Marvel as an example because I’m more familiar with the characters and because it’s got the movie thing down to a science.
As much as I would like to believe that Chrises Hemsworth, Pratt, and Evans are going to stay young and in the best shape of their life forever, this is probably not true. (Unless Marvel actually has perfected a supersoldier serum, in which case, give me some so I can stop my pitiful attempts to work out.) All of Marvel’s actors are in their thirties and up, which means that they could potentially age out, especially if non-Avenger films keep getting scheduled between the Avenger-related ones. Since Marvel has been in this game for a while, the actors might not want to renew their contracts, and move on to different projects. It’s already been nearly seven years since Iron Man was released.
It would benefit Marvel to start planting seeds for new heroes now. We have the film schedule for the next several years, and any one of them would be a good way to introduce new minor characters who could go on to carry their own series.
The other factor in the sustainability question is a very tangled web. Diversity is one of those issues no one seems to want to seriously discuss, but I truly believe it will be the downfall of the genre if things don’t change.
“White man makes mistakes that cost him [insert important aspect of personal life here], becomes a superhero in quest for redemption” is a summary that can be applied to Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and possibly Guardians of the Galaxy. Diversity isn’t having one or two white guys who didn’t start out as scientists. Having Falcon and War Machine is a baby step in the right direction, but even though Anthony Mackie and Don Cheadle both did great jobs in the films they were in, they were still relegated to a side role. The fact of the matter is, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will have been around for a full decade before a superhero of color gets their own film.
Strictly in film, female heroes are also underrepresented. We’ve had Black Widow for almost as long as the MCU has been around, but never in a standalone film. Wasp was introduced just to be killed off in Ant-Man. Gamora and Nebula’s relationship in Guardians of the Galaxy was one of the most underdevoped aspects of the movie. The MCU will also have been around for a decade before fans get a female-led title with Captain Marvel in 2018. Who knows how long it will be before we get a non-white female-led title, regardless of how hard we’re all crossing our fingers for a Kamala Khan film.
Okay, where is this going?
My point is not that the existing films are bad, Fantastic Four and Avengers: Age of Ultron notwithstanding. My point is that if these companies continue to release exclusively straight male hero films, the genre will not be sustainable.
I’d like to think that major companies recognize that half of its comic readers are women, and I’d like to think that they know many of their fans came from superhero movie buffs wanting to get into the backstory of the characters on screen. The films are just a jumping point for all of the great characters that exist, and by not showing them in other media, I believe that the wider audience isn’t sustainable. Your brand new fans aren’t going to wait around forever (ten years is a long time) to see themselves represented in film. Continuing to make movies about male leads (seven of whom have almost the exact same origin story) alienates a big part of the audience.
I do not believe that the comic industry, as a whole, is out to get women, but it also isn’t here to support us. An industry that shows respect for its fans doesn’t dangle a Black Widow movie like a carrot on a stick, nebulously promised but never within reach. There are still very few toys based on female heroes for little girls who love the genre. As a whole, the industry shows a startling lack of reflexivity and adjustment to the new fans who have flooded the market.
Despite the obvious problems, I’m still hopeful it can turn around before this market lapses. I hope Steven Spielberg is wrong, because at the end of the day I still love these characters and want to see more of Captain America punching stuff. It’s not too late to take risks, but I would like to see those risks taken before the market becomes unsustainable. It could be sustainable. I hope it is.