I have a theory about why it seems like superhero films are dominating the film industry currently. The theory has nothing to do with the fact that fanboys have now grown up and are the ones running studios or in the decision maker’s chairs (although that is true). It also has nothing to do with the astounding box office numbers these films are getting (although they are raking in the dow).
My theory is that superhero films are made to be serials. And serial storytelling, or long form narratives, are where it’s at these days. Notice that these big franchises are getting popular around the same time as “peak TV” binge watching. Its because audiences don’t want a self-contained, 90 to 120 minute story. That’s not enough time with the characters, and it doesn’t allow for rich, complex storytelling. We want to sit with things longer than that.
The superhero genre has always been more serialized. The studios make one thinking of the sequel (much to critics chagrin, but with $$$$ in their eyes), always leaving enough bread crumbs and plot strands teased that you keep people wanting more.
This falls in line with the current trend in television shows as well. It used to be that most TV shows were telling a contained story in each episode, with very little serialization over the whole series. The most popular shows were procedurals, following one case or patient each week. Now there are overarching mythologies, mysteries, and storylines requiring regular viewing to keep up, or that better support binge watching once the whole season is streaming.
Regular movies (you know the self contained stories and plots) don’t give you that kind of scope or character investment. It’s 1.5 to 3 hours (maximum, please…) of storytelling with less time to breath and explore the nuances. My wife actually isn’t a fan of most movies for this reason. She doesn’t want to invest that amount of time for such a limited view into the worlds of the characters or story.
So HBO, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have increased our appetite for longer form storytelling. And then came Marvel, which took our desire for a bigger story and injected it into a cinematic universe based on comic book properties. We have had comic book heros with multifilm narratives, but never multiple properties orbiting in the same universe. And it worked. Now everybody wants in.
Star Wars is back in the game. The Harry Potter wizarding world is open for business. DC is trying really hard to build a similar world. X-Men keeps going. And on and on…
And regular movies are dying.
It is becoming increasingly rare to find a movie coming to your local theater that isn’t based on some intellectual property (book, comic-book, previous film, etc.). Original ideas are too risky, especially for a feature film. If you are going to get audiences to come out to theaters and invest, it has to be big or familiar.
Its happening on TV too. The characters we loved in the 1990’s and early 2000’s are back. Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Twin Peaks, Gilmore Girls, Arrested Development and on and on.
Truly visionary directors are thriving in this environment, as long as they haven’t had a big failure of original vision. Others are able to cut their teeth on this sort of storytelling and then can use that as a springboard into their own stories they want to tell. Others can’t get their great ideas made into movies, so they are making their way to television where there are more opportunities.
Networks are way more willing to invest in one season of a streaming show than a studio, who has to fork over millions for a one time shot at making money in theaters. Stranger Things would never have been made if it was a movie pitch. But given 13 episodes, and watch the audience fall in love.
Where is this all going?
I’m not sure. Moviepass is trying (and failing) to setup a subscription model for theaters that may help break this cycle a bit. Netflix has day and date release policy for feature films, making small movies more accessible to audiences. A lot of filmmakers are partnering with them for the type of smaller movies studios used to trade in. IMAX and 3D keep changing the ways we tell and receive stories on the big screen, truly making movies an event (think Dunkirk and Avatar).
Things will continue to evolve with the technology. But, I do think serialization is here to stay. And maybe that isn’t a bad thing. And although filmmakers and theaters will have to adjust, there is obviously still money in telling stories on the big screen. Just look at the success of Avengers: Infinity War (the 19th film in the series). That was the culmination of a decade of storytelling and its not stopping anytime soon. I can’t wait for the next one…