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This Superhero Life

Ten years of sustained super-success at the box office—and now with critics—has created a new normal for the movie industry. Will it ever end? And should it?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Everything feels broken, but superheroes are indestructible.

Five of the 10 highest-grossing movies released in the United States in 2017 are superhero stories. Ho-hum, you may be thinking, comic book movies always make a lot of money. This is true, though more now than ever. If the number holds at five—and with Justice League just days away, it could easily rise to six—it will be the largest preponderance of superhero movies at the top of the box office in the history of the movies. In fact, only once has the top 10 included four superhero movies—last year.

But it’s more than just financial success powering this narrative. There is something complicating the inevitable feeling of the superhero crescendo, if it is that: Four of the year’s 10 best reviewed films are also superhero movies, according to the aggregators at Rotten Tomatoes. Wonder Woman (92 percent), Logan (93 percent), Thor: Ragnarok (93 percent), and Spider-Man: Homecoming (92 percent) all reside on both lists. (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the only box-office winner that failed to crack the RT list, clocking in at no. 58 with a respectable 82 percent freshness.) Collectively, these five films have earned more than $1.5 billion in the United States and nearly $4 billion across the world. They are the lifeblood of the movie industry.

But while Hollywood has perfected one highly specific genre—tales of freakishly gifted beings and darkened vigilantes in pursuit of justice—the rest of the business has been grounded. Down 5.1 percent domestically, the movies have never been more imperiled, diffused, or plain ignored. More and more, when we say “movies,” we mean “superhero movies.” It’s difficult to know which has come at the expense of which: Are superhero movies getting better, or is everything else getting worse? (Or, at least, less visible?) As the number of feature films from major studios dwindles every year, and the willingness to produce original stories shrinks in equal measure, the imbalance is beginning to blot out everything else, with a few rare exceptions. “Hollywood only makes movies for 14-year-olds” has become an old saw among cranky movie lovers, but scan the listings: What else is Hollywood even offering these 14-year-olds?

There’s a more dire question at hand: Are we raising a generation that wants to go to the theater only for superheroes? Perhaps, for myriad reasons: visual spectacle, emotional immaturity, a desperation for fantasy. Movies are escape—where better than on the wings of a savior? But these movies—episodic excursions larded with humor and that tingling feeling of interconnectivity—crucially prize one thing above all else: return business. And return they do. Young moviegoers who keep showing up to find out what happens next are a defibrillator to a medium on life support. Once upon a time, one could credibly say, Those movies, they’re all the same. But though their provenance—the imagination of teenage boys—has not changed, the final product is morphing every year.

Next summer will mark a decade since the twin offerings of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, our pick for the best superhero movie ever, and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the film that officially announced “the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” That canny phrase—high-level corporate marketing argot—became the catchall terminology a generation of moviegoers uses to situate its favorite movies. (In a different decade, imagine calling a series the Puzo Papers, or the Axel Foley Expanded Universe.)

In 2007, one year earlier, Sam Raimi ended his run of Spider-Man movies with a third and final installment. Raimi is responsible for one of the most impressive renderings of a superhero story to date—for decades, movies about superpowered figures were cheap, ill-conceived, or god-awful. By injecting an antic, boyish spirit and his signature B-movie-with-a-budget style, Raimi made something that could last. But the maligned, messy third movie featured too many villains and too many melodramas. What followed in many subsequent superhero movies took those criticisms and made them blueprint. Quickly, Marvel and DC’s movies began to feel baggy, overly serious, histrionic, and, worst of all, unnecessary. There have been so many in recent years, and in so many forms, we felt compelled to apply an overly complicated methodology to ranking these movies, mostly because it’s been done so many times by so many outlets before us. And yet, there is no end in sight. In fact, this generation is only just now learning to fly.

Slowly and somewhat awkwardly, these movies began to resolve some of their nagging indecencies, with subtle improvements inching in—middling for-hire directors were replaced with intriguing indie filmmakers; women are being given an opportunity to make and lead these stories; far-flung oddball franchises like Guardians were birthed inside otherwise starry galaxies; stodgy figures like Captain America were recast as meta commentators of their own mythology; meta commentators like Deadpool were springboarded into mega-franchises of their own; iconic heroes like Wolverine were grittily rebooted by the very filmmakers who couldn’t quite capitalize on their appeal the first time around. Next year, the new X-Men flick is a horror movie and the Spider-Man movie is a Venom movie. These are necessary reinventions, the evolutionary growth of an organism that can’t afford vulnerability. Even the decision-makers know that.

"Well, it’s not like [studio executives are] just like Simpsons villains,” Logan director James Mangold told me earlier this year. “The executives are also troubled, I think, as well as anyone might be, by the fact that these movies are costing more and more and delivering less and less. And that they’re becoming a cliché, with the stakes every time being that the world will end if we don’t stop this or that malevolent force, and that more and more heroes are involved in every film, and the effects budgets are ballooning and there’s a kind of CG arms race going on between the studios.”

Just last week, Marvel released Thor: Ragnarok, the third film in the series. By most accounts, the world did not need a first Thor movie, let alone a third. But in enlisting someone like New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi—a well-liked, small-budget comedy director with zero experience on franchise properties—Marvel confirmed what feels like a bulletproof formula for success.

“The best thing that ever happened was that they just left us alone,” Waititi told me. “They allowed us to treat the script more as a suggestion, or a blueprint, and that we could come in and say ‘Here are the key things from the scene so the audience knows what's happening.’ How we get between those things is up to us. How we make it fun, and turn it into a real conversation between two people that are actually listening to each other, that's our goal. Because mostly when you watch these films, you can see the actors like, ‘Here comes my line. Here comes my line. I said my line, and I looked really serious.’”

Five or 10 years ago, that likely was true of a Marvel movie—probably a Thor movie, actually. Today, and especially in Ragnarok, there is a slack, just hangin’ vibe that somehow doesn’t unsettle the stakes of the so-called MCU. It’s earned $650 million in less than two weeks.

“I said, ‘Look, be very honest. If there's a line you don't want to say, we need the information, but we have to figure out a way to say it that makes you comfortable,’” Waititi said. “I would often say, ‘I don't want you to say this line, because it's very bad.’ Once we had that freedom, we'd just riff a lot.”

“We’d just riff a lot” feels like a flip way to describe the process of making a movie about Norse gods of war. It also doubles as an enormously valuable property that will mark one of the final notes in Phase 3 of the MCU’s opening concerto. But that’s how Waititi described Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige’s lax approach to the movie’s production: “There was never a moment where I got the sense they were even paying attention.”

Is this a good thing? Are more footloose Ragnaroks what the superhero industrial complex, and the movie industry writ large, is in need of? Maybe. As the teenagers who grew up feasting on the Avengers transition into new stages of life—off to college, into the workplace, swallowed by parenthood—they’ll need a product that can grow with them, without abandoning the generation coming up behind them.

But it’s highly unlikely that this trend will continue to soar—the histories of Hollywood are littered with sidelined styles of an era: musicals, costume dramas, Westerns, rom-coms. These genres, once dominant, aren’t retired so much as neutered. Early returns on Justice League, a linchpin in the embattled DC universe of movies, are more negative, perhaps a portent of things to come. We don’t need another Universe, there’s enough wrong with the ones we’ve got.

But Justice League feels like a movie behind the curve, gravely serious except for its market-tested dashes of comic relief. A value judgment feels ignoble. Four months from now, Marvel will unveil Black Panther, the first of these films to be directed by an African American filmmaker, Ryan Coogler. The anticipation for Black Panther is almost unreasonable. And yet, fans trust that it can be—will be—worthy. It’s a testament to a moment in time: We can’t trust anything to stay above the fray, except for the gods who live in the sky.