Had enough of these guys yet?
Had enough of these guys yet?
Photo courtesy of Marvel

Have We Reached the Point of Superhero Overkill?

Daytime soap operas and professional wrestling, on the surface, don’t have all that much in common. While there is certainly a bit of crossover between the two in terms of viewers, neither is exactly courting the same audience. One airs during the day, the other in primetime. The former features actors on some bland California sound stage, reciting lines that likely revolve around manipulation and undercutting. The latter features a bunch of grown men in wrestling tights, well, reciting lines that likely revolve around manipulation and undercutting.

Of course, poor acting and violence – whether physical or emotional – aren’t the only traits shared by daytime soaps and pro wrestling. Not only are both incredibly interesting – even if neither is your thing, both certainly possess a certain curiosity factor – but neither ever actually ends. Vince McMahon and his World Wrestling Entertainment have been going strong for nearly 40 years, cycling through characters and story lines galore. Meanwhile, shows like General Hospital and All My Children have devoted decades to a long cast of characters, some of whom stick around for years, others of whom just kinda pass right through.

Whereas peak television-era shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Wire all met their inevitable conclusions – and whereas current programs like Game of Thrones and House of Cards will eventually do the same – daytime soaps and sports entertainment show no signs of letting up. As Robert Earl Keen once said, the road goes on forever, and the party never ends.

Now, what do daytime soaps and professional wrestling have to do with the glut of superhero films that have flooded the marketplace for the better part of the past 15 years? More than you might think. In particular, superhero films and franchises almost seem to exist at this point as a means of setting up even more superhero films and breeding new franchises and spinoffs. Resolution is no longer the end goal. Rather, the end goal now is simply to stretch and expand the narrative.

This certainly makes sense. All it takes is one glance at a Wikipedia page devoted to superhero movies to see that these movies are big business. They breed other films and franchises that are not only big business at the turnstiles, but in corporate partnerships and merchandising. Hell, I once devoted a whole article to the notion that Hollywood was pretty much reliant on franchises and sequels at this point, having run out of original ideas long ago.

This isn’t even a bad thing; Hollywood is a bottom-line industry based on capitalism. You’re only as successful as your last picture or franchise. So, yeah, Hollywood continues to rely on superhero franchises and their various offshoots in keeping the lights on at major studios throughout the West Coast. But at what cost?

Superhero films have been a staple in Hollywood dating back to the 1970s. And while they’ve been a steady presence in cinemas ever since, a somewhat recent boom of sorts began approximately 15 years ago, when flicks centering on Spider-Man, X-Men, Hellboy, the Punisher, Daredevil, the Incredible Hulk and Catwoman all hit theaters within a two-year span. Some (Spider-Man, X-Men, Hellboy) hit; others (pretty much every other franchise listed above) didn’t.

I mention this because Marvel is rolling out another Spider-Man film next month, when Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theaters on July 7. Judging from trailers for the film, it’s tough to tell whether the film is more a Spider-Man or Iron Man movie, as Avengers MVP Robert Downey Jr. is front and center in the film’s marketing. This is all well and good; Downey plays Stark better than just about any other actor plays just about any other character, and he’s managed to take a pretty B-list superhero and have him serve as the anchor of the most profitable superhero stable in cinema history.

However, one can’t help wondering whether Downey is being showcased not because of what he brings to the Spider-Man universe, but because of how lousy the previous attempt at a Spidey reboot went, when Andrew Garfield donned the Spider suit in 2012 and 2014. The franchise revival was killed off after a pair of underwhelming pics, and a second reboot attempt was scheduled for 2017.

Of course, Spider-Man isn’t the only superhero whose reboot has been met with diminishing returns. After Christopher Nolan took the superhero genre to new heights with this Dark Knight trilogy, it would have made sense to let the franchise rest a bit. After all, following up such a trilogy was bound to be a tough task. Instead, five years after Nolan closed out his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, Zack Snyder was in the director’s chair, Ben Affleck was in the Batsuit and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was somewhat of a commercial disappointment and an outright critical flop.

The list goes on. A Fantastic Four reboot flopped. Every attempt at making the Incredible Hulk a standalone movie character has been met with mixed returns. DC Comics can’t quite seem to make Superman happen again. Even the Avengers series – once viewed as the gold standard among superhero franchises – is starting to show its age, each film merely a setup for the next. Sure, it’s all slated to come to a close with the second half of Infinity War in 2019, but then again, might the term “infinity” be fitting for a franchise that will exist so long as its profitability rating does the same?

Not that the superhero film industry is in some sort of dire straits. Deadpool was an instant classic. Logan had real emotional depth. Wonder Woman is absolutely killing it at the box office.

But how long can it last? How long before Deadpool 4 makes us long for the original? How many times can franchise linchpins like Robert Downey Jr. jump in to kickstart a languishing franchise? Have we just about had our fill of superhero film franchises? Much less, at the rate these films keep cashing checks, does it even matter?

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