07 April 2016

Stop Posting About Superheroes


It's no revelation to me that four out of my previous six posts had everything to do with Superheroes. Mostly complaining about them. In the wake of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Just Ass (2016), though, it seems like that's all the Internet has really cared about. At the same it's mostly just full of griping and crotchety criticism. So, what's going on here? Why have superheroes dominated not only the box office, but our critical conversation, even when there's widespread hate for the genre? That statement even supposes something else - where does that hate come from at all?
There's obviously only one truly great superhero film.

I'll start by immediately admitting my sublime addiction. I could be posting more about indie films or small dramas or other films that are actually worth something substantial, but superhero films seem to draw the most attention right now. It's not like I even care about getting hits or anything, although that's clearly a motivation everywhere else. It's tough for even old school action revivals like London Has Fallen (2016) to gain enough notoriety to make cultural waves in the landscape we're in right now.

For me, I think this stems from my childhood. Of course it does. As a kid I was heavily into comic books and enthralled by these stories that took me out of my shitty existence and into a world were anything seemed possible. This sort of wish-fulfillment is cliché, but accurate. The world of comics seemed niche and private, which created this nerd against the world mentality that a lot of us still hold today.

It's obviously a big shock then, to see the heroes that we once clutched to our breasts in nerd-filled drool and yearning suddenly these major Hollywood forces. At once they're the savior and destroyer of an industry that can't seem to find a better way to put asses in seats. The cynical question, though would be, at what cost of cultural dignity?

This is an interesting proposition because superhero movies are more a replacement for action films, which weren't necessarily any better, despite what our nostalgia might tell us. For every Total Recall (1990) we had plenty of Timecop (1994). Alongside Die Hard (1988) we had The Last Boy Scout (1991). It's not like we are supplanting the prestige of action films here. Memory tends to be selective, and I'm confident that in twenty years we'll remember Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) a lot more than Green Lantern (2011).

This obviously spurns a debate, because I actually watched Green Lantern playing on FX yesterday morning. And for a dude for whom Hal Jordan may be his favourite superhero, that's a rough fucking picture. Five years down the road no one is really eager to re-visit the film, no one is nostalgic, no one is thinking "It was really bad but this one scene was good." There is nearly no redeemable qualities. But it was on TV and I still watched it. Has this addiction become seriously bad for my cultural health?

I'm not convinced that every superhero film is terrible. There are in fact, plenty that stand up perfectly great against any other genre, while most are generally in the serviceable range. I don't think we need to necessarily begin a cultural panic claiming that we've lost all art at the cinema. These aren't really the best films of the year in any year (with a handful of exceptions), but then again, my definitions of such things tend to be drenched in proletariat rather than snobby pretentious arthouse loves. Ultimately, a film needs to be judged on its own merits, no matter what or where those merits come from. I'll gladly sit through Battleship (2012) the same evening as Frances Ha (2012) and judge the work of both.

Speaking of Battleship, the easy answer I suppose is that innocuous non-thinking blockbuster entertainment goes down smooth. And honestly, at the end of the week on a Friday night, Iron Man 3 (2013) goes down a lot smoother than Queen of Earth (2015). And there's nothing wrong with that. There isn't a need to be challenged all the time and strive for a culture of constantly high art because frankly, it's exhausting and alienating.

Of course, we shouldn't really strive for a culture of low art, either. Part of my major goal here at Norwegian Morning Wood is to elevate the low and jokify the mighty, mostly providing analysis for the mundane and showing that any work of art can have its place in the cultural conversation. This has recently slid pretty damn well into constant superhero territory.

Why is that a bad thing? Why is the genre so maligned? I suppose it is the inherently juvenile association along with the delusional male boy wish fulfillment I mentioned earlier. At some point we need to mature and gain an understanding about life and truth outside of fantasy.

On a more practical note, it's also readily apparent that the major studios are becoming more polarized. In a more risk-adverse setting there are fewer mid-range films released and more effort placed in to the distant ends of the spectrum. Studios will either throw a few bucks at a small budget film or pour all of their resources into major motion picture tentpoles. There is a fallacy here, though, because there's roughly a 37% chance that film is going to be a huge bomb anyway.

Side note: in order to get that figure I took a look at the budgets and worldwide grosses of every film that's ever cost over $150 million, which was 138 films (which I got here, obviously with the caveat that budget reporting is insanely sketchy), then determined the profitability by the logic that true costs would include budget in addition to marketing costs, estimated at 70%, and then understanding the theater take, which by rough go at it, figures a studio keeps 80% in the first week, 55% in the second, 45% in the third, and 20% from there on out. Totaling this take using The Avengers (2012) as a model, that's about 56% of the total, with some variation and the conceit that foreign theaters generally take less than domestic, I bumped that up to 70% as well. So budget plus 70% of budget subtracted from 70% of worldwide gross should equal profitability in this rough estimate. Here's some data! Now, this is clearly very unscientific, but for the purposes of this essay, it gives us some kind of idea as to what Hollywood's general failure rate is. And it's about 37%.

Now I know you're curious about the superhero failure rate, and I figured it out - using that same spreadsheet's clearly infallible logic, out of the 22 superhero films with budgets over $150 million, only five of them failed to turn a profit, which is a rate of 23%. That's a significantly lower than the normal blockbuster fail rate. Business is business.

I'm not sure if that exercise has a point in understanding the cultural dialogue of the genre, the juvenile vapidness of the source material, or our shameless addiction to men in tights. Starting next year also an Amazon in a metal skirt of some kind. But nevertheless it's good to have perspective. That perspective should also include the fact that 22/138 films with budgets over $150 million is a paltry 16% over the past twenty years. Even looking at every movie since 2011 (the past five years - 65 films with huge budgets), only 14 of those are superhero films. Sure that's 64% of the total, but still only 22% of stupid monster blockbusters.

Is that enough of a combination of anecdotal data for you? The point is, I'm not actually sure if this is a problem or not. It would seem, however, that despite the relatively low amount of superhero films being released, they tend to dominate the cultural conversation as if there were one coming out every weekend. For my money this is the reason why efforts such as The Lone Ranger (2013), Jupiter Ascending (2015), and Tomorrowland (2015) flop hard. There really isn't enough people around to care about them. And if you're going to use the argument that none of these were particularly great movies, well, the only words I have for you is Batman v. Fucking Superman.

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