Let's face it, superhero films have a wide audience and devoted following. Each "franchise" would hope to inspire an obsessed fan base that will bestow at least a thumb propped up rating no matter the entertainment value, artistic merit, and buzzing highlight(s) of the flick. However, superhero films have patterns which must be either overcome or emulated.
Christian Bale's leather-clad Batman or Anne Hathaway in spandex provide sexy excuses for adults to avoid admitting that youthful reminders equal a couple hours group therapy from 21st Century rubrics. But, messing with fan expectations and the multi-hundred million dollar tent pole plunges into Hell (without the accompaniment of Hellboy).
Ideally, a superhero's fan base must have strong name recognition, especially as both Marvel and DC now dip into their lesser known creations. Golden and Silver Age retro characters necessitate more than a publishing pedigree. Radio hybrids like "The Shadow" and "Green Hornet" have been ignored. Adults and younger comic fans must embrace characters (Captain America, Batman, Superman) that allow "fairy tale" pass-it-on familiarity. Superheroes and ticket sales cannot be taken for granted. There have been big budget attendance disappointments. Think in budget to gross terms that The Hulk, Catwoman, Fantastic Four, Daredevil and Green Lantern are on the low ball end.
While character and story recognition lower economic risk and marketing budgets, the current hot superhero fad coincides, much like the comic heroes and screwball flicks of the 30s and 40s, as escape from torrid times be it war, catastrophe, or recession. Hero worship satisfies America's desire once again for a special person who will rise above everyone else and change the world for good.
Everyone roots for a hero, yet some of the flicks do dabble at reflecting pessimistic and darker views. That 'desire' hesitantly mixes as silver screen heroes face villains beyond a Riddler, Joker, or Lizard when world impacting indecisiveness toward quandaries of global warming, nuclear power, the mid-East stalemate, and crumbling infrastructure. Approaching seriousness requires symbolic tip toeing through tulips where Bane (Tom Hardy) and his League of Thugs take over the sewers and hold Gotham City hostage in "The Dark Knight Rises," which spurred fans countering less than favorable early reviews and prompted Rotten Tomatoes to shut down comments.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Marvel universe envisioned flawed, more vulnerable, and emotionally fragile heroes. Peter Parker gained his abilities from the bite of a radioactive spider. Spider-Man does not possess the invulnerability of Superman. He's akin to a powerless DC universe character that uses smarts and gadgets to reel in bad dudes like the Riddler, the Joker and Catwoman.
The "reboots" of "The Amazing Spider-Man" and the final installment of "The Dark Knight" trilogy have more in common than you might anticipate. Replacing Tobey McGuire's athletic slug fests, the new web-slinger (played by Andrew Garfield) has a fidgety demeanor, which finds him answering his grandmother's cell call for a store errand while scaling a skyscraper. Dwelling more on the Peter Parker identity, "Amazing Spider-Man" intimately explores the weaknesses of a formerly bullied and still shy teen learning to leap up, down, and across the sides of buildings and dodging fisticuffs. Lee's humanity of superheroes gains greater acceptance as Garfield grimaces, limps, and bruises then allows his girlfriend/heroine (Emma Stone) to apply antiseptic to his bloody back. The story could function without the city-wide rumble with the giant Lizard but that would remove the what-you-see-is-what-you-believe escapism of the digital images.
Ironically, "The Dark Knight Rises" (unpreviewed at press time) incorporates a more Lee inspired worn-out and hurting Bruce Wayne hobbling back into his Bat-suit. However, among the forest of hero films, Dark Horizons computed "The Dark Knight," "Superman the Movie," "Spider-Man II," "The Avengers" and "Iron Man" , among the best, while Forbes names "The Dark Knight," "Watchmen," "Spider-Man II," "Superman the Movie" and "Batman Begins." Both lists mix escapist takes and those with greater twinges of brooding reality.
THE ORIGIN REQUISITE
Comics have a tradition of re-telling and re-inventing character origins. Often, these allow for updating characters through decades (Captain America was exclusively World War II until reimagined.) So, cinema has seized this publishing twist as a means for re-casting, updating special effects, and reshaping a treasured character whose sequel attendance has drained as the filmmaking team demanded higher salaries.
The origin flick makes or breaks future sequels. How a character acquired their powers can become an exercise in cliche - ordinary person has extraordinary encounter, person dons costume using their strength, speed, flying, or web slinging to lock bad dudes in the slammer, contend with how their life has changed (i.e. secret identity), and develop their powers (usually by battling stronger and stronger villains).
MATURING COMPUTER GENERATION F/X
Outer space fantasies and superhero adventures have been buoyed through Computer Generated Imagery (C.G.I.), special effects, which brings the flying, jumping, burning, transforming, and other powers to realistic acceptance in the respective heroes universe.
CGI and f/x dominate superhero films, often the imagery qualifies for 'star power' alongside the cast and above line (director, producer, and screenplay) filmmakers. Stick around for the credit crawl and it's likely to include five to fifteen effects studios. The visual assignments typically consist of specific portions of a film ranging from a distant planet's landscape to the nuances of a particular character.
Referring to a quote from one of Wired's F/X gods, "People didn't go to 'The Day After Tomorrow' because of the acting, directing, and writing," said Scott Ross, chair of effects house Digital Domain. "They went to see New York flooded and LA ripped apart by a twister."
The Hollywood Reporter's deputy film editor, Anne Thompson, attributed the visual effect criteria to "the Lucas effect." In her 2005 article, she wrote: "Since 1977's Star Wars, visual effects have come to dominate the Hollywood box office and bottom line. Of the top 20 top-grossing movies of all time, three are totally animated, and the others include so many affects you can't tell the real from the fake."
As then studio executives admitted that special effects became characters in the movies, budgets shot skyward as filmgoers demanded more and more visual effects.
"Superman the Movie" (1978) introduced the Man of Steel (played by Christopher Reeve). Its hype line - you will believe a man can fly; it was the first feature with a computer generated title sequence. The next year, "Star Trek" came to the big screen. Both relied on state-of-the-art special effects, but did not (except as noted) contain C.G.I, which had been used in George Lucas' "Star Wars" (Death Star simulation sequences) and the opening of Disney's "The Black Hole" in 1979.
Of special C.G.I. significance to the superhero genre, 1987's "Max Headroom" debut (computer mediated action figure on Cinemax) and 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (which mixed live action and animation).
John Dykstra, one of Hollywood's best special effects directors, convinced director Sam Raimi to utilize C.G.I. for his "Spider-Man" movies. Specifically, the ballet in the sky building to building swings, Spidey nets, cars, flight scenes with the Green Goblin, metal tentacles of Dr. Octavius, as well as Sandman and Venom from the third film.
That's the surprise, the linkage between C.G.I and live action superhero imagery are limited often to difficult daredevil stunt sequences or a character's special powers. Take Wolverine's knuckles, for example, they were C.G.I. generated.
REBOOT OR REMAKE?
The "Spider-Man" and "Dark Knight" franchises are now both "reboots," an ambiguously euphemistic term for starting over without proclaiming a full "remake" of an earlier production. Bigger, better and more grandiose demands send chills down studio green-lighters' spines when they determine if the latest script warrants a $150-$250 million dollar dice roll. Pressing heavily on the executive's cranial cavity, the painful financial lessons of "Superman IV: Quest for Peace" and the too (young) family-friendly "Batman & Robin." It appears there's a happily ever after magic to trilogies which maintain the core creative team.
"Up, Up and Onto the Silver Screen" author, Alex Warner, shrugged avoidance of the word 'remake.' He suggested no comparison between Tim Burton's star filled (Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson) "Batman" (1989) containing only "adequate" f/x when paired with Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" which "upstages" it technologically. "Batman" had one epic battle sequence, but "Dark Knight" had three gravity defying high speed chases and a "brutal" and "graphic" fight scene with actor Heath Ledger's sinister Joker.
LESS TENT POLE BUDGETS?
Could superheroes eventually explore stronger artistic and relevant topics? Perhaps, when the cost of f/x drops to more fiscally friendly levels, the budgets will go downward or audiences might acquiesce for less than state-of-the-art f/x (the budget eater) in favor of less powers, less action, and more character exploration and drama. Think of the perfection that weaved foul-mouthed teddy bear "Ted" into live action without bankrupting the studio.
Don't count on it. I'm one of the few critics who favorably recall "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (in a still Cold War and pre-9/11 era saturated by "Taxi Driver" and "Network" marauding philosophy) and know that heavy doses of thinking have failed to propel "Prometheus" into "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight," "Hunger Games" or "Harry Potter" attendance. In fact, "Superman Returns" failed to break attendance records, thus, a re-boot that may necessitate further tweaking. As for the Dark Knight, with "Rises" as the third film of the trilogy, what's next on screen for the caped crusader?
Cinema has virtually one generation to generation running heroic character, James Bond. The star has rolled over but the Ian Fleming Cold War spy thrillers have proven that Bond can be Bond, even as he adapts to the challenges of the Jason Bourne and "Mission Impossible" franchises. Bond has had big budgets and trademark music and sexy love interests, but, repeat NOT the tent-pole range, likely due to Bond having no super powers, just new expensive toys.