Monday, May 12, 2008

A Superhero Glut?

Ross Douthat, of The Atlantic, worries that there is a looming glut of superhero movies.

I agree that it is very likely that his prognostication is on the mark: I fully expect for there to be a surplus of superhero movies over the next several years. What puzzles me, however, is that Ross seems to think that there's something unusual about this.

For all its ballyhooed liberalism, when it comes to financing projects, Hollywood is actually a very conservative town. Producers don't generally like to risk putting their money on risky projects. As a consequence of this, Hollywood tends to be self-imitative. When a movie is a success, the first thing most studios will want to do is to make a sequel. If several movies in a genre succeed, it's a safe bet that more movies in that genre will be produced.

The sorts of gluts that Ross is worried about are perfectly common. For decades, the studios cranked out an endless sequence of westerns and musicals. In the 70's, cop dramas were all the rage. In the 80's and 90's, you couldn't have summer without big action movies stuffed to the brim with explosions and car chases. We also passed through a science fiction craze and, if it weren't for a number of failures, I'm sure that we'd be neck deep in fantasies right about now.

While this type of repetition can get annoying, this is a case where the market invariably corrects itself over time. When people get tired of a genre, they stop spending money on it and as other genres become more successful the old is replaced by the new. I would not be surprised to see a lot of superhero movies out in the next five years, but I would be shocked if they were still making as many of them ten or fifteen years from now. Sooner or later people are going to decide that enough is enough.

Ross Douthat is not a fool when it comes to cinema. He's quite familiar with the history of the medium and I'm sure that he realizes that these movies are part of a larger cycle, so his concern is a bit puzzling. I suspect that the real nature of his concern might be found we he frets that "if we aren't careful, the next generation of Coppolas and Scorseses, De Niros and Streeps will spend the best years of their creative lives toiling away on Spiderman 8 or X-Men Origins: Kitty Pryde."

It would, indeed, be a sad thing if the next generation of talented actors were to find themselves trapped in superhero roles, especially given the risk of typecasting. This is not a trivial concern. One can consider the effect that Star Wars had on the Careers of Mark Hamil and Carrie Fischer (and I wonder if Elijah Wood will ever regret playing Frodo); however, I think that a case can be made that the more popular a genre becomes, the less likely it is that new talents will find themselves trapped in them.

The reason for this is that directors and producers want to hire the very best talent that they can afford for their productions. Likewise, actors tend to compete for those roles that are the most lucrative. This means that the most sought after roles will tend to go to the so-called A-List actors (with a similar effect for the directors). The next young De Niro won't be playing Iron Man precisely because the role is going to go to Robert Downey Jr whose already established his credentials.

This might sound like a bad thing for Downey and it would be if he had no choice in the matter but, being an A-List actor, he has his choice of roles. The only reason for him to play Iron Man is because he wants to be in the Iron Man movie. No matter how saturated the market becomes, there will always be alternative roles (even lucrative ones) and no A-List actor or director will ever find themselves in a position where they are forced to make a movie where the principle character is wearing tights (and we're not talking Shakespeare).

As for the up-and-coming B-List actors and directors who have great potential, no one will hold it against them if they find themselves compelled to take frivolous roles. Hollywood well understands the concept of paying one's dues and so long as those bright talents can avoid the pitfall of typecasting, I don't think that such efforts will especially hurt their careers. And if they do succumb to typecasting, there's nothing especial about the superhero genre that promotes it. Good actors (and even directors) have fallen prey to that trap in every genre and it is simply something that they all need to be aware of.

So why is Ross concerned? I suspect the real reason is not that he fears that good actors will be forced to play genre roles but that he fears that they will be tempted by such roles. I think that Ross loves the cinema and that, as much as he is willing to tolerate and even enjoy the occasional superhero lark, he wants the best actors playing the roles that he considers to be the most serious, just as he wants the best directors to be working on those works of art that exemplify all that cinema can be.

Mind you, I could be wrong. I don't know Ross Douthat personally and this supposition should be read as conjecture. Never the less, if that is the root of his concern, I think he worries for naught. The very best directors aren't going to feel compelled to follow the crowd. When Kubrik made 2001: A Space Odessey and A Clockwork Orange it wasn't because he thought that he had no choice but to make science fiction (indeed, he made them at a point where most directors were disdaining the genre). Likewise, the De Niros of the world will do as they will precisely because they are 800 pound gorrillas who are fully aware of the weight they can throw.

But even if some top-mark director or actor desires to make a genre film, so what? They are adults and it is up to them to decide what is and is not dignified for them to do. Robert Downey Jr.'s Oscar isn't tarnished because he decided to don a gold and red suit just as Kubrik wasn't diminished for dipping into the horror genre with The Shining. Whether or not someone like Ross thinks that such projects are unworthy of the participants is irrelevant so long as those participants have any choice in the matter and I don't believe that he's made the case that they don't.

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