If history has taught us anything, it’s that even the most venerable, immovable dynasties eventually crumble. Rome, Ottoman, Soviet, they’ve all gone the same way. It’s no different in the world of the arts. Five years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine the winner of the BBC’s flagship talent show failing to reach the top 130 with her debut album. Film is perhaps the most fertile hunting ground for burst bubbles. The studio system, the New Hollywood movement (you know something must be seriously wrong when E.T. is consigned to a landfill in the New Mexico desert), numerous individuals and genres, it’s a never ending cycle of what is best summed up in Henry Hill’s dour closing monologue of the superlative GoodFellas: “Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over.”
The common denominator for all of these fallen empires is that at one point or another, they appeared completely infallible. This is the status that superhero films are currently enjoying. Riding on a wave of unprecedented success thanks to Marvel’s interconnected franchise project and Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of the Batman universe, and positively buzzing with excitement since the announcement of a Batman-Superman crossover at last month’s San Diego Comic-Con, it’s hard to remember a time when the next big blockbuster didn’t feature a masked vigilante as its central protagonist.
As unthinkable as it seems now, that time was less than 20 years ago. Nolan’s excellent trilogy of Caped Crusader films have gone an awful long way to expunging the sour taste of Joel Schumacher’s woeful Batman & Robin, but, much like its main character, the film stills lurks in the shadows (also known as Wednesdays on ITV2) as a timely reminder of an era when not every superhero flick was a runaway success.
Before Schumacher along with George Clooney and the infamous “bat nipples” sent Batman and co. into an inadvertent exile, the cracks had already begun to appear. Following the immensely successful first wave of true motion picture superhero films, spearheaded by Richard Donner’s Superman (starring Christopher Reeve), several high-profile projects, including Captain America and The Fantastic Four, failed to launch, and sequels including Reeve’s third outing in the red and blue spandex and Batman Forever began testing the patience of even the most fervent fans.
Both the public and the critics have already proved that they are still just as unforgiving when it comes to subpar superhero stories, with the likes of Catwoman, Hulk, The Green Lantern and The Green Hornet all failing to meet sky-high expectations at the box office and being ravaged by reviews.
To return to the dynasty discussion, even the likes of Pixar (who themselves have contributed to the canon with The Incredibles) have recently struggled in the face of their early success, with their once unimpeachable critical record taking a few blows. Few at this moment in time would envisage a similar fate for chief superhero progenitors Marvel (DC Comics, who up to this point have held their reins in a considerably looser fashion, have seen fluctuations in quality, from the highs of The Dark Knight to Zack Snyder’s indifferent Man of Steel). Instead, it may be the sheer proliferation of films now rolling off the production line that ultimately does for the genre.
Increasingly, this automation is bordering on cynicism, making it extremely difficult to just sit back and enjoy one of the films on its own merits with the knowledge that some facet or another won’t be wound up in order to facilitate a sequel – God forbid a studio have a hit that they couldn’t then exploit the following year. Every Marvel film is playing the role of feature-length trailer to the filmic equivalent of the office Christmas party, The Avengers 2, whilst much of the chatter surrounding the still-in-cinemas Man of Steel was snubbed out by the Comic-Con announcement. For the announcement to come so soon after the Man of Steel’s release smacks of a studio so eager to catch up and cash in that its priorities have become completely misaligned, and when the producers of a film so readily abandon it, it sends the message to cinemagoers that they may as well do the same.
So far, the number of sequels has been fairly forgiving. Excluding The Avengers, only Iron Man has been granted a second and third film, with Thor getting his second outing later this year, but if Marvel’s latest recruits are anything to go by, they’re already reaching the bottom of the barrel in terms of big names with the traction to carry their own series. The Guardians of the Galaxy will feature few recognisable names, such as Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon (who, as his name suggests, is a gun-toting anthropomorph), and Ant Man sounds like something out of bad 1950s B-Movie – director Edgar Wright has already been forced to stress that the film won’t be a spoof.
Quite how the genre will be brought to its knees remains to be seen. It may be that interest dips and can no longer sustain the veritable barrage of films, which are already being planned up to 2017. It may be that quality slackens to the point where audiences dwindle. It may be that tastes simply shift away from heroes. However it happens, if history has taught us anything, it’s that it will happen; in the fateful words of Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises “There’s a storm coming, Mr Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”