In part 1 I looked at the rise of superhero films in the five years between 2001 – 2005 and in part 2 I showed that this trend has continued at a very similar level in the years 2006 – 2010. In fact in 2011 and 2012 we’ve already had 10 superhero films made, meaning the five years between 2011 – 2015 is set to be the most prolific yet. Why this continuation and why now? Can it all be down to the explosion in patriotism since 9/11 and generally associated with wartime USA?
I’m going to look into a case study of The Dark Knight Rises as it is one of the most recent and this is the final part of a trilogy of films that began with Batman Begins, which I looked at in part 1 and it is interesting to see how the themes have changed (or stayed the same) over a seven year period. I will then go on to look at two other potential factors for the growth and success of this movement: the improvement in technology, which has helped facilitate such films and the Hollywood machine, i.e. the business factors in film-making.
The Dark Knight Rises: return of fear and terrorism
With Barack Obama in the presidency and no longer George Bush, the subject of war and terrorism has taken a back seat in the media narrative of late in favour of economic struggles. Interesting then that The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is a film that ties so closely to the themes set up in Batman Begins (2005) and introduces villains that once again are about terrorising the population of Gotham.
This similarity could be put down to the fact that it is a trilogy and the themes are always going to be the same however the second part, The Dark Knight (2008), moved away from this with ideas of chaos introduced by the main villain of The Joker and a focus on organised crime in the story arc of Harvey Dent. So it was no guarantee that the third part would bring back the character of Ra’s Al Ghul and his disciples, all of whom are intent on destruction of a ‘corrupt’ city, as Bane explains to Batman:
“So, as I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so that you can watch them clamoring over each other to ‘stay in the sun’. You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham” (1)
Bane hides his plan under the mask of freeing the people, “we give it back to you… the people” (1) whilst at the same time going further and causing more damage than any other villain in the series so far as he tunnels under the city, blowing up several key places and the bridges in and out. This is clearly shown when he sets off explosives in the American football stadium just after the Star Spangled banner has been sung, even more obviously putting him in the position of enemy diametrically opposed to the state of the USA.
It doesn’t stop at the characters having terrorist-like motivations as the hardware of war (outlined in part 1 of this essay) is shown off more than ever with Bane claiming Batman’s armoury of Batmobiles and the two characters meeting in the middle of a massed battle, something the director himself claimed was an attempt to create more of an epic ‘war movie’ (2). Also the fighter-plane-like vehicle known as the ‘Bat’ has a starring role throughout the running battles and into the climax of the film.
Whilst not all recent superhero films carry this vein of post-9/11 fear, it is interesting that it is still an idea that persists in the American psyche even more than 10 years on and is a part of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed superhero films of all time. However there are other factors that could explain the continuation of these types of films, including potentially the proliferation of Computer Generated Imagery.
It must be considered that technological advances in the cinema have some correlation with the abundance of superhero films. For the very nature of the superhero story is to show “elements of the fantastical and magical” (3). Whilst the comic book was a perfect way for this young medium to grow cheaply and with only the imagination to limit the possibilities, superhero stories were quickly embraced by film and television. The most famous was Batman (1964), which was a big hit despite the series being in many ways a vehicle for portraying ‘camp’. However there had been very little technological advancement since the serials 20 years earlier as effects such as walking up the side of a building were simply achieved by turning the camera on its side. Batman was in fact an ideal character for television as he is a superhero without powers and effectively more a detective. Even The Incredible Hulk (1977) TV series with its fantastical green giant main character was simply achieved with a man painted green.
Once cinema got in on the act, with Superman (1978) being the first big-budget feature-length showing of a superhero’s adventures, special effects had jumped up a notch. This was the first time television or cinema had approached one of the more magical characters of comic book lore and it didn’t disappoint: watch as Superman flew, shot lasers from his eyes and lifted buildings. The technology was pushed to its limits: “blue screen shots and the complicated devices used (optical printers, the Zoptic front projection system) show how the film’s special effects broke new ground” (4).
Interestingly in the case of Superman and others, it seems that the technology factor can work in the opposite direction:
In the first years of its comic book life, Superman’s power of flight was limited to prodigious leaps. When the first motion-picture cartoons appeared, however, “he gained the power of pure flight,” which was subsequently incorporated in the comics… the mythic advance goes hand in hand with real-world technomythic breakthroughs. (5)
This shows how comic book superheroes have been at the forefront of new technology, often being the characters that require the new imagery to move the character forward and maintain the fantastical element. Perhaps it can be best summed up as a dialogue between the demands of the superhero and the opportunities of new technology.
It is widely considered that there wasn’t much change in the fundamentals of special effects in film between 1920 and 1980, it wasn’t until Tron (1982) that computer animation first arrived, coinciding with a rise in popularity of the home computer game. However the film wasn’t a success and “computer graphics went away and hid for eight or nine years” (6). The advancement to computer graphics for film was sealed with two block-buster films: Terminator 2 (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993), which made new demands on the technology and featured computer-generated characters, meaning “everybody noticed and jumped on the bandwagon” (6).
However computer graphic advancements didn’t noticeably effect the superhero genre until Spiderman in 2002. Throughout the nineties it was possible to create landscapes, creatures and vehicles very realistically within the computer but the ability to create a convincing human took longer. Toy Story (1995) director John Lasseter points out, “the human being is probably the most difficult thing to create, because we see them everyday… one mistake and we’ll spot it” (6). This was key for a superhero film where the main character is (mostly) human and to do the things Spiderman can do is nigh on impossible in real life: “the truth is it’s either too dangerous or physically impractical for stunt people to do these scenes” (7). The camera was going to be following him closely and so it needed convincing effects for us to believe he really was swinging around New York as director Sam Raimi states: “It was so important to me that this looked real, if it looked bogus it wasn’t going to work” (7).
With all the fancy new CGI now in place, is this the signal of a watershed in the superhero movie that saw every comic book being adapted? Maybe but then not all superheroes place the demands of Spiderman on the medium: arguably many could have been created without digital technology, for example Batman Begins (2005). Superhero films have always been embraced by the latest technologies and the fact that they look more realistic recently doesn’t change the fact that the latest effects have always looked better than older ones.
The Hollywood machine
As my infographic in part 2 shows, the proportion of sequels in the period 2006 – 2010 has increased, suggesting that it is the momentum of the Hollywood machine and business factors that account for this continuation in the superhero films. Perhaps the political climate of a time has little effect on the way films are made, maybe the reason they are all coming out at the same time is because this is simply how Hollywood works and once one becomes a hit, studios simply follow it up with another. But what makes superhero films such successful Hollywood property in the first place?
To begin with there is something that all films need to get people’s interest: conflict and change or to put it another way,
“In any script the protagonist needs a powerful transformational arc to emotionally grip your audience and hold your story together.” (8)
Almost all superhero films have this ‘transformational arc’ built into the story, quite literally with the main character changing into a super-being with superpowers. So superhero films have an essential ingredient to be effective but Hollywood studios want to create films that are guaranteed to earn money at the box office. In this case it could be said that the superhero film falls into the category of a ‘high concept’ movie or one of “those films, which seemed more likely to reap huge dollars at the box office” (9). There are many definitions of high concept but the following seems to include the most important parts: “a unique idea whose originality could be conveyed briefly” (9).
The idea behind them is that if you can instantly sum up the plot, it would be much easier to sell the film to a wide audience, for instance Spiderman can be sold as, normal teenager gains the powers of a spider and everyone instantly understands what they are going to watch: a film for the younger audience with fantasy elements. This is a key part of the marketability of a high concept film but there are other things which it should have to gain success: “high concept films lend themselves to merchandising and marketing by the abstraction of a key image from the film” (9). This suggests that not only should a film be able to be briefly summed up in words, it needs to be captured within one image, so that this can be duplicated across a wide range of media to promote the film and raise awareness, and is something superhero films do well.
Another element that falls in superhero films’ favour is that they are adapted from existing material and if the comic is a success then it is likely that the film will be too, as has been identified with films based on novels in the past: “The film is pre-sold by the novel, which in turn is re-sold on the back of the film” (10). This idea of having a ‘pre-sold’ film means that it has been released with the knowledge that the audience has already responded well to this product and there is a built-in fan-base before it is even released, which is as close to a guarantee of success as you could wish.
If superhero films carry with them the associations to generate success, such as a ready-made fan-base; easy marketability; the opportunity for merchandising and interest from a youth audience, then it must stand to reason that Hollywood would want to repeat this success by launching more superhero films. The following quote suggests just that:
“The production of popular film is a process of innovation and imitation shaped in part by producers assaying previous hits and recombining their components in new exploitable forms that they hope will be successful.” (10)
Hollywood is certainly keen to repeat its successes and if something proves a hit, reaping millions of dollars, the studios and filmmakers aren’t going to be shy in making sequels. In fact in the top ten films by box office of 2011, none of them were original (all either sequels or adaptations) compared to seven of the top ten of 1981. This growing trend is surely not helped by recession and other economic woes: “when times are tight… the safest investment you can make is in either a sequel or a story built from an existing franchise with a large fan base” (11).
This all amounts to propose that perhaps the recent run of superhero films is little to do with any political climate and a lot more to do with a Hollywood business model that means when they come across a hit film, they will attempt to repeat it until it runs dry. But does that mean the areas that I identified in Spiderman and Batman Begins as being influenced by their time were pure coincidence? I don’t think this can be true as this quote adds a further dimension to marketability for film:
“Marketability is based upon such factors as stars… a pre-sold premise (such as a remake or adaptation) and a concept which taps into a national trend or sentiment.” (8)
This addition of the element of ‘national sentiment’ having an influence on the production of a film brings me back to thinking that films can be affected by world events. It suggests that if a film were to have an association with a current national fear such as ‘terrorism’ it could only help to sell it. On top of this, if the world economic situation can affect how decisions towards film-making are reached, why wouldn’t the politics of fear?
It may be surprising that now eleven years on from the events of 9/11, the superhero still has a role to play in helping America come to terms with how it copes with those issues but I believe it is still doing just that. It’s gradually becoming a smaller part of the influencing factors behind these films but as The Dark Knight Rises makes clear, the spectre of terrorism is still present. As this influence gradually decreases, the realities of capitalism and the Hollywood machine take over, perpetuating the stream of superhero films because the market demands it.
This need to keep creating superhero films was highlighted by the recent Amazing Spiderman, a reboot of the Sam Raimi Spiderman only ten years after the original, mainly because the studio needed to make some kind of Spiderman film “in order to keep the movie rights to the franchise” (12). I predict in that 2011 – 2015 will show the highest number of superhero films but also the highest percentage of sequels and the fewest with terrorist-threat themes.
- Nolan, Christopher (2012), The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Brothers/DC Comics
- The Republic (2012), The Dark Knight Rises Shooting and the Propaganda of the Deed http://www.republicmagazine.com/news/the-dark-knight-rises-shooting-and-the-propaganda-of-the-deed.html
- Klock, Geoff (2002), How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Continuum
- Peters, Ed (2001), Superman: The Movie DVD Review http://www.dvdreview.com/fullreviews/superman_the_movie.shtml
- Shelton Lawrence, John & Jewett, Robert (2002), The Myth of the American Superhero, William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- BBC 2 (1998), Horizon: The Computers That Ate Hollywood, BBC
- Raimi, Sam (2002), Spiderman DVD, Columbia/Marvel
- Frensham, Ray (2003), Teach Yourself Screenwriting, Teach Yourself (Hodder & Staughton)
- Wyatt, Justin (1994), High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, University of Texas Press
- Austin, Thomas (2002), Hollywood, Hype and Audiences: Selling and Watching Popular Film in the 1990s, Manchester University Press
- Short of the Week (2012), Has Hollywood Lost Its Way? http://www.shortoftheweek.com/2012/01/05/has-hollywood-lost-its-way/
- McMillan, Graeme (2012), Time Magazine Entertainment http://entertainment.time.com/2012/06/27/the-ol-parker-luck-why-the-amazing-spider-man-cant-catch-a-break/