Lance Ulanoff recently wrote an “analysis” post on Mashable entitled, “Enough, already, with the superhero movies.” Mr. Ulanoff states that he “spent so much of [his] adolescence praying for superhero movies,” but feels that there are just too many on the schedule for the next few years.
To me, this piece highlights one of the biggest problems with the current popularity of superheroes and geek/nerd culture in general. Merging a decades-old subculture into mainstream American culture gives rise to criticism from outsiders who think they know. It is clear to me, from reading this article, that either Mr. Ulanoff is a newcomer to the comic book genre or is well older than the target audience for the upcoming movies. He quotes his 20-year-old son—much closer to this target audience—but again we don’t know whether his son is a true fan of the genre.
The post continues with what he calls “The Golden Age”: a history of superheroes on film and TV. Mr. Ulanoff’s praise of Adam West’s Batman and George Reeves’s Superman decries his age. Today’s superhero movies are not designed for 50-somethings, as Ulanoff must be given these references and his 20-year-old son. Of course many 50-something fanboys (“fanmen”?) love them, but one can’t expect everyone to do so.
According to Mr. Ulanoff, “TV flirted with superheroes in the mid 1970’s with The Greatest American Hero — but like the character, the show barely got off the ground.” He then launches into deserved recognition of 1978’s Superman franchise. In Mr. Ulanoff’s version of events, nothing else happened between the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise and the 1990s Batman series, then nothing else until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002.
Um, what about TV’s Wonder Woman, airing 60 episodes from 1975 to 1979? Or The Incredible Hulk, a hit from 1978 to 1982 that inspired three made-for-TV movies in the late 1980s (of sadly and steeply decreasing quality)? What about Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, airing from 1993 to 1997? What about Smallville, which was a huge hit from 2001 to 2011? DC’s first attempt at The Flash didn’t last long in 1990, but it still existed.
Heck—if you count The Great American Hero, wouldn’t you also count The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman from the 1970s? The early 1990s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers certainly seem a lot like superheroes. How about Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the late 1990s? Alias? Dark Angel? Heroes?
The history of comic books on film is of course far more spotty: 1982’s Swamp Thing directed by Wes Craven (and its campy 1989 sequel The Return of Swamp Thing), 1984’s The Toxic Avenger by Troma Entertainment (and its several sequels), 1989’s The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren, and 1995’s Tank Girl with Lori Petty did not have large blockbuster audiences but have achieved cult movie status over the years. (Personally I love Lundgren’s Punisher.) The Crow in 1994 was quite popular at the time, due in part to Brandon Lee’s tragic fate and in part to its alternative rock soundtrack, but has likewise developed a cult-like following in he decades since.
Roger Corman’s 1994 The Fantastic Four may be a paragon of bad movies, but it stands on many geeks’ shelves next to the equally awful 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. Mr. Ulanoff at least acknowledges the third and fourth installments of the ’90s Batman films, even though they were not so good.
The late 1990s also saw film adaptations of Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn and the beginning of a movie franchise featuring Wesley Snipes as Blade. The 1999 Ben Stiller comedy Mystery Men is very popular with the fanboy crowd. In 2000 Fox’s first X-Men movie may have been the first modern blockbuster superhero hit.
Again moving away from the comic book adaptations, other superhero movies include 1990’s Darkman and Robert Townsend’s 1993 The Meteor Man. M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 Unbreakable is unquestionably a top-notch film.
So did Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man really start the superhero movie trend or, as Mr. Ulanoff asserts, “single-handedly reviv[e] the superhero movie”? If so, why was the trend of film studios buying up the movie rights to every comic book property the main plot of Kevin Smith’s 2001 Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back?
No, what actually appears to be the case is that Mr. Ulanoff does not like comic books or comic book movies.
Mr. Ulanoff doesn’t understand how, year after year since the turn of the millennium, superhero movies have been among the top grossing films worldwide. The fans have clearly spoken—we want superhero movies, so studios are delivering. And if we stop going in record-breaking droves to see them, studios will stop making them. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Mr. Ulanoff doesn’t understand that comic book characters inhabit the same world and sometimes meet each other and form super-teams. It’s only natural for comic book movies to begin to display comic book tropes.
Mr. Ulanoff doesn’t understand that comic book readers collect their favorite titles for years, faithfully buying those new releases every month. With our beloved superheros now appearing in cinematic universes, we will faithfully sit in those theaters every single time. Will we always love every film? No. Will we watch them anyway? Probably.
Yes, there are many comic book-inspired movies currently in development for release over the next five years or so. Is it too many? Not for me. And not for many other comic book fans.
If Mr. Ulanoff doesn’t want to watch them, he doesn’t have to do so. If enough people agree with him, the movies will stop being made. But then, and only then, can anyone say there are too many superhero movies.