Film

Crisis and Continuity: Reliving the Superhero Flicks of 2014

Andrew Doscas

Superhero cinema had a watershed year in 2014, where it saw its fully postmodern realization. Films like X-Men: Days of Future Past not only interrogate genre tropes; they also upend them.

With the exception of 2001, there has been at least one movie based on a major American comic book every year since 2000. (The original Spider-Man was set to be released during that year, but was moved to 2002 following the events of 9/11.) Comic book movies have become such a frequent phenomenon in and of themselves that their continued existence has become a given at this point.

It's to the point now where a superhero film is almost always guaranteed to generate massive buzz, no matter what it is. Remember, it was only a few months ago that the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron killed YouTube by setting the record for most views in a 24 hour time span. (That record, by the way, was held by the Iron Man 3 trailer.)

Comic book cinema has become a typical and eagerly anticipated genre within the world of film, in a manner unlike anything else before it. The modern era of superhero flicks began in 2000 with X-Men, a film that in hindsight, was better than it had any right to be. A decade and a half later, 2014 has now become the year that comic book movies based on American superheroes made the quantum leap into the great beyond.

In the past decade of superhero film, for every game changer (Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, The Avengers) there were also an equal amount of flops (Green Lantern, X-Men: The Last Stand, Fantastic Four), but overall, the medium has crossed over very nicely into the realm of cinema. The factors that explain this ease of transition are well known: iconic and easily identifiable characters that everyone knows about, the modern mythology aspect, and a seemingly infinite well of stories and ideas to draw upon.

There is, however, another reason entirely as to what is keeping the superhero genre afloat in Hollywood. The truth is that comic book movies have been evolving over time to better suit our needs and expectations of them. They are constantly upping the ante with little motivation from us. This has prevented the market from becoming oversaturated and redundant, as was the case with all those Guitar Hero video games that were so popular in the mid-'00s (which are now defunct).

Publishers like Marvel and DC are no longer content with the present market for superhero movies; it’s become so lucrative that they are able to set their sights on their future endeavors and long term plans. Taking cue from Marvel Studios, Warner Bros., the parent company of DC Comics, recently released its upcoming five year plan for its onslaught of comic book movies. What this tells us is that the company seeks to employ the Marvel method of producing an interconnecting and symbiotic relationship with all of its properties to create one shared universe between the characters and the movies. Making movies out of properties like the obscure Cyborg, the underwhelming SHAZAM, and the much-maligned Aquaman are all signs that DC is going for broke on its next slate of superhero flicks.

Wanting to outdo its only real competition, Marvel decided to one-up DC by releasing its own upcoming release schedule, which includes films comprising phase three of Marvel’s plan for a cohesive and shared cinematic universe. Unlike DC, Marvel felt so bold as to commit to release dates for its films as well. By 2019, we’ll have seen the underrated Ms. Marvel (now in her new alias of Captain Marvel), the enigmatic Inhumans (face it Marvel, you’ll never get them to replace the X-Men), and the regal Black Panther star in their own movies.

What this newfound sense of forthrightness regarding formerly dearly held secrets tells us is that Marvel no longer cares. The company is so sure of itself as a film production studio, and in its ability to make quality movies out of lesser-known properties that it plans on whetting our appetites some five years before the completion of its plans. Marvel wants to stir the pot well before we have any right to be excited about B-rate characters.

For movies such as The Avengers: Infinity Wars, and Captain America: Civil War, we already know the plot, and if you’ve read those comics, the most likely outcome, but that still didn’t stop people from getting excited about this upcoming litany of films. Only in 2014, off the heels of the unimaginably successful Guardians of the Galaxy, could moves like these not only be tolerated, but become wildly popular and create as much eager anticipation.

While DC sat this year out, Marvel was busy releasing a flurry of movies this summer. Each and every single one of these films will have had a hand in shaping the landscape of the genre for years to come. From the failures of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the sprawling nature of X-Men: Days of Future Past, to the consequences wrought from Captain American: The Winter Soldier, the way we look at, and the way comic book movies are made will never be the same.

Guardians of the Galaxy

At no point in time prior to this past year could a film like Guardians of the Galaxy have been made. A movie based off of Marvel’s D-list cosmic superheroes never could have survived in an era where people thought Wolverine was the only X-Man, or that Galactus was really a malevolent cloud. A movie as quirky, and deceptively esoteric as Guardians of the Galaxy could only have been produced once the groundwork was laid before it, and once comic book movies were no longer viewed as risky gambles. (Even the cameo by Howard the Duck was lauded as genius.) However, Guardians of the Galaxy serves as the perfect springboard to further explore other Marvel licenses, properties that prior to this year probably wouldn’t have gotten the silver screen treatment.

If Guardians of the Galaxy was a flop like Green Lantern was, it most definitely would have led to a change in plans for Marvel. For one, the studio wouldn’t have been so blunt with its upcoming release schedule; more importantly, it would have shattered their streak of quality films and shaken their confidence in adapting lesser known comic book into film. Every movie that Marvel has overseen has gotten, at the very least, decent to great reviews. Even the Thor movies, which weren’t as critically acclaimed, still managed to be commercially successful. Ultimately, what Guardians of the Galaxy does is open up the floodgates, freeing Marvel from restrictions regarding what comic books should or should not be made into films. It challenges the notion of what kinds of comics can be adapted, regardless of popularity or appeal. If ever Deathlok, the Great Lakes Avengers, or the Thunderbolts (fingers crossed that it’ll be Warren Ellis’ Thunderbolts), get their own film, it’ll be in large part due to the overwhelming success of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The newest Captain America movie, despite being a splendid homage to '70s political thrillers, is also the fulcrum of phase two of Marvel’s sprawling multi-media campaign to annex all aspects of pop-culture under its domain. The Winter Soldier is the most perfect example of what Marvel has done, and what it seeks to do with its shared cinematic universe. From The Winter Soldier onwards, Marvel’s movies will only continue to become more intertwined and massive, placing greater import on viewers to familiarize themselves with Marvel’s entire cinematic universe. Black Widow plays almost as prominent a role as does the titular character, Falcon, who’s first introduced in the film. Falcon, meanwhile, fits in as if he’s been in the cinematic universe from the very beginning.

The Winter Solider highlights the interconnectivity of the universe that Marvel has so meticulously been building since 2008. The ongoing plot of S.H.I.E.L.D. crumbling from subversion will not only carry over into its next film, but it has also become a huge plotline for the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Instead of the traditional wink-and-nod approach to alluding to its other films, The Winter Soldier has set up plots and scenarios for upcoming films such as the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D, and the forcing of Nick Fury to go underground.

Prior to this, the only dangling plot holdovers was the fact that Loki was the villain in both Thor and The Avengers. In the two years between 2012 and 2014, Marvel has become so confident in its shared universe, something that has never even been attempted in film, that it is willing to create even deeper bonds between its films. This strategy intensifies and stresses the importance of the continuity within the universe that it has constructed for itself, a bold move that displays the true scope of what Marvel has sought to do with its properties.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Even before the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony had announced that it would expand upon the Spider-Man mythos and cultivate its own shared universe (is this starting to sound familiar?). Originally, the idea was to create a movie based on the villainous team so aptly called the Sinister Six, along with the long-awaited Venom film. Shortly after the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony announced release dates for a second and third sequel, but oncet the movie underperformed both critically and commercially, Sony had to immediately alter its plans. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the lowest grossing film out of the entire Spider-Man film franchise, somehow making less than the regrettable Spider-Man 3. Clearly, it took one too many cues from that mess of a movie.

Because of the overall failure of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony was forced to redo its entire fledgling franchise. Amazing Spider-Man 4 is now done away with. Amazing Spider-Man 3 is on indefinite hold Eventually, word leaked out that Sony has been heavily contemplating a standalone Aunt May flick, an obvious sign that Sony has absolutely no idea what to do with the webhead.

More recently, there have also been talks between Marvel and Sony to have Spidey appear in upcoming Marvel movies -- again, another sign that Sony has no idea how to make a Spider-Man movie anymore. On top of this, Sony has even desperately tried to lure Sam Raimi back to the franchise for a reboot. But despite this mess and lack of direction -- or common sense -- Sony is still in prime position to capitalize on Spider-Man. In its hands it holds the most popular comic book character ever created. Considering that the second worst film in the franchise still grossed more than $700 billion, it's easy to see why Marvel might want Spidey back from Sony.

The last time a superhero franchise was in this much turmoil was in 1997 fresh off the heels of Batman & Robin. Because the genre has become so popular, it’s become incredibly resilient as well. We can all survive a bad Spider-Man movie; after all, we’ve done it twice already. If the public wants another Spider-Man movie we’ll get another Spider-Man movie sooner rather than later. We won’t have to wait eight years because, economically, the market is pretty much set in stone at this point.

A Spidey movie is going to sell: the only concern is whether or not it will be as profitable as Sony wants it to be. Fans want another Spider-Man movie, and Sony wants to continue making countless millions of dollars. Since both parties are aware of this, it's becoming increasingly transparent that superhero franchises are capable of previously unforeseen degrees of flexibility.

Just 20 years ago, the Spider-Man franchise was aborted because no one felt like making a Spider-Man movie. In 2014, regardless of what form it takes, we’re probably only two years away from seeing Spider-Man on the silver screen again, because we all instinctively know that it’s too lucrative to keep off the screen for too long. Studios making comic book movies have a newfound sense of self-awareness that allows them to weather out the storm, as they’ve become aware of their own box office appeal and the relative ease that goes into making these films. It took Batman eight years to make another movie; there’s no way Spidey will have to wait that long.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

More than any other comic book franchise known to humanity, the X-Men have, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most convoluted and impregnable continuity. Maybe it’s because there are about 16 different titles out there at any given time, or maybe it’s because the best jumping on point is Uncanny X-Men 129 from 1980, but if you want to read X-Men, you have to commit to X-Men.

With Days of Future Past, the film franchise has now established a continuity rife with retcons, lingering questions, and faulty physics… and it's absolutely brilliant. The franchise has taken on the properties of the original medium in the most meta and deconstructive way possible. Days of Future Past is the most postmodern superhero film ever produced because it takes the pre-established continuity of the film and it so blatantly and brilliantly spins it on its head. More than any other movie, Days of Future Past shows that it innately understands the intricacies of comic books.

If writers or editors don’t like a certain thing about a story, they change it just as easily we change the channel on the TV. This can include the comic book cliché of resurrections, evil twins/mind control, or even complete (and asinine) overhauls like making Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver not mutants anymore. Bryan Singer has not only nullified X-Men: The Last Stand, but he also declared that he is going to be the architect of the franchise and that he has the power to do whatever he wants with it.

Comic book movies have now become just as malleable and susceptible to change as their source material. Singer and all of literate America despised The Last Stand, so he used the old time travel/alternate reality cliché to invalidate it…and it worked. He did everything he possibly could have to make X3 not only unnecessary, but now nonexistent.

This move of making the X-Men timeline carte blanche now gives the opportunity for superhero film franchises to hit the reset button without actually rebooting. No other superhero movie save for Days of Future Past has offered as exciting a postmodern narrative as this one. There’s a sense of acknowledgement of the existence of a franchise that goes beyond being a mere sequel. It’s a sequel to two different stories: one told in the main series, and one told as a part of the ¬First Class series. By linking the two halves of the franchise, Days of Future Past examines the franchise as a whole and dictates which aspects of its past will be canon and which will be negated, while also setting an eye on future films.

Days of the Future Past plays with reality, physics, and time, but furthermore, it not only acknowledges that a franchise exists, but also that within the franchise each film can retroactively affect a previous installment. The newest X-Men film goes beyond itself in connecting the two disjointed parts of the franchise together, wiping away the worst part of its continuity, and establishing a direction going forward. If a franchise is to be built, it doesn’t have to start from scratch; it can rebuild instead of reboot, and the X-Men franchise has, at least partially, been intact since its inception in 2000. It just took directors and writers 14 years to finally make a good movie.

Years ago, the anticipation for movies like Batman, X-Men, and Spider-Man were all born from the same simple desire-seeing these beloved characters on screen. Now, comic book movies have become spectacles of a meta and complex nature. The postcredit scenes for Marvel’s movies have become some of the most talked about aspects of these projects because they give us a taste of what is to come, tantalizingly revealing the mysterious tapestry of a vast cinematic universe. Instead of merely being amused to see a superhero on the silver screen anymore, it now takes more to generate excitement. The excitement now comes from wondering what Marvel or DC will do next. In the true spirit of postmodernism, the only thing left to do, is to interrogate, if not break, every single rule left in the book.

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