For some considerable time now, the superhero movie has been one of the Hollywood staples – from the early Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton Superman and Batman films to the recent Batman vs. Superman. The same iconic comic book heroes are being brought up to date, or re-hashed, on a seemingly endless basis so that new franchises can be launched and merchandise such as action figures sold.
Of course, one of the reasons why Hollywood has managed to keep doing this is that the characters and stories are not presented in exactly the same way each time. One of the ways in which studios have sought to modernise heroes like Batman and Superman is by making them darker and more ambiguous – as we saw in the Dark Knight trilogy and the Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman films. For some time this proved to be hugely popular with audiences, with the Dark Knight films being heralded as an artistic breakthrough for the genre, but the mixed response to the dark tone of the recent DC films appears to be leading studios to reject this in favour of a lighter mix of comedy and action – as has been patented by Marvel with its Avengers team. This shows that superhero movies will change in line with the tastes of the audience and it could be argued that this is a key reason why they remain so successful – and why Hollywood continues to make them. The gloomy tone and morally questionable superheroes appealed to people who wanted to embrace both the nostalgia of childhood favourites and the complexities of adulthood, but it could be that the real world is troubling enough just now – making straightforward escapism what people want.
The desire to create more complex worlds and dilemmas for superheroes to wrestle with is certainly not inherently a bad thing – as it can make people think about what is happening and help keep long-running characters fresh. Although a big part of the desire to continue remaking these franchises may be about keeping hold of the rights to them – as was the case with the recent Spider-Man reboot – or enabling the film studios to profit from spin-off merchandise like action figures, costumes and superhero slot games – but audiences will turn away if the process becomes to cynical. We can see this in the attitude to the origin stories, as audiences and critics embraced the fresh perspective on Batman’s origins provided by Batman Begins, whereas many viewed the recent Amazing Spider-Man as a carbon copy of the earlier Sam Raimi film. This did not stop fans from flocking to see it, but some have begun to complain that laborious origin stories are holding up the actual action, making the films duller to sit through. Ultimately, whether the rebooting of these characters is a good thing or not really depends on whether the creative talents involved have anything new to bring to them, or whether it is just about retaining the rights and making money from them.
People are beginning to express some frustration over the diet of remakes that Hollywood is serving up however they continue to bring in huge audiences and thus will go on being produced.