Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, X-Men: The Superhero Backlash

This was to be the summer of superheroes—but it’s not working out.

Has America grown so cynical that it has turned its back on superheroes?

On and off for the past three decades, whatever the nation’s trials, we have been watched over from our multiplexes by a long line of caped champions, and in exchange, America consistently rewarded these crusaders with our allegiance in the form of untold box-office riches.

Since Christopher Reeve arrived as Superman in 1978, superhero films have become the nation’s onscreen superego, reflecting its changing zeitgeist, as they strode like a spandex-clad Goliath atop our blockbuster culture. This summer was to be the year when the genre swallowed the box office whole, with a new superhero mega-adaptation rolled out every third week. But it’s not working out that way.

Six weeks and three men in tights into Blockbuster Season ‘11, America has met this year’s crop with, at best, muted enthusiasm and, more often, shrugs of indifference. Where the release of a new superhero film not long ago was the grandest (not to mention most grandiose) event on our cultural calendar, the successive releases suddenly feel routine, predictable, and oddly out of tune with the times.

While they still rake in fistfuls of cash—money the likes of which Tree of Life can only dream about—Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Green Lantern fizzle out far short of the pantheon of all-time top earners set by past stalwarts. Certainly, none of this trio has achieved the alchemy achieved by Superman, Batman Begins, and Spider-Man of capturing both critical opinion and box office. While Thor stands as the fourth highest domestic grossing film of the year, it should settle solidly into the bottom half of the Top 10 before the summer is through. X-Men: First Class stands as the lowest grossing of the five-film series. And “disappointing” was the most commonly used word to describe Green Lantern’s $53 million bow last weekend.

Still ahead, yet one more Marvel hero will dive into these perilous waters when Captain America: The First Avenger comes out July 22.

Why are Americans turning our backs on our protectors? Hero fatigue clearly plays a role. In the two decades after the modern big-screen hero era was born with Superman, the supers rolled out at a moderate, easy pace, rarely more than one or two a year, and most of those were generally either installments of the Superman and Batman 1.0 franchises or easily ignored shaggy dogs like Darkman or The Shadow. One big event movie a year was a gentle enough tempo that America could get all riled up and come back feeling fresh the following summer.

In the '00s after the megasuccess of Spider-Man, however, all that changed. Suddenly superheroes were everywhere: six movies in 2004 alone. It was a wonder that the enthusiasm held up as long as it did. But Hollywood kept throwing in new tricks, building the successive Spider-Man films bigger, coming up with new kinds of icons such as Robert Downey Jr.’s speed-talking neurotic take on Iron Man. There was 3-D.

But the series that took the entire genre apart, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, turned the jaunty superhero world into something dark and sinister.

It was a brilliant maneuver. Just as the world was beginning to suffer from hero fatigue, Nolan knocked the chess pieces onto the floor and recast the game with a new set of rules. And it was a wonderful success. The Dark Knight, the series’ second installment in 2008, became the nation’s third highest grossing film of all-time, behind only Avatar and Titanic.

But looking at what stands today, one can wonder whether in remaking the game, Nolan effectively killed it for all but himself. While it bankrolled Nolan’s success, the film industry still isn’t prepared to follow him into the darkness in anything but cosmetic ways. The director might have succeeded at casting Batman as a $200 million cerebral art film, but that is just not a road international entertainment conglomerates are going to walk down very often.

Unfortunately for Hollywood, its audiences, having pursued Nolan into his seedy alley in a big way, seem unprepared to step back into a world of cheery, wisecracking mutant-powered fisticuffs.

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The history of superheroes on the screen falls into four distinct stages, each reflecting the ethos of their time. The first stage, The Heroic Era, was largely played out on the pages of the comic books themselves, where the Ur crusaders were born, but also on TV and in B-movie serials. The caped wonders of this era were straightforward, square-jawed crime fighters, dispatching the day’s baddies—from hoodlums to the Red Menace—with a solid punch in the kisser.

Inevitably, with the cultural changes of the '60s and '70s, superheroes stepped into the Ironic Era, presaged by Adam West’s Batman series, but born in earnest with Reeve’s Superman, fighting for “Truth, justice and the American Way” in air quotes at every step. Noted thespians vamped it up as supervillains. This epoch reached its sad denouement with Joel Schumacher’s ultra-campy Batman films, codpieced and staged as an ice ballet.

With the new millennium, however, and America in its post-9/11 journey, the nation was ready to drop the irony, and the Retro Heroic Era began with 2002’s Spider-Man. The world of superheroes was never so impressive and effects-laden while set in a world that was somehow of the past, something distant and slightly bigger than our actual experience. Its edges were drawn a little glossier, cast with cigar-chomping editors and bad guys, now aided by a whole new world of CGI effects, able to wreak havoc unthinkable a decade before. The period’s downside was, with the need to dazzle in its DNA, the movies sought to overwhelm their audiences with ever more cataclysmic battles and gigantic thrills—the heroes themselves often drowned in pomposity and self-seriousness. Spider-Man, despite its technical wizardry, kept itself firmly anchored to a very small-scale human story at its core, beautifully played out by Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. But by the time of X-Men: The Last Stand and Iron Man 2, that heart was all but lost and viewers were left with the specter of animated costumes throwing things at each other, with no sense of the people underneath the masks.

Which means that, in the end, the decade belonged to Christopher Nolan, which shows no sign of abating. The world was more than ready for him to thumb his nose at the whole thing, and the Antihero Era was born, a new chapter well in keeping with a nation shell-shocked by the wreckage.

So here we are. What happens when audiences move ahead and Hollywood doesn’t follow? That seems to be the question at hand now, and with at least five more Marvel adaptations queued up, including next year’s All Star, All Fighting, All Yelling Superhero meet-up with The Avengers, it is a question that is going to be playing itself out for some time to come.