Superheroes. They’re everywhere. Long gone are the days of eye rolling that once accompanied the mention of ‘men in tights’ and conjured memories of George Clooney clad in Bat-nipples. Marvel’s cinematic universe is growing rapidly, now under the direction of the House of Mouse. It shows no signs of slowing down with projects planned as far in the future as 2017, with treatments of countless other Marvel properties rumoured to be under development. DC is spreading itself across various small screen networks with all the tenacity of a bad rash, currently broadcasting three series and another three with tentative release dates within the next year. The most recent of these series aired the 7th of October with the release of the pilot from the CW Network for The Flash. It doesn’t look like things will be cooling off anytime soon. In fact, with the huge critical and commercial success of Guardians of the Galaxy, it looks like things are only getting started. Both of these latest additions, however, do indicate a change in tact for their respective publishers in terms of where “Superhero Cinema” is headed both tonally and visually. Bear in mind “Superhero Cinema” isn’t a thing. I just made it up.
The original appearance of Barry Allen, the second man to call himself the Flash, in the pages of Showcase #4 in 1956, brought with it a change in direction for the superhero. Barry would come to exemplify the straight-laced, hardworking, scientifically minded mans-man of the JFK led space-race of the 60’s (all credit here to Grant Morrison’s Supergods), who was a far cry from the pulpy, noirish, and subversive originals of both Superman and Batman. Given a contemporary tweak Barry Allen is just at home in 2014 as 1956, his scientific pedigree slickly morphing into a contemporary geek-chic identity with only the slightest of adjustments. While this might all seem like safe, well-established ground, it is somewhat a bold move choosing to render a series whose protagonist is so unabashedly a superhero.
Barry Allen, the Flash, the Scarlett Speedster, is, in no uncertain terms, a superhero, a fact that is clearly demonstrated in the pilot episode of The Flash. The first forty-four minute installment features Allen running at superhuman speeds, an inter-dimensional particle accelerator power-giving explosion, a costume emblazoned with a golden bolt of lightning, and even a brawl with a supervillain who can control the weather. It is an effects laden, costume clad and gleefully super-heroic fair. This marks a departure in style for most small screen depictions based around DC (and Marvel) properties. Smallville, which ran for ten seasons and was based on the formative years of arguably the greatest superhero of them all, Superman, was created under the premise that Superman wouldn’t actually feature in the show at all. Rather, the series would focus on the all too human Clark Kent and ran under the premise of “no tights, no flights” which meant keeping Superman’s powers under wraps and keeping him out of the blue and red. More recently Arrow, a contemporary take on the bow and arrow wielding Green Arrow, has stalked the familiar territory of rooftop based, bad-ass vigilante, which many incarnations of Batman have proven to be popular ground. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took another angle placing its focus on a group of super-spies as opposed to superheroes and yet another recent addition Gotham, produced by Fox, premiering in September of this year, is focusing on the formative years of Lt. James Gordon and basing itself around the format of a police procedural (with loads of cameos [absolutely loads of them]).
It would appear to be a trend that superheroes, in the process of being adapted from the page to the screen, often lose some of their more fantastical and brightly-coloured splendour in favour of more muted tones. The Flash series would seem to be bucking this trend. This may mark a changing in the waters as superheroes are becoming more readily accepted into the cultural consciousness. That may seem like a somewhat redundant statement given the success, if not sheer volume, of superhero films that have graced the silver screen in recent years but much of Marvels cinematic universe to date has been in line with a very specific representation of the superhero.
Beginning in the early 2000’s, films like Brian Singer’s X-Men and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins helped to begin a process whereby most superheroes were depicted as troubled and morally ambiguous anti-heroes. The frills and yellow spandex were streamlined and replaced with functional suits that meant heroes could kick ass and look slick while doing it. This process was reflected in the comic books of the day too, with titles like The Ultimates, published in 2002 by Marvel and written by Mark Millar, featuring a reimagining of the Avengers for contemporary audiences. Now nearly ten years on, things seem to be reaching something of a plateau with Iron Man 3 and Captain America: the Winter Soldier covering fairly dark and mature ground. This being said, Man of Steel may well be the best example of the entire process.
(This paragraph contains mad spoilers) Zack Snyder’s 2013 film saw Kal-El of Krypton, The Big Blue Boy Scout, adoptive son of Earth and moral core of an entire universe of heroes, the frickin’ Citizen Kane of superheroes, break the one rule that in many ways has defined the character (if not the superhero meme) since its inception; Superman killed the bad guy. There it is. Superman was made darker for audiences that had come to expect more conflicted heroes who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (Iron Man 3) and crises of national identity (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). It’s an interesting move for the character of Superman but not majorly innovative in terms of the greater “Superhero Cinema”. In a similar move to when Robin was introduced way back in 1940 to alleviate the grim nature and broodiness of Batman, both Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier feature sidekicks in characters like War Machine and Falcon who act as comic foils to the protagonist anti-heroes, who are mostly grim and broody. Rather than following suit and casting Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen into the mix for the Man of Steel sequel, however, Snyder has instead chosen to introduce another cinematic interpretation of Batman, which, I don’t think will alleviate any tension. In fact, given the title of the film being Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice I think he may be banking on the tension. Either way, I’m excited (and aroused). It does look like DC are showing up a little late to the party though, especially since the release of Guardians of the Galaxy.
Guardians, while not a complete departure, differs in tone from much of the Marvel cinematic universe seen so far. Banking on the self-aware humour that added so much warmth to the Iron Man movies and especially Avengers Assemble, Guardians is, to put it simply, absolutely gas.
James Gunn’s direction, as well as his script with Nicole Pearlman, help to juggle the introduction of big, outlandish sci-fi concepts like the intergalactic police force the Nova Corps, soon to be major antagonists like Thanos, warring alien race the Kree, a little exposition concerning major plot devices; the infinity stones, many references to earlier Marvel films hidden in the mise en scène, as well as an eclectic and multicoloured cast of characters and a rollicking plot, all while keeping the film grounded (unlike this sentence) through the likeable, although dysfunctional, titular team. It is world building at its best as seemingly discordant strands running out of Thor: The Dark World and the mysteries from Avengers Assemble are taken in hand and seamlessly united in a subtlety of direction that yields maximum effect. Well done to all involved.
Most cleverly, however, is how Guardians juggles its light heartedness while still retaining a somewhat mature sensibility. It avoids the categorization of being a children’s movie (a market that Sony has gleefully been pandering to with The Amazing Spider-Man II) by appealing to the nostalgic market through its brilliant soundtrack. Pop culture references abound and simultaneously appeal to comic book fans of today and those of a vintage who were reading comic books and listening to music in the seventies. And just when you think it can’t get any better you’re aurally punched by a double whammy of Marvin Gaye and the Jackson 5. ZAP! BAM!
While many films predating Guardians had Easter eggs, Guardians helped place the onus back on the viewer as visual cues are taken from the Marvel canon. Previously only apparent to those versed in comic book lore, now viewers of earlier Marvel films too can take part in the private nods and hidden gags. It makes everyone feel involved, helping to create that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing more than someone else, which helps all comic book aficionados sleep at night.
What’s really important here though, is the tone. Guardians works as a comedy as well as an action/sci-fi romp. The characters’ hilarity is in no way compromised by their emotional depth; unlike the somewhat less developed sidekicks of earlier films mentioned above. Marvel’s ‘Phase 2’ is set to end with Avengers: Age of Ultron in May of 2015 and ‘Phase 3’ set to begin three months later with Antman. Antman is known for his suit that can shrink him to both incredibly small and large sizes, and while I can’t speak to the tonal quality of the film, the character’s specific abilities would seem to open up many exciting visual possibilities, akin to the cast of Guardians.
Of the ten films that comprise the Marvel cinematic universe nine of them, beyond the differences of stars, stripes, hammer, robot-suit, and green skin, feature essentially the same visual range in terms of action; strong lads, who can jump or fly, and two can also fire lasers/lightning bolts. In relation to visual diversity, it’s no coincidence that the tenth and most recent addition to the Marvel cinematic plane features a talking raccoon and a walking tree. The dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: the Winter Soldier also shows that Marvel aren’t about to grow complacent in terms of narrative frameworks either. The addition of Quicksilver, a super speedster, to the roster of Avengers: Age of Ultron will prove to be interesting ground seeing as X-Men: Days of Future Past and Man of Steel both have already featured characters (with Days of Future Past featuring the exact same character; Quicksilver) with the ability to move at super speed. The Flash will of course be trying to keep up with his cinematic racing buddies.
This shift in tone towards less ironically self-aware superheroes, as seen in The Flash, and tonally lighter protagonists, as seen in Guardians, would suggest that the depiction of superheroes is changing from what audiences have grown accustomed to, much in the same way as the depiction of superheroes changed in the comic books in the 1960’s. Heralded in on the heels of the speedsters we shall have to wait and see what intergalactic threats lie beyond the horizon and how our heroes shall rise to face them. To be honest, it’s all very exciting.