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Here come the B-list, breathing new life into superhero films

A fresh cast of characters has given the movies a boost and the studios know theyre on a winner

Steven Spielbergs skill as a film-maker is beyond dispute. As a soothsayer, though, his credentials are shakier. In 2013, he predicted that the superhero movie was heading for the boneyard. Theres going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, he said, and thats going to change the paradigm.

He reiterated that prediction last year: We were around when the western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the western.

Try telling that to the audience at this years Comic-Con in San Diego, who were left in raptures by announcements about forthcoming projects from the Marvel stable, home of billion-dollar franchises such as Iron Man and Captain America, and from DC Comics, where both Superman and Batman hang their capes. Contrary to what Spielberg may think, superhero cinema could be about to enter its most intriguing phase.

Brie
Brie Larson at Comic-Con 2016 she has been cast as Captain Marvel. Photograph: Albert L Ortega/Getty Images

The big news from San Diego was that Brie Larson, who won the best actress Oscar this year for Room, in which she played a kidnapped woman raising her young son in a cell, had been cast as Captain Marvel in a new movie about the superhero with part-alien DNA. This is a win-win situation: Larson gets an almighty boost to her commercial clout while the male arena of superhero cinema receives an infusion of her talent, intelligence and, yes, oestrogen. A case, one might say, of going from Room to Boom!

There were appearances, too, from the African American cast and crew of the Marvel adventure Black Panther, including the director Ryan Coogler (who directed Creed) and his actors Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyongo, Michael B Jordan and Danai Gurira. Questions for the makers of another forthcoming Marvel film, Doctor Strange, also touched on the responsibility for racial diversity. Benedict Wongs refusal to play his own Asian character as a manservant had led to the part being rewritten, while Chiwetel Ejiofor was cast in the same film as someone whose comic-book counterpart was white.

Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) had turned up briefly earlier this year in the lugubrious Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film widely considered to represent the nadir of the genre. But the glimpses of the forthcoming Wonder Woman film suggested that the characters solo outing could be something to get excited about, not least because it will address the issue of women having agency in their own stories. A brief excerpt showed the character rebuffing her overprotective boyfriend (Chris Pine) by telling him, What I do is not up to you. Its worth noting, in an industry not renowned for its gender balance, that the film is directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. If this affected the fans response to the trailer, it didnt show; hysteria would be too mild a word for the reaction it received.

Cynics will argue that the fans who flock to this annual convention would cheer a bubblegum wrapper as long as it featured a picture of their favourite superhero. Not so: I was there the year the hall gave a frosty reception to Seth Rogen, who had brought clips from The Green Hornet, his soon-to-be ill-received foray into the genre.

Nor is this audience oblivious to the social responsibilities of its beloved genre. There were groans from the fans when Marvel announced last year that its new Spider-Man reboot would yet again be telling the story of how the young, white Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, when it might instead have used the opportunity to bring Miles Morales, the black Spider-Man from the comic books, to the screen.

Not all superhero fans are white and male, and neither are the characters they read about in comics, where diversity of gender, race and sexuality is commonplace. Cinema has been much slower in creating films that reflect the breadth of the audiences who watch them. The X-Men films, for instance, may feature female characters and an LGBT-orientated subtext about outsiders and outcasts but these are still manifestly X-Men, rather than X-People.

If there was a comforting lesson to take from Comic-Con, it was that those days are coming to an end. The superhero field is a field where theres not a lot of representation, Coogler said. Its traditionally white male, but the fans look like the world. So, naturally, people are going to yearn to see someone flying around doing these incredible things that looks like them.

It is taking an unfathomably long time simply to get to the point where women and non-white characters are being represented on screen, but then thats hardly a problem restricted to superheroes. Any progress in the genre so far has been devoted largely to challenging the heroism of the men in capes and tights.

Prior to Tim Burtons 1989 Batman, the business of superheroism was a straightforward affair. A person endowed with the necessary powers would simply put on a natty costume, scoop a few cats out of trees, thwart an arch-villain and wait for the plaudits to flood in. Admittedly there had been tremors of discontent in some of the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve. In Superman II, from 1980, the title character flirts with the idea of becoming mortal, before deciding that his responsibility to the world is too great. In Superman III, three years later, he experienced a personality disorder after coming into contact with a batch of impure Kryptonite. (Weve all done it.) Soon the good guy had turned bad: he was swigging booze, neglecting his crime-fighting duties and generally being unsuper.

From here it was a natural step to Burtons Batman, played by Michael Keaton as a low-key, introverted fellow on whom heroism has taken a heavy toll. This served notice on the carefree days of the superhero. Suddenly the world seemed ready for a Spider-Man who feared intimacy and a group of X-Men who were oppressed and disenfranchised. And how could we have neglected to notice all along that the very power for which the Hulk was celebrated was in fact a complete inability to manage anger? It was therapy he needed, not a star vehicle.

Batman grew increasingly morose with the advent of Christopher Nolans Dark Knight series, starting with Batman Begins in 2005. Even animated superheroes began exhibiting signs of disillusionment: The Incredibles were cast out by society, while in Megamind, the dashing Metro Man retires to play his acoustic guitar and catch up on some me-time, leaving the world at the mercy of the eponymous villain. The violent Super and Kick-Ass focused on superheroes who didnt even have powers, exposing the genre for what it had been all along: vigilantism in Lycra.

Thats a lot of navel-gazing for one genre. If it had failed to look outwards and take on board diversity, perhaps that was because it had spent so much time in an introspective funk, picking over its psychological shortcomings. But if the likes of Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Wonder Woman prove anything, it is that there can no longer be any excuse for studios to overlook entire segments of their audience. In case we should get too happy-clappy about this belated evolution, however, it should be remembered that quality and diversity are not necessarily synonymous.

It will continue to be a problem that superhero movies are beholden to a cinematic grammar that brooks little originality the same themes, editing rhythms and in-jokes tend to recur across the spectrum. Marvel is committed to expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which plot-lines intersect and characters pop up in one anothers films (as the likes of Iron Man and Spider-Man did in the recent Captain America: Civil War), so theres little chance of it allowing its directors free creative rein.

Take the British film-maker Edgar Wright, who co-wrote and developed Ant-Man for many years before stepping down, citing creative differences with Marvel. Its impossible now to see how there could ever have been a place for such an idiosyncratic director within a studio that prioritises a consistent vision.

So while its right to cheer the likes of Marvel and DC for incorporating diversity, we should remember that this is cinema, not a Benetton ad campaign. Plurality of artistic expression is as vital as any other sort. What a shame it would be if the superhero genre continued to favour creative homogeneity behind the camera at the very moment that it was encouraging racial and sexual diversity in front of it.

NOT SO SUPER

Captain Invincible

In The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), Alan Arkin plays a once-great crimefighter who is now a washed-up alcoholic after being prosecuted for flying without a pilots licence and wearing underwear in public.

Supersonic Man

Shameless 1979 Spanish-Italian Superman rip-off which didnt bother to hide the fact that a doll was used for flying sequences.

Middle-Aged Man

As played by Mike Myers on the US sketch show Saturday Night Live, Middle-Aged Man, below, has the power to jump-start cars and comprehend mortgages.

Mystery Men

The two-bit superheroes from the 1999 comedy Mystery Men include The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), who throws cutlery; Shoveler (William H Macy), who carries a shovel; and Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), who plainly isnt.

Apathy Man

The Canadian improv troupe Second City created this superhero, who has all the powers of Superman but cant be bothered to use them.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/30/how-the-b-list-are-breathing-new-life-into-superhero-films

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