Of late, the superhero film franchise has become all-important within the mainstream, and Hollywood has very quickly adapted to the rise in popularity of independent properties like Batman and Iron Man in a way that it has never done before. While films like Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s early Batman features were and still are well regarded as seminal heroic capers and dark comic fantasies, the current superhero climate, as precipitated by Marvel Studios, itself a subsidiary of the licensing property giant that is Walt Disney Studios, has gone so far as to incorporate each subsequent film in relation to the ones that have come before, and more importantly, after each and every separate installment. Like the Marvel Comics series upon which the films are based, Marvel Studios has begun developing cinematic universes that stretch across the boundaries of each self-contained superhero title, implicating the actions undertaken by the individual players from Marvel Comics as cosmic shifts within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU.
Following suit, DC Comics is attempting to follow in Marvel Studios’ footsteps, prepping for an imminent feature length Justice League film in Zach Snyder’s upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice title due out early next year, which is in and of itself a Justice League feature in its own right. Not surprisingly, given the tepid reception that Snyder’s Man of Steel received two years ago, his new Batman v Superman title looks like another behemoth capable of vehicular manslaughter against its inherited independent properties, burying the good will done by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy under a mound of bad casting decisions and poorly conceived thematic adaptations of its disparate source materials. Based on the precedent set by Marvel Studios and the MCU, DC Comics is suffering from the blunt force trauma of superhero overkill in the cultural consciousness; the meta-narrative of the MCU, with all of its post-modern historicity and idolatry, has become a burden on itself and the films to which it is attributed. The superhero genre is no longer capable of self-sustaining the lone gunman against a tapestry of interconnected Gods, multi-verses, and exclusive superhero syndicates, clubs, and organizations.
Which begs the question of whether there can ever be another standalone superhero title, within either the Marvel or DC literary canons, on the silver screen. Granted, the interconnectedness of individual superhero titles has always been an integral part of the comic book landscape. At the dawn of the Silver Age in popular comic book writing, DC Comics heralded the possibility of multiple universes supporting slightly varied versions of the same heroes and villains across the space-time continuum, and introducing the concept of interconnectivity between individual actions across Metropolis and Gotham City simultaneously. In implementing the multi-verse plot device in comic book storytelling, individual writers and artists could bring Batman and Superman into combat alongside or against each other, depending on the story being told and the universe in which the two heroes met, thus paving the way for what is now the most popular crossover series in superhero titles, the MCU.
Seemingly, the answer to the aforementioned questioned would be no, at least within the context of what the mainstream movie going and comic book reading audience is currently being sold as constituting the superhero movie genre. Not since Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003 has there truly been a film version of either a DC or Marvel character that has been entirely self-contained and independent unto itself, save for the numerous Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox titles which have incorporated certain Marvel characters that were purchased years before Disney established and bought out Marvel Studios. However, within the X-Men cinematic universe, 2oth Century Fox has followed the precedent set by Disney, incorporating two separate film universes within the same independent property, co-existing and colliding in last summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, arguably the most successful and popular film within the X-Men feature franchise to date. If this trend of all inclusive, exclusivity between superhero genre features continues, films like Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman Returns will become antiquated conceptions of the form. More importantly, Ang Lee’s single-minded dramatic vision, however problematic, will forever be a lost concept to the propagation of a superhero feature franchise already planning for its third and fourth generations of feature film properties.
Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is likely to be the hit blockbuster of the summer season, and will likely remain at the very top of the list at the end of the year’s top grossing films at the box office, and will more probably than not deserve to be there. In 2012, Whedon’s The Avengers kicked off what is now the most successful superhero franchise quiet possibly in the history of American cinema, delivering what is, without a doubt, the greatest superhero genre film of all time. While Christopher Nolan’s 2008 summer blockbuster The Dark Knight garnered more critical attention than any superhero title before it, going so far as to receive recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a posthumous award for Heath Ledger’s career defining performance, Nolan’s Batman features were never really about Batman, but more pointedly aimed at the society that creates and sustains the idea of Batman. Dissimilarly, the MCU is about the Avengers team, ergo the numerous scenes of computer-generated special effects and haphazard action sequences lent coherence from an audience willing to suspend their disbelief in the service of fantasy, the superheroes depicted idealized but never an ideal.
Which perhaps gets at what people are able to get out of The Avengers and the MCU, and why it has become such a national phenomenon. In the MCU’s unapologetic narcissism, more popularly seen as love for its own fantasies as pure escapism, Marvel Studios offers its viewers a distillation of childhood appropriated within the context of adult entertainment. While some viewers of The Avengers and its assorted independent feature film properties may no longer deign to read a comic book, they can still engage with a prurience more appropriately adolescent within the socially accepted medium of the multiplex–movies as the final respite for the wanton abandon of a secretly shared immaturity.
So maybe there is in fact nothing to bemoan about the disappearance of the self-contained feature within the superhero film genre. Perhaps superhero movies have always been about escapism, pure and simple, The Dark Knight the rare exception to a rule that has otherwise remained constant since the dawn of the modern comic book movie in Richard Donner’s 1978 myth from Krypton. Either way, there’s a certain respective beauty to be found in the isolationism of Ang Lee’s Hulk, a study in solitude that may or may not linger a little too long for its own good, Lee’s Bruce Banner the lone gunman hopelessly outnumbered against the gangland of the MCU.