Bart & Fleming: Will Oversaturation Doom The Superhero Genre?

By Peter Bart, Mike Fleming Jr

Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.

FLEMING: Deadline held its annual Contenders Event yesterday, where my colleagues Pete Hammond, Dominic Patten and I interviewed filmmakers, actors, composers and producers behind the Oscar films, directly to a room full of voters. It’s worthwhile on many fronts, not the least of which is reconnecting us to filmmaker passion and reminding us that creative ambition is alive and well. But as Pee-Wee Herman once famously said onscreen, “There is always a big but, so tell us about your big but.” Here’s my big but. I’ve prowled the town the past week, and discovered a profound sense of depression after Warner Bros and Marvel trotted out superhero slates through 2020. Adding Sony’s Spider-Man line and Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four offshoots, we are looking at 25 or so films the next half decade. For anyone not making one of those films figures it’s going to be harder to make anything else because so much brainpower and capital are going to Spandex sagas. I moderated a Contenders panel on Unbroken, and Pete did one on American Sniper. Those subjects, Louis Zamperini and Chris Kyle, are real heroes who deserve studio films. Do we need so many pretend heroes who teach us to be subservient and helpless and fly the Bat Signal instead of addressing problems ourselves?

I confess I want to see Channing Tatum play Gambit and Chadwick Boseman try Black Panther (though reports that he breaks the superhero color barrier forget Wesley Snipes, still the most bad-assinest R-rated Marvel hero in the Blade films). I want another Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers. But 25 others? Westerns once ruled the TV and movie prairie, until the world changed; ABC struck gold when Regis Philbin asked Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and the network had him ask that question four nights a week and killed it. On the other hand, we still await the end of the reality boom; it gets bigger and I can’t wait for the next Million Dollar Deals: Los Angeles. How does the superhero onslaught figure in this? Will oversaturation kill a golden goose that neglects other worthy projects? Or will studios find an endless appetite for pretend world-saving heroes as we look for escapism from the real terrors like ISIS and Ebola?

BART: Your reservations are justified, Mike. Those of us who have been around the business for a while know that every trend creates a countertrend. Whenever a phenomenon begins to look like a ‘sure thing,’ it will soon self-immolate. The same holds true for most career paths. You rightly ask, Mike, whether the superhero genre will self destruct. The answer: hell, yes. It won’t take long before that prime audience around the world realizes they’re seeing the same movie over and over again. They’ll not only flee from superhero epics, they’ll disappear from movie theaters.

FLEMING: What are some other areas that got over-harvested?

BART: Filmgoers of a previous generation positively loved musicals – until the instant exodus (was it Doctor Dolittle that turned musicals into a thud?’) And yes, every Western seemed to work for years (was it the Elvis Westerns that ended that?) More dramatically, the mass migration of the audience from film to TV in the ‘50s and ‘60s left Hollywood in a state of shock. As I traveled around Europe in recent weeks, just about every important executive or filmmaker I encountered was focusing his energies on TV or digital media. The passengers on this particular Titanic are massively alert to the approaching icebergs. It’s as though everyone has noticed that the megapix of the moment are transmogrifying into other genres – Interstellar and Frozen and Hunger Games are not about superheroes. Sure, Marvel keeps announcing massive new slates – but will Ant-Man rule? If the multinationals that control the entertainment business truly believe in their agendas, why is everyone cutting costs and firing employees? And why are their biggest spending initiatives focused on acquiring Scandanavian TV channels (Discovery) or Brit broadcast groups (Viacom and John Malone’s Liberty) or Dutch-German reality TV producers (Warner)? Those billions aren’t going into superheroes, they’re delving into new forms of empire building.

FLEMING: The question will be which superhero s***s the bed and ruins it for everybody? I feared Marvel’s Kevin Feige would hit the wall with Guardians of the Galaxy; I loved that movie and it’s the year’s biggest hit. I still don’t get Ant-Man; how excited should I get about Aquaman, who talks to fish? But I’ll probably go and find out the heroic appeal of insects and characters I’d rather see served to me with fava beans and a nice chianti.

norman-lloyd-saboteurBART: Shifting topics, Mike, I think I’m reasonably good at communicating with people, but I’m having a problem talking with one old friend. His name is Norman Lloyd and he’s celebrating his 100th birthday next weekend. I’ve been talking (and playing tennis) with Norman on a regular basis for three decades, but when someone reaches the 100 mark, his mega-millennial status changes him into more of a myth than a person. His status is almost Papal. Do I address him as Sir Norman? Or do I refer to him as His Lloydness?

Norman has had a distinguished career as an actor and director and he can readily summon up perfectly remembered anecdotes about old friends like Charlie Chaplin or Alfred Hitchcock. He can be scholarly and also gossipy. I’ve never caught him making a bad call on the tennis court, setting him apart from everyone else I’ve ever played with. Thinking about him I can’t think of anyone else who more deserves living to 100 than he. We all seem to be living longer than expected these days, so it’s good that he is leading his way into a new sort of after-life. So do I talk to him as though he’s Normal Norman? I finally decided to give him a call this morning. He heard the uncertainty in my voice so he decided to break through it all. “Do you want to play tennis Wednesday?” he asked. I said, “Yes, Sir Norman.” So I’ll settle my uncertainties on the court, after all.

FLEMING: Clearly, you should address him as Centurion. Our former Variety colleague Todd McCarthy wrote a nice tribute to Norman. He credits a strong marriage and tennis for his superhero achievement of reaching triple digits and retaining his faculties. I am glad you keep hitting tennis balls back at him because he has lamented losing many of his hitting partners. Given this milestone, how about letting him win next time, even if I leave open the option that next time we disagree, I might mention you were beaten in tennis by a 100-year-old opponent?

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