Buoyed by the unstoppable force that is Jason Momoa’s exposed nipples, Aquaman took in more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. Aquaman, a character lame enough to be an intentional punchline on Entourage, which is itself an unintentional punchline to a joke about “prestige TV for sentient fedoras.” Running down all the proof that we live in a golden age of comic book cinema is as yawn-inducing as a straightforward superhero origin story is now. We get it. We all get it. With Avengers: Endgame poised to potentially Smurf the abhorrent Avatar from atop the all-time highest-grossing films, the question should be: What now?
Studios will unquestionably milk this cash cow until its teats spurt Kryptonite. But with Marvel Studios wrapping up inarguably the most successful franchise launch in history, and DC trying to — and this makes me feel like I’ve yakked up raw eel in my mouth to say — build on the overwhelming success of Aquaman, how can Hollywood make the most of this genre? Don’t worry, y’all! As a certified nongenius who has a closet packed with comics and a head filled with questions about what Silver Surfer’s skin feels like to the touch, I’ve got this solved.
The Way of the Western
The last time a genre was this dominant at the box office, it died a death only slightly less disgusting than the grotesque depiction of native peoples it almost always contained. From 1930 to the late 1950s, Westerns were like the Duggars’ DNA: disturbingly widespread in ways clearly problematic for the future. Obviously, studios aren’t spraying shotgun blasts of superhero shenanigans with the same frequency as the estimated 2,700 Westerns made from 1930-1954. Oh, they would if they could. Again, see Aquaman squirting octopus ink on a billion-dollar paycheck. But proportionately, superhero cinema is sucking the same amount of oxygen as Westerns sucked. And Westerns sucked.
Saturation is only a concern if sameness permeates. I promise you, if you cut two random Westerns in half and sewed them together, your Grandpa would still love it more than he loves you. I’m sorry, but you haven’t been his favorite since you got that tattoo. Marvel movies aren’t quite the carbon copies haters and effete critics slander them as. But even being labeled as such is dangerous. When mainstream audiences stop viewing these as “must see” events and more “I’ve already seen this” nonsense, you may be about to wind up in John Wayne territory. That is to say dead, which Wayne is, and not casually racist, which he was.
Evolve or Die
Like the mutants that Disney just acquired in the Fox merger, superhero movies must evolve in freakish and surprising ways. It’s disappointing that the “X-Men horror movie” New Mutants may never see the light of day, as that’s an example of the sort of thing the genre needs to survive. Despite choking on Marvel’s cinematic wake before being rescued by the glorified lifeguard that is Aquaman, DC’s slate is flirting with innovation. Joaquin Pheonix will star as The Joker in what’s being billed as a “Martin Scorsese-ish” take on the character. Wonder Woman: 1984 and James Gunn’s Suicide Squad are apparently non-sequel sequels that simply use some of the same characters and actors to do whatever they want. That’s all very good.
Better would be going even weirder. Marvel is rumored to be developing a What If? TV series for a streaming service. That comic book series saw bonkers takes on characters and storylines, like “What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?” or “What if the Hulk discovered transcendental meditation?” My big recommendation is that the superhero genre should burst a spider sac filled with little baby genres like rom-com superhero flicks and horror superhero flicks and film noir superhero flicks and experimental superhero flicks. It’s like the ending of Charlotte’s Web, only a generation of children won’t need therapy after.
Get on That Prestige Bullshit
Because America is nothing if not determined to be the worst possible version of itself right now, we aren’t talking about Black Panther’s Best Picture win at the Oscars this year. The popular way of thinking says, “If that couldn’t win, what comic book movie ever will?” That’s some stinkin’ thinkin’. What we should be asking is “Which comic book movie will be the first to win Best Picture?” I think the evidence clearly suggests it will be whatever one espouses the most racially problematic take on racism.
Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. and all other comic book movie makers need to start trying to mix in some prestige bullshit. They need to start angling for acting awards (for someone other than an actor playing the Joker) and talking respected and surprising artists into doing their own crazy spin on a well-known character. DC gave Ava DuVernay New Gods, which is a hell of a start. More please.
All of this advice comes down to one thing: Stop playing safe. Start believing that this genre deserves to be more than profitable. Take it from me, a guy you have no reason to listen to, and realize that the biggest peril lies in a lack of creative ambition.