The Sky is Not Falling:

Steven Spielberg and the Death of the Superhero Movie

In a recent interview with the Associated Press to promote his upcoming Cold War thriller, Bridge of Spies, director Steven Spielberg said that the superhero move would eventually “go the way of the Western.”  He made the comment as part of a larger conversation in which he discussed many subjects including spy movies, working with Tom Hanks, and the overabundance of big-budget movies.  Ah, but Internet journalists know a pull quote when they see it.  It didn’t take long for the screaming headlines to follow.  As my primary news source, The Huffington Post, delicately put it, “Steven Spielberg Says the Superhero Movie Will Die.”

But before we cast Spielberg in the villain’s role, stamping his feet and shrieking, “Die superhero movies! Die! Die!” let’s slow down and look at what he really said.

As happens with so many entertainment stories, this whole thing is overblown.  Spielberg didn’t attack the superhero genre or suggest that there was some inherent weakness or inferiority to it; he predicted the decline of the genre because superhero movies are the primary beneficiaries of the way Hollywood finances movies today—and it’s the business practices that he really believes are going to change.  That seems like a fair assessment.  Currently, the studios are looking at comics publishers (some of which they own) to supply pre-fabricated, franchise-friendly source material, so anyone talking about the industry’s reliance on big budget blockbusters is naturally going to talk about superhero movies.

But Spielberg’s real complaint isn’t with the genre; it’s with the inherent conservatism that comes with corporate-run entertainment.  Corporations treat creative work as a sellable commodity—as if Casablanca were the equivalent of a pack of Odor-Eaters.  As such, the companies become very risk averse.  It’s why the book industry—largely controlled by only five publishers—clings to established authors and keeps trying to reproduce last year’s bestseller list.  And it’s why the film industry keeps looking to acquire, exploit, and re-exploit pre-existing superheroes.  If it looks like a sure thing, they’re only happy to pour money into it.  Meanwhile, mid-budget movies like Spielberg’s own Lincoln have trouble getting made.

So based on the context of the interview, Spielberg’s basic theory seems both plausible and inoffensive.  There are too many big budget movies, and when one too many of them goes belly up the blockbuster bubble is likely to burst and movie financing is likely to change.  And if that happens, it seems likely that the current slate of superhero movies will suffer during the implosion as collateral damage.

I’m not sure if this prediction is likely or if it’s only wishful thinking, but it certainly seems plausible.  However, it doesn’t follow that an industry implosion of this sort will mean a death knell for superhero movies.

There are a couple of flaws in Spielberg’s argument that should let superhero fans rest at ease.  The biggest one is the Western analogy.  At first, it seems logical to compare the two.  The Western is essentially a specialty genre—a subset of larger generic categories like Action, History, and Drama.  The same thing is true for the superhero movie, which typically falls under Action, Science Fiction, or Fantasy.

But that’s where the similarities end.  While it’s true that most popular genres experience ups and downs in popularity, the Western era Spielberg is talking about was far more unique.  Its popularity in the ‘50s and ‘60s was wildly disproportionate to the expectations of a sub-genre.  During the ‘50s, when B movies were still being produced routinely, there were often 50, 60, even 70 Westerns released in a given year.  By 1965, the number was lower but still absurd.  According to my crack research team (okay, so I looked it up on Wikipedia), fifty years ago there were 37 Western movies and at least 15 Westerns on TV.  That’s more than just a trend.  It’s inexplicably … weird.

Superhero stories have nowhere near that kind of dominance on film or television.  How many superhero films are coming out this year?  Offhand, I’m having trouble coming up with more than three—The Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and The Fantastic Four.  And while there are plenty of cape and mask pictures lined up for the next five years, we’re still talking about numbers in the single digits each year.  That may seem like a lot to those of us not used to it, but it’s a far cry from the nearly freakish prominence of Westerns 50 years ago.

The other problem with the Western analogy is that it perpetuates the myth about the “death” of the Western.  Conventional wisdom suggests that movie Westerns died during the ‘70s.  But what actually happened wasn’t the death of a genre; it was more of a correction.  Westerns didn’t disappear—they just shrank to the kinds of numbers one might expect from a specialty genre.  Take this year, for example.  How many Westerns are planned for release in 2015?  Again, according to Wikipedia, there are 13 of them all saddled up and ready to go.  Many of these are highly anticipated too.  The list includes Quintin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  Other films on the list feature big stars like Michael Fassbender, John Travolta, Liam Hemsworth, and Woody Harrelson.

So if superhero movies are to go the way of the Western, then it sounds like the studios need to crank up their production in order to keep up with the horse pictures.  That’s why the Western analogy doesn’t work for me; the math isn’t there to back it up.

The other reason I don’t think superhero movies are doomed is that, contrary to popular belief, they don’t all have to be the same.  Not every superhero movie needs to be Age of Ultron.  Netflix’s Daredevil makes a good case in point.  I don’t pretend to know anything about the actual budgets involved, but the production values of that series seemed quite modest.   The same is true for M. Night Shyamalon’s Unbreakable—still one of the best superhero movies I’ve seen.

Here we should look to the comics for inspiration.  We may love epic storylines like the Kree-Skrull War, Grant Morrison’s JLA, or Ellis and Hitch’s The Authority, but some of the most legendary and memorable comics have featured quieter, character driven stories:  Miller and Austin’s “Roulette” from Daredevil #191; Moore, Bissette, and Totleben’s “The Anatomy Lesson” from Saga of the Swamp Thing #21; Gaiman, Dringenberg, and Jones’s “The Sound of Her Wings” in Sandman #8; Bendis, Bagley, and Thibert’s “Confessions” from Ultimate Spider-Man #13.  We all remember the epic “Coming of Galactus” storyline from Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four, but we shouldn’t forget that they followed up that story with another classic, the character-driven “This Man … This Monster” from Fantastic Four #51.

In other words, the comics have taught us that superhero stories can come in all shapes and sizes.  The roots of the genre trace back ancient mythology, literary epics like Gilgamesh, and the Jewish legends of Samson.  There are also plenty of modern archetypes as well.  Sherlock Holmes, for example, has extraordinary abilities, fights crime, works with a sidekick, wears a recognizably iconic costume, maintains a private headquarters, and matches wits with an archenemy.  So not all superhero stories have to be franchises and not all of them require a $200,000,000 budget.  If everyone can just remember the stories that have really resonated in the comics, then the superhero genre should easily survive any burst bubbles that might be coming in the future.

In fact, given the increasing monotony of many of the current superhero movies, such an implosion might not be a bad thing at all.  Instead of a string of movies all attempting to duplicate Joss Whedon’s Avengers, perhaps we might finally see some diverse approaches to the genre.  I don’t know about you, but even though I enjoyed Ant-Man, I’d trade a half dozen of ‘em to see what Tarantino could do with something like Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. James Kelly says:

    Can’t agree more. The superhero genre is beholden to many types of stories within it.

    Millar & Hitch had a science-fiction/political thriller with the Ultimates. Whereas Bendis and Bagley had a pure teen drama, with most fondly remembering the quieter moments.

    Even in the movies we have had, The Winter Soldier was a political thriller, whereas Fuardians of the Galaxy has nothing Superhero about it other than being based off of a comic book. Variety is the spice of life.

    We need a Jupiter’s Circle TV Series where we have nothing but soap opera drama masquerading in costumes.

  2. Pfui, the sky fell decades ago. Film is as dead as jazz. The audience should let it go. They would, if they knew any better. They’re used to it, they deserve it. Studios and international audiences are just excuses. The truth is that no one expects art anymore. It’s passé.

    The thing about the age of giants, when art still existed, is that the genre cycles (westerns, film noir, musicals, etc) lasted about 20 years and yes, produced a lot more movies than we get now, but the best of them (made as pure entertainment, to make money) were not just good, not just better than the rest, not just interesting, but films that actually are alongside the best of Bergman, Fellini or Welles. That’s long gone. Superhero movies are no better or worse than the rest. Once their cycle is gone, it will lie next to disaster movies, sex comedies and other minor genres. It’s not the fault of the source material.

    And sure, some of the best comics are quiet and character driven. But that’s one of the advantages of comics, or at least serial storytelling. Action is a huge part of the superhero genre, it must be present. But in comics you have a regular audience and you can take a month off. In one issue, you explore other possibilities, it’s a detour, a nice touch to add a little spice, and then it’s back to ass-kicking and saving the world. It’s a separated issue, but also a part of a bigger ongoing action story. Movies have to stand alone, so that stuff is already there, it’s in those long, pointless scenes of “character development” that are stuffed with immature Hollywood sensibility.

  3. Nick Tem says:

    I agree with what you say here, Greg.

    I just want to add that I think superhero movies could possibly induce fatigue in the viewers if they continue to succumb to the rating system, overly-kid friendly/expository dialogue and bad plots while moving away from well-crafted character driven stories with real changes to half-arsed character driven stories, like ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘Age of Ultron’, which were really poor attempts at a blockbuster, IMO.

    See, characters like Iron Man, who mature through emotional changes in earlier movies, no longer show (or show a lack of) evidence of these very changes in later movies. What was setup in Avengers 1 for Tony in regards to his claustrophobia and anxiety from being stuck in space as the worm hole closed was tackled poorly in IM3 and AoU. I mean, it could have been done better, you know?

    Furthermore, antagonists should drive the protagonist towards the emotional change with either a positive or negative outcome that should/ must be reflected from or resonated by the character’s power set. Thanos drove Iron Man into that portal to stop the nuke one way or another, from here Iron Man’s bravery should have led to anxiety and claustrophobia that should’ve been reflected by his armour becoming a coffin (in IM3); which would give substance to Tony using the remote control armour in IM3. Or reverse it and go the way of Secret Invasion/ Director of SHIELD where Knauf’s wrote the armour as Tony’s only safe haven from the alien invaders.

    There are a tonne of other examples like this: The Thing’s rocky exterior becoming his nightmare prison in ‘This Man, This Monster’, which we’ve seen in the earlier movies. Batman’s fear-psychology, which Nolan tackled well. Superman’s powers making Lex a force of good by the end of All-Star Superman. Captain America’s symbol against what America’s govt has become in this day and age, losing traditional values, in ‘Winter Soldier’.

    Some heroes are harder to tackle in this regard, like Spider-Man, but regardless it should be attempted no matter the difficulty, otherwise their stories can become pointless to viewers who may not be very interested in them to begin with.

    So, in this regard, I can see where Spielberg is coming from, plus the combination of the way the studio system economy works, he may be right.

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