The announcement a couple of days ago that Bryan Singer would be directing another X-Men movie, due to be released in 2016, seemed equally exciting and dispiriting at the same time. When I first heard the news, my reaction was mixed: if the forthcoming Days of Future Past is as good as it looks then another X-Men movie, especially if it involves Apocalypse (a fan favourite), will be worth looking forward to. But then I also thought, they’re talking about a movie that won’t be here for another three years. Three years! Can anyone really be that excited by the prospect? And then I realised that yes, there probably was: that rare breed of upright ape, studio executives.
Ever since Marvel went all Phase One on us and released Iron Man (2008), the big studios have lagged behind in their efforts to match the returns that Marvel have made at the box office (at time of writing, the eight Marvel movies that have made it out of the gate so far – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), Iron Man 3 (2013), and Thor: The Dark World (2013), have amassed over five and a half billion dollars). That level of success has definitely got the suits at Warner Bros., Sony and Fox practically scrambling to catch up. So now, in various stages of development we have the follow-up to Man of Steel (2013) which we now know will also feature Batman and Wonder Woman as well as Superman, reboots of Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and the upcoming X-Men movies, as well as the Spider-Man franchise which is going to run to at least four movies and may even spawn some off-shoot movies featuring characters from that particular strand of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
With Marvel committed to a Phase Three that will begin in 2015 with Ant Man, and continue with two movies in 2016 and one in 2017, it seems that we’ll be wading through big-budget superhero movies for some time to come. And while it’s true Marvel has been canny enough to attract the right talent both behind and in front of the camera – Kenneth Branagh? Did anyone see that coming? – and as a result have garnered a degree of critical acclaim, the fact is that the movies that the majority of people on the planet want to go and see at the moment involve weird men and women in weirder costumes. Now, I’m not some cineaste who thinks the only good movie is one that examines the plight of the dispossessed or that one ten minute static shot of an actor’s face eclipses any CGI-fuelled spectacle hands down, but I do have to question whether or not we’re losing some kind of perspective here. Don’t get me wrong, I look forward to seeing a Marvel movie as much as the next person (providing they’re not still living with their mum at the age of forty), but what are we missing when the adventures of a man in a high-tech tin suit, or an ex-wimp with a shiny shield command so much of our attention and excite us so much?
Is it the grand scale on which this particular brand of escapism is served up? Is it a combination of seeing characters previously only seen to good effect in comic books, now looking incredibly real on the big screen, and having them do all the things we’ve had to settle for seeing in flat old 2D? Perhaps. Or is it because the rest of the movies out there are pale and uninteresting in comparison, the skinny kid on the beach to Marvel’s Charles Atlas? I think it’s all these things, plus one more, one very important part of the whole package that Marvel have done, and continue to do, since Tony Stark first stomped out of that cave in 2008: tell the audience what they can expect next time…and then the time after that. Not in detail, but just enough to keep their attention from waning, and carefully spaced out between movies so that it’s always there, that knowledge that, like the legendary bus of English urban mythology, there’ll be another one along soon.
Which brings us back to the announcement that in 2016 we can all head down to our local multiplex and revel in the antics of a wheelchair-bound mind reader, a psychotic spoon bender, and their merry bands of malcontents. If I’m being a bit facetious with my descriptions of Professor Xavier and Magneto, it’s because I can’t help but think it comes back to perspective. The best film I’ve seen so far this year – by a nautical mile – is Captain Phillips. It is one of the most gripping, emotional, tension-filled dramas you’re ever likely to see, and despite the high drama depicted, it’s a relatively small-scale movie (until the US Navy arrives). It’s filmed with an emphasis on tight close-ups and even tighter locations: the bridge of the ship and its confines, and most of all, the lifeboat that houses Phillips and the four Somali pirates for about an hour. It’s tour-de-force filmmaking, bravura in its style and scope, and an emotional rollercoaster ride to boot; it’s quite simply, breathtaking. And yet, despite glowing reviews, an Oscar-worthy performance from Tom Hanks, and the exceptional directing talents of Paul Greengrass, more attention will have been paid to some blond bloke with a hammer and his sneaky adopted brother than to the real life story of a captain forced to engage tactically with Somali pirates.
Yes, but Marvel are making “entertainment”, I hear you say, their movies don’t have be deep and/or meaningful. And I would agree with you, except that Marvel themselves are trying their best to make sure their movies have some depth and/or meaning to them. These are largely tragic heroes, each trapped by fate or destiny into being the heroes that they are, and yet longing for peace, and mostly for themselves. But ultimately, and in spite of Marvel’s good intentions, the focus will always remain on blowing things up, or knocking things down, or fighting. The spectacle is what matters most. Imagine turning up to see the next Thor movie, only to find it’s two hours of Thor and Jane Foster discussing their relationship à la Before Midnight (2013). The fans would stay away in their millions. Ultimately, Marvel are giving people what they want, and the other studios will follow suit until the sight of yet another superhero crashing unscathed through yet another building is considered passé, and we all move on to the next big genre, whether it’s Westerns, or musicals, or play-doh animation.
For me, the news that Bryan Singer will be directing X-Men: Apocalypse for release in 2016 is neither good nor bad. At this stage it’s very much an unknown quantity; it may not even happen. What frightens me most, I guess, is that, already, too many people care about the announcement and the proposed movie for it to be a truly good thing. Call me an old curmudgeon but if you’re excited by a movie that you won’t see for three years, and you can’t wait for it to get here, then the marketers and the sales guys and the executives and the CEOs have all won the jackpot in advance… only you’ll be providing the winnings. Opt for a kind of studied indifference instead. Damn it, make them work really hard for your attention!
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.