Transformers: Dark of the Moon went for broke, with a 45-minute long crescendo of wanton structural chaos, serpentine Decepticons razing skyscrapers to the ground like so many Jenga towers. The Avengers (or “Avengers Assemble” if you prefer, though goodness knows why you would) then took up the mantle by smashing NYC into rubble and ever since then, comic book/superhero films have followed this trend. Make film. Assemble narrative. Gather chief characters in large urban area. Destroy. Repeat. Captain America: Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, Man of Steel, Avengers: Age of Ultron – they’ve all followed suit and it has now become de rigueur for any film in this genre to unleash wholesale carnage in its finale.
There are some philosophical and narrative considerations here. Take Man of Steel for example. Part of Batman v Superman’s arc is Bruce Wayne’s horror at the collateral damage inflicted by Superman’s fight with Zod. It seems clear that countless numbers of people lost their lives, yet it is Zod’s laser-eye attack on a family at the train station that becomes the final straw for Kal-El. Why did it take until then for him to suddenly be concerned about the loss of innocent lives? But these are tangential considerations to the main point under review.
Superhero films, not exclusively, but in particular, have been seemingly trying to outdo each other in the extent and duration of their third-act destruction and the question must be asked, where will it end? The budgets of these films are becoming so astronomical that a film that fails to earn $1bn at the box office is at risk of being branded a failure, this level of chaos is becoming so commonplace that we are no longer surprised or impressed by it and sadly the directors of some of these films seem out of their depth when it comes to maintaining narrative and geographical coherence when stitching these awe-inspiring set pieces together.
With Batman v Superman now on our screens, we know that it is pretty much more of the same. More noise, more destruction, more chaos, more length. Where do we (they) go from here? In fairness, for The Avengers we needed a large-scale threat for it to warrant teaming up all of the big guns and giving them some sort of challenge, but since then it has increasingly resembled a dearth of creative ideas. City-wide destruction as default setting.
Ant-Man is perhaps not a fair comparison, his smaller size making large-scale set-pieces almost narratively impossible, but it showed that you can have a small scale finale, but still significant stakes. Deadpool had budget restrictions to consider, but still flirted a little too much with large scale for its finish, when the freeway fight showed how well smaller scale worked. It will be intriguing to see whether Civil War, Ragnarok and Guardians Vol. 2 rein things back in again. Certainly a good old fashioned fist fight would make for a far more satisfying resolution, especially given that the trailer shows that a prime narrative element is global concern about the level of destruction being caused by what the Avengers are getting up to.
I think we’ve all had enough now and we’re getting bored. Aside from arguments about over-saturation of the market place in relation to superheroes generally, we know that CGI can achieve 2 hours of crash bang wallop and we know it will look realistic, but we want to feel invested in what happens and to care about it one way or another. Real Steel showed Transformers that we can care about what happens when robots beat each other up. Blade 2 has shown that two super-powered characters can have at each other with high-stakes but no levelling of cities.
A related concern is that of bloated narratives accompanying these bloated set pieces and this is an area where neither DC nor Marvel can afford to have such short memories. Obviously the whole point with Marvel’s work from Iron Man onwards was to build towards the ensemble piece that was The Avengers and in fairness Joss Whedon did an exemplary job of finding space for each character, moments for them to shine, but still kept the story moving forward. But by Age of Ultron, we’re trying to find room for War Machine, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, The Vision, tease Black Panther and still keep the story light on its feet. It didn’t work. Like Spider-man 3 before it (and DC’s Schumacher Bat-flicks before that) there were too many characters, too many arcs, too much “stuff” to find room for and the whole thing got weighed down.
Batman v Superman unfortunately seems to be beset by both problems. Large scale havoc and far too much going on generally. Rather than taking the longer-term MCU slow-build approach, they are introducing the Justice League all in one go so they can crack on with their own mash-up as soon as possible. The trailer tells us everything there is to tell – Batman and Supes have a ruck. They make up and Wonder Woman joins them to have a rumble with Doomsday. Too few surprises, too many characters, too much going on generally.
The best superhero films have been lean in terms of antagonists and narrative – Spiderman 2, Superman, The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class – we don’t need a dozen main characters, we need a few that are well written and fleshed out so that we care about them. Spider-man 2 gave us Doctor Octopus as a perfect foe for Spider-man, took its time to build their story and so the fights mattered and the denouement was affecting. Spider-man 3 gave us The New Goblin, Sandman and Venom and unfortunately it all felt like an inconsequential pantomime, with enough blame to share around cast, director, writer and studio.
Winter Soldier may have failed on the “set piece finale” front, but it got its narrative spot on. Steve vs Bucky for personal stakes and impact, with interlacing characters and conspirators to give the story some further reaching consequences. Civil War looks like having the reverse problem – managing to avoid the all-CGI destructive finale in favour of a punch up, but shoe-horning Cap, Bucky, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Spidey, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, The Vision, Iron Man, War Machine, Falcon and General Ross into the narrative. It’s too much.
It is unclear that there is necessarily demand from audiences for bigger and bigger – the response to Deadpool, Ant Man and (further back) The Dark Knight all show that lean narratives and uncongested cast lists can still be effective and profitable. It is almost as if studios have convinced themselves, despite the evidence rather than because of it, that the only way to go is MORE.
The fact that the studio system has collapsed previously under the weight of its blockbusters (The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, Dr Dolittle, Heaven’s Gate, Cutthroat Island, Wild Wild West, Batman & Robin, John Carter) when bloatedness has been shown to be a bad thing would lead one to surmise that there is at least the hope of cooler heads prevailing, but with Marvel headed for Infinity War in two parts, DC working towards a Justice League film even heftier than Dawn of Justice and Michael Bay refusing to euthanise the Transformers franchise, the immediate future doesn’t look entirely rosy.
We will see.