Take a look at this terrific infographic of upcoming superhero films from the good folks at Comics Alliance:
And that image is missing some things. It doesn't include the many, many, many superhero TV shows on the air or in various stages of development. And it doesn't include other geek-friendly properties in active development as films, like new Star Wars films, the upcoming Godzilla sequel, or Warner Brothers' new movies in the Harry Potter universe.
Yet graphics like this one have sent many into paroxysms of joy. One friend of mine crowed that it's never been a better time to be a pop culture geek.
And yet I look at this list — even as a pop culture geek — and see something almost dutiful. I look at this list and see a long list of chores I'll just have to eventually get to.
On board the hype train
Don't get me wrong. I'm going to see every single one of these films. I am probably going to enjoy most of them, on one level or another. Marvel Studios has made only one outright bad film — the second Iron Man — and while the output from Fox, Sony, and DC has been spottier, I have a great affection for many of those characters. Plus, I'd be lying if I said that I'm not excited for the Captain Marvel film — especially if Katee Sackhoff somehow ends up with the part.
I'm not even upset about the idea of spoilers here. Arguably, knowing that the relationship between Captain America and Tony Stark is building toward a huge battle between the two in the former's third film makes me more interested to see that film. One of the things that's interesting to me about the new mega-franchise storytelling is the way that it works in bits and pieces of other stories as fillips around the edges of the main tale. It reminds me of my beloved television, and Marvel is doing nothing if not making a huge, exciting TV show that we tune into every few months.
No, what I'm reacting to here, I think, is the way that these sorts of lists and master plans remove whatever capacity geek cinema has to surprise us. I like to think back to the visceral thrill I felt at watching Robert Downey, Jr., revive his career in that first Iron Man, or the way that Heath Ledger lit up the screen in The Dark Knight in ways we hadn't quite expected. Or looking beyond superhero movies, think of the way Pixar's Wall-E carefully hid from audiences that it was essentially a silent film for half its running time, or how the Lord of the Rings movies simply and perfectly deposited you in a world that had yet to be ruined by hype saturation.
See, to me, Marvel's never made a great movie. It's come close — both of the Avengers movies, as well as the second Captain America are all terrific examples of the form — but inevitably, the stories revert to the company's "three big fights, laced with shallow character stories and snarky humor" formula and devolve into an ending where a bunch of things created in a computer hit each other with other things created in a computer. And DC's attempts to begin its own mega-franchise — beginning with the ham-fisted Man of Steel — simply come off as laughable.
Neither company has much room for directorial expression in their films, with talented folks ultimately making movies that get sucked into the same formulas over and over again. This has been compared to the dominance of Westerns in Hollywood in the ‘50s, but, c'mon. Can you point to a superhero version of The Searchers? Hell, can you point to a superhero version of Stagecoach? We may be evolving in the right direction, as Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is unquestionably a Joss Whedon film, shows, but only by millimeters.
No, what Marvel, especially, is very good at doing is churning out product and keeping it just enough above the quality line that we'll go back for more. That list of films above might as well be a list of fast-food hamburgers we'll be eating for the rest of the decade.
And yet we'll be watching
It's this, I think, that makes me feel that sense of duty, that grumbling notion that I'm about to do my chores. Yes, we've always made checklists of films to see, whether to get a better understanding of the medium's history or to, say, get caught up on the best films of the year before the Oscars arrive.
The difference here is that this is a list of films we are going to see, a list of films we had better start planning our lives around right now, if we are going to be good movie geeks. It has nothing to do with being surprised and everything to do with being kept in a state of vague anticipation for a half-decade before watching a movie that will inevitably result in a mild feeling of anticlimax. It has everything to do with taking that surprise and leeching all of it out of our moviegoing experience, bit by bit, until finally seeing the movie is just the last chore on the list. It's a Christmas morning when we don't just know the packages but have gotten done playing with them ages ago.
Don't read this as some sort of screed that mega-franchises are killing the movies. They're here to stay, obviously, and I have high hopes for what they'll accomplish in the future. There are amazing little indie films being made every month, and some great moments of direction sneaking into the largest of blockbusters. There are ingenious takes on superpowers and great directors and screenwriters smuggling surprisingly pointed work into novel adaptations the studio probably only half paid attention to. Yes, franchises are taking over Hollywood, but it doesn't have to be a bad thing.
This is not as simple as saying, "If you don't like these movies, don't go see them!" It's more complicated than that. It's about getting trapped in these never-ending, concentric circles of hype. It's about trying to escape the constant feeling that everything is buzz for something else — even the movies themselves. And it's about avoiding, at all costs, a world where there are no actual movies, only the suggestion of other, better movies over the horizon.