In April, superhero film auteur James Gunn said in a Rolling Stone interview that “superhero fatigue” — the viewing public growing generally tired of comic book-adapted films — is attributable to the types of stories being told and how they’re told.
“If it becomes just a bunch of nonsense onscreen, it gets really boring,” Gunn said.
“A bunch of nonsense onscreen” is a nigh-perfect description of The Flash, the latest film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
Released on 16 June, The Flash is the first stand-alone movie based on the eponymous Justice League member, and the penultimate film in the current DCEU before the Jason Momoa-led ”Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” wraps it up later this year.
The Flash isn’t a terrible movie, but it is an amalgamation of all the same build-a-superhero-flick elements we’ve been looking at for a decade and a half — with virtually no surprises or innovation. The film is an OK way to spend a few hours of your afternoon if it’s raining outside and you can get matinee ticket prices.
We’ve come to expect this mediocrity from the DCEU, which had most recently churned out the completely forgettable Black Adam and Shazam! Fury of the Gods. The Flash has the added issue of being saddled with star Ezra Miller’s various personal transgressions that many can’t separate from the film. (The internet is gonna get loud if Marvel Studios gets rid of Jonathan Majors for his controversies after DC allowed Miller to stay on, even though they’re two unrelated companies.)
Indeed, The Flash is on track to be one of the biggest superhero movie flops in history, set to lose more than $200 million for Warner Bros. As it wraps up its cinema run, it will likely wind up a larger box-office failure than Ryan Reynolds’ 2011 megabomb, Green Lantern.
Gunn, the new co-CEO of DC Studios, will overhaul its slate of films and actors (peace out, Black Adam), which may help the brand’s perpetual struggle to keep up with the quality and revenue of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But even the MCU is facing diminishing returns, creatively and financially; February’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” might be the single worst movie that Marvel has ever made. Several MCU films and television shows released since 2019’s record-setting Avengers: Endgame have suffered from many of the same problems.
Chief among them is that the magic, if not gone, is dramatically diminished. Superhero films have been around for the better part of a century, but the game changed in 2008 with the one-two punch of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (still my favourite comic book movie of all time) and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man — the first film of the MCU, or the House That Robert Downey Jr. Built.
Both movies employed some degree of CGI, but they felt grounded on Earth. Within a few years, the MCU left Earth and spent more time exploring a computer-generated space and other planets — evoking a sense of wonder that has made the MCU the most successful film franchise of all time. with nearly $30 billion grossed worldwide.
At some point, all that CGI — including the big, loud final battles in the sky that are a played-out mainstay — became the raison d’être for superhero films. Now, we’re forced to endure visuals that, as in the case of Quantumania, look like someone vomited peas all over the screen.
The Flash lost me in the first 15 minutes with a sequence in which Barry Allen (Miller) is expected to rescue several small babies falling out of a crumbling high-rise NICU. The newborns are so obviously computer-generated (and creepy) that the scene is missing any sense of real tension. “Nonsense onscreen.”
Also, consumer trust abates when we’re asked to pay for some version of the same movie ad nauseam: origin story of normal schlub stumbling onto powers, hilarious montage in which they learn how to navigate them, bad guy with dubious motives threatening the fate of the world/universe, good guys chasing after MacGuffin to fight bad guy, PG-13 love story, hero snapping out of self-doubt to save the world/universe. Wash, rinse, repeat.
(Superhero origin stories, in particular, should be banned by federal mandate; I don’t wanna see Batman or Spider-Man rebooted one more goddamn time.)
Similarly troubling is that the DCEU and MCU have been stuck focusing on the concept of a multiverse. Last year’s Oscars-sweeper Everything Everywhere All At Once explored the idea to wildly successful effect, but now it’s getting stale.
The nostalgic thrill of seeing different actors who played the same character appear in the same movie is a one-shot deal; building a whole series around the concept, which the MCU is doing now, is risky.
To better understand why so many of these movies are lame, you only have to look at the newer ones that worked. Last month’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is a superior sequel thanks to an emotionally resonant story, a dope score and a type of animation we haven’t seen before. You gotta dig down deep to your inner hater to dislike that movie.
And despite my rock-bottom expectations, Gunn masterfully leveraged the emotional element for May’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. The film tapped into the Disney/Pixar recipe of bringing tears to your eyes over digital woodland creatures.
The public, as it often does, responded to quality: Spider-Verse and Guardians both cleaned up at the box office.
I’d love to see grittier comic book films with less CGI salad, like 2017’s Logan, which is not just the best X-Men movie but is among the top five superhero films ever. It is set entirely on Earth, utilises relatively little CGI, has great action sequences and feels emotionally resonant. The upcoming Kraven the Hunter might hit all these beats as well.
What I’d really like, however, is for all comic book films to be put out to pasture for, say, a decade. Give us seven more Mission: Impossible movies and 3,032 more Fast & Furious joints — along with some indie films for awards season — before we explore comic books again.
Though Marvel likely knows it’ll never do Avengers: Endgame numbers again, the studio — along with others putting out these films — seem perfectly fine with creative bankruptcy if there’s even a buck of profit to be made. It’s a damn shame to see them mess with my childhood memories in the process.