Spielberg may be wrong… I think he is

Recently, Steven Spielberg said superhero movies were coming to an end.

Well… that’s not exactly true. That’s pretty much just how web sites and media promoted the story to increase attention and maximize the impact.

Here’s a longer quote from Spielberg (taken from an Associate Press interview, and the whole thing is worth a read (but no longer available) ): “We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture.”

Now, examining things with a bit more depth, we find the Spielberg is actually making a statement that is more about the industry overall as well as source material in particular. To sum up both ideas… where are people spending their money? When something is popular, it gets overdone. And often overdone can be seen in viewing themes and subject material.

And there, in the heart of his statement, Spielberg is nailing things perfectly.

Hollywood in general has a massive problem with originality… whether for motion pictures and the big screen, or, for television in our homes.

Here’s a good one… it doesn’t involve the characters of Iron Man and Batman, and it actually spans more than twenty years… you could probably build a strong foundation comparing Friends to That ‘70s Show to The Big Bang Theory and concludes they are very similar. (Watch… groups of young friends, hanging out, and occasionally having romantic interactions… see?)

So… Spielberg… and in a wider exploration of the industry, just replace the concept of superheroes with wizards, vampires or zombies and a ton of clarity shifts into focus.

First up -- These superhero movies are making massive dollars, and that has the attention of every studio’s leadership. In fact, if you check the box office numbers, you’ll see that even the films being considered disappointments have racked up hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars.

The entertainment industry likes dollars. And… as seen throughout the entire tent pole shift, where companies are investing $200 million on one massive project instead of dividing it up into budgets for five to ten smaller films… they also like maximum returns on minimum investments.

(I might contend this may be a significant reason so much incredible writing and production has appeared on television screens in recent years. The idea being where the creativity and talent has moved since it is being shut out of movie projects as fewer pictures get green lights or decent budgets. But that would be a totally different article, needing different thoughts and research. Instead… for now…)

The industry moves quite often by senior officials saying that if the audiences are spending on wizards, vampires and zombies, then get they want more scripts with wizards, vampires and zombies.

Second -- Well… you can’t have nothing but wizards, vampires and zombies, because the reality is, you need to have stories to tell. And if the market is getting saturated, then the results are going to be diluted and not nearly as impressive.

Now, combine the two… and presto… Spielberg’s comments are a very easy prediction to make. Because eventually the quality stories could dry up, and the ticket buying public will move along to a new favorite flavor.

Check out the efforts around the Fantastic Four… any of the Fantastic Four movies you want to use… and it’s hard to argue the point.

The thing is… I think Spielberg is missing something, and something important. And that is, the comparison between Westerns and superhero films doesn’t match up nicely. Superhero movies are easier to modernize and manipulate into current news and technologies. Westerns are not. As long as studios can figure out how to create fresh stories, search through and utilize historical source material, and deliver quality productions, I’m not so certain fatigue is going to matter. (Oh sure… fatigue will be there… but again, it might not matter.)

Almost four decades ago, we were told “You’ll believe a man can fly!” as Christopher Reeve broke the ground for what might be considered the superhero age that still exists today. And I say that because… believing a man can fly… studio special effects went through breathtaking upgrades and phenomenal advancements in the 70s. That’s when it began becoming possible to tell these stories. (You know… tell them without having to tilt a building wall on its side while adjusting the cameras to give the illusion of walking up it. (Say hello to Industrial Light and Magic! Not truly superhero films as a company, but setting and advancing the industry to new levels.))

And ever since then… including Batman with Keaton and Nicholson… those early days and steady development has been moving to the films of the past ten to fifteen years.

My point is… technology is improving to tell these stories… and the central elements of these stories are not tied down to specific periods of time. When you think Western, you get the guns, horses and dirt roads… cowboy hats and saloons… and so on. Not so for the superheroes.

I don’t expect movies like The Imitation Game, Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Avengers, and more to be the same. They are different, and they all have value. Some movies are based on amazing source materials, some create new ways of bringing scripts to the screen, some movies are just outright fun… and none of that is more or less important in the overall scheme of things. At different times we all want movies to lift us up, inform, or just take us away and entertain. Sometimes all and more… sometimes just because we want to laugh.

If Steven Spielberg is saying that Hollywood is a fickle business model… filled with copycats… where recipes for success more often than not develop from great ideas and then the industry looks for the next great idea… then he certainly has a point.

That said… I don’t see where an industry that is improving in its ability to deliver superhuman accomplishments and incredible settings has to disappear as a cyclical fad. It comes down to story… the foundation… the base material. And with decades of adventures on the pages of comic books to draw from… a built in audience of ravenous fans… I don’t think the question is whether or not superhero films will move to the side.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com