Spider-Man is back on the big screen, with more attitude and a better hairstyle. But this time around, the friendly neighborhood web-slinger is facing J. Jonah Jameson levels of hate... and not just because people remember the jazz hands from Spider-Man 3. A lot of people seem primed to dislike Amazing Spider-Man, just because it's rebooting the character so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy.
Maybe Sony could have waited longer, or tackled a different character. But the truth is, we're in the middle of a superhero movie boom, and there are only about half a dozen well-known superheroes.
The longer the current superhero craze goes on, the more we're going to realize how shallow the talent pool of heroes actually is, as far as being able to launch a movie. Even the Incredible Hulk, who had a pretty successful television series back in the 1970s, had lukewarm box office for his two solo films — although the fact that neither movie was especially watchable probably didn't help.
When it comes to characters who have massive public levels of recognition, and thus the ability to justify a $200 million movie, you're probably looking at Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers, collectively more than any single member. Of those, only the first four are really in the top tier.
And then there are the "B" list heroes, who can probably support a big movie if the circumstances are right. Like, if you cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, right when he's in the middle of a huge career comeback. Or if you get a particularly celebrated director on board, or when it's part of a series of movies set in a shared universe that people are pretty jazzed about. Or even if — you never know — the movie seems to be especially decent, judging from the early buzz and trailers and stuff.
The "B" list heroes are too many to list. But off the top of my head, there's Iron Man, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, Green Lantern, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Thor, the Flash, Captain America, Green Arrow, and any version of the Justice League that doesn't include both Superman and Batman.
How can you tell if a hero is an "A" lister? It's partly about exposure beyond comics, including things like Saturday morning cartoons that help get a particular character into the minds of children. Or just the sheer amount of merchandising a particular character spawns at Toys 'R' Us. But also, the real "A" list heroes have already had multiple films at this point — and in the case of Superman, there was a TV show that lasted 10 years.
But also, just look at how many actual comics titles a character has been able to support — Spider-Man has been pretty much weekly for a long time. Batman and Superman tend to have four or five monthly titles, plus spin-offs. The Avengers have traditionally had a couple monthly comics, but they're in the midst of expanding. The X-Men often have at least one title a week. Green Lantern sometimes has a couple titles, sometimes just one.
It's pretty rare for a character or team to support two or more titles a month for a while — but the number of properties that have supported multiple monthly titles consistently, for decades, is much tinier. Basically, the fingers on one hand. If a character or team has had one monthly comic — but not more than one — for decades without serious gaps, they're probably a decent "B" lister. Maybe a "C" lister, in some cases.
So for as long as superhero movies remain a major genre, with three or four big studio productions per year, you're going to have a feeling of deja vu. Obviously, you'll also see lesser-known characters getting movie deals — Hollywood is launching films based on graphic novels that nobody's ever even read, so why not a movie based on a comic that has tens of thousands (but not hundreds of thousands) of fans? But the engine of the genre will continue to be the same few characters.
Also, some of the biggest characters, like Spider-Man and the X-Men, are held as licenses by outside studios, like Sony and Fox. It's commonly reported that if the studios go too long without making a new movie with these characters, they lose the license. So for the real cash-cow properties, the studios have an incentive to keep the pipeline going.
It will be really interesting to see how well the rumored Guardians of the Galaxy movie does — given that those characters are barely "C" list heroes. And it could easily suffer from the same perception that hurt Green Lantern: that you have to have read decades of obscure comics to know what's going on.
The logic of reboots
But why a reboot? Even if the logic of churning out a Spider-Man movie every four or five years is hard to dispute, why not just do a James Bond, and keep making sequels with a new lead actor every few years? I think there are a few reasons why this maybe doesn't work as well as it used to.
For one thing, people do like the illusion that superhero movies consist of serialized storytelling. (It's usually mostly an illusion, because each movie has a brand new villain, and good luck watching the X-Men trilogy or Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and trying to discern a single story told across three movies. Even Marvel's shared-universe films are largely standalone stories.) If you recast the characters every few years and tell completely unconnected stories, it destroys that illusion.
For another, it's hard to think of a successful example, within superhero films, of a character being recast multiple times in sequels. The main time it was tried was in the post-Tim Burton Batman films. (There's also X-Men: First Class, which I'd argue was a reboot masquerading as a prequel, given how much it contradicts the other films in the series.)
And finally, when you're recasting the main character and bringing in a new creative team, you kind of want the story to be "We're delivering a fresh take on the character." Not so much with, "We're delivering a pale imitation of what the previous creative team delivered." And it's a lot harder to argue that you're creating a "fresh take" when you're not retelling the origins. Plus, origin stories are easy — they're the main thing superhero movies know how to do well.
The sort of good news is, maybe studios will realize at some point that they might as well be making up superheroes from scratch, if they're not dealing with one of the handful of really recognizable properties. Is there a major benefit to making a movie about a character whose comic gets 20,000 readers a month, instead of just inventing a brand new character with less baggage? Hancock did pretty well, after all. So did The Incredibles.
Superheroes aren't really a genre
It may seem sad to contemplate the idea that only a handful of superhero properties really have the kind of instant recognition that makes movie stars — and a slightly larger handful have enough recognition to launch a movie, with some extra luck and actual buzz.
But you know, part of it is that most superheroes are derivative as hell. There are a few original superheroes, like Superman and Batman, and then a huge number of copycats. You don't have to spend much time reading up on the history of the genre to know that back in the early 1940s, every comic-book publisher was trying to develop its own version of Superman. (But I do recommend Gerard Jones' excellent book Men of Tomorrow.) Green Arrow was transparently a bow-wielding version of Batman, for years before he got more or his own distinct personality. Even today, when people create new superheroes, there tends to be a clear Batman analogue, a clear Superman analogue, and maybe a family that resembles the Fantastic Four.
Remember when there was lots of talk about a Shazam movie, with the Rock playing Black Adam? It's not a terrible idea — it could be a fun, kid-friendly movie, if someone genuinely charismatic plays Captain Marvel. But you're definitely up against the fact that this version of Captain Marvel was intended as a Superman copycat, plus there's a lot of goofy mythology to shove down people's throats. Shazam is a perfect example of a property that you wouldn't want to spend much more than $100 million on for a first movie, unless you had a major star in the lead role. (Channing Tatum as the Big Red Cheese? It could totally work.)
Plus a lot of superheroes are endlessly redundant, even if they're not exactly like one of the "A" listers. Both Marvel and DC have their own bow-and-arrow-wielding hero. DC has Zatanna, Marvel has the Scarlet Witch. DC has Aquaman, Marvel has the Sub-Mariner. There are multiple heroes in suits of high-tech armor. There are tons of heroes based on mythology, and random bits of history. And then there's the fact that any unique hero tends to get a slew of sidekicks and derivative heroes, like the way Batman has Batgirl, Batwoman, Robin, Nightwing and Huntress.
There's also the fact that "superheroes" aren't really a genre. They're an agglomeration of genres, as we've mentioned in the past. Superhero comics, in their prime, strayed with bold abandon into the territories of cowboy stories, ghost stories, paranormal adventure, mythology, space opera, and countless other genres. It's hard to describe any set of stories that includes Dr. Strange and Adam Strange as being the same genre, except for a super-broad "science fiction and fantasy."
Some people are rooting for Amazing Spider-Man to fail, to teach the studios a lesson about their habit of endlessly rehashing the same characters and stories over and over. But in fact, if Amazing Spider-Man did fail (and it won't), it'd just mean the superhero boom was finally running out of gas. We speculated a while ago about how we'd know when the superhero movie craze was coming to an end — but really, there are a couple possible signs that would be really clear.
We'll know the superhero movie boom is drawing to a close when the studios try to reboot a few of the "A" list heroes and it fails, really badly, at the box office. Or when they just give up on trying to milk those small number of cash cows, and we start seeing only movies about heroes who are somewhat less overexposed.