Friday, 25 May 2018

Superhero fatigue? Marvel has the cure... and it's horrific.

By the time you're reading this post, Marvel's Infinity War is likely one of the most successful movies ever made, and its run in the cinema is far from over. Whilst it faces some tough box-office opposition in the form of Jurassic World: the Fallen Kingdom, the predecessor of which outperformed the first Avengers movie in 2012, it is likely to sit at the 2nd or 3rd most successful films of all time by summer's end. But with the movie being touted very much as the first part of a two-part culmination of the ten years of Marvel movies, one has to ask, after the second part brings that ten years to a definitive close and with many of the lead actors departing, can a new chapter of Marvel movies capture audiences in the same way as the original chapter did? If not, Marvel has a horrifying secret weapon up its sleeve, a perfect antidote to the oft-predicted 'Super-hero fatigue'...

A wealth of horror-based characters to appeal to a more mature audience. 

Whilst the success of Black Panther earlier this year and the tantalising possibility of Marvel studios obtaining the rights to the Fox licenced Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises as a result of the Disney/Fox merger, seem to bode well for the future of Marvel's superhero fare, surely there has to be a saturation point, some stage at which audiences become somewhat tired of superheroes.

As much as I love the Marvel films thus far, with a couple of exceptions, I can't deny that these films have a formula. Few of the films diverge from the light humour, quipping antagonist,  third-act cartoon action and crowd-pleasing moments, perhaps other than Thor: Ragnarok which saw director Taika Waititi attempting to break into almost pure comedy at times. Marvel should take a lesson from that film, which I found to be, not to be the best Marvel film but perhaps the most refreshing, and experiment with a different genre. But rather than pushing into straight comedy, I suggest another route...


Marvel has plenty of horror-themed heroes and villains. Cinema-goers are likely familiar with Blade and Ghost Rider, but less familiar with characters like Moon-Knight, Man-thing, Daimon Hellstrom, Brother Voodoo and Werewolf by Night. These and others have loosely formed into teams before such as the Legion of Monsters and more recently The Midnight Sons. If you suspect that these names or concepts are too goofy for Marvel to make them work, consider that this is a company that has made Rocket Racoon a more bankable character than Superman!

Heck, Marvel even has its own version of Dracula who has harassed various heroes including the X-Men since his introduction in the seminal 70's horror comic 'Tomb of Dracula'.

Do what Universal did!

Ask yourself what the first shared cinema universe was, it wasn't Marvel. Nor was it that brief glimpse of an Alien head in the Predator throne room in the climax of Predator 2. Or the Kaiju of Japanese monster movies. It was the Universal monsters who met who met up in films such as 'Frankenstein meets the Wolfman' (1943), 'House of Frankenstein' (1944) and 'House of Dracula' (1945). Sure they also shared this Universe with Abbott and Costello, but by that point interest in these crossovers had wained.

Another question. What is currently the second most popular 'shared universe' is cinema?

Here's a clue.. its distributed by Warner Bros.

If you said the DC comics universe you could probably make an argument for that, but the commercial failure of 'Justice League' which should have been their tentpole movie likely does not bode well for that line of films. Nor does the fact that the films have been divisive with audiences but generally panned by critics. What else does that leave us?

A franchise that you possibly didn't even realise was a shared universe 'The Conjuring Universe'.

As much is it pains me to say, the universe that features hucksters Ed and Lorraine Warren as its Superman and Wonder Woman is probably the second most popular series of interconnected films currently in development. The four films thus far have garnered $1.2 billion dollars on relatively small budgets making them extremely profitable for Warners and New Line Cinema.

Previous horror crossovers have enjoyed moderate success too. For example, 'Freddy vs Jason' (2003) earned New Line $113 million, making it the most successful Friday 13th film and the second most successful 'Elm Street' film. It likely would have done much better had it been released when it was originally teased when Freddy grabbed Jason's empty mask at the end of 'Jason goes to hell' (1993) ten years earlier.

Don't do what Universal did! 

One thing that may cause Marvel to reconsider pulling the trigger on a horror universe is Universal's failure to launch their 'Dark Universe' last year with the Tom Cruise vehicle 'The Mummy'. This shouldn't be too much of a deterrent though as Universal made some terrible mistakes in the marketing of 'the Mummy'.

Universal confidently started hyping the film as the start of their 'Dark Universe' and the first of a ten-film series before audiences had even seen it. This was a rookie move that doomed the franchise early. Marvel didn't do that with 'Iron Man' (2008) they just dropped hints that this was the way in which they were heading with Nick Fury's appearance in the now standard post-credits sequence. This meant audiences could enjoy the film for what it was, a fun-action adventure without the pressure of investing in future films. Marvel played it smart and waited to see how audiences would react to the idea.

Likewise, the original 'The Conjuring', a perfectly enjoyable horror let the movie speak for itself if New Line knew they'd be creating various spin-offs they played their cards close to their chest. Even DC, at Warner's, who have made some pretty critical errors didn't telegraph their intentions early. This may well have saved their necks as the movie the studio intended to the first of their 'shared universe' was the disastrous Ryan Reynolds starring Green Lantern. If that had been heralded as the first of a shared universe it would have likely killed the franchise then and there.

Also, Universal specifically designed 'the Mummy' to be a Marvel-like adventure. It even had the city wrecking third act. This just confused audiences and failed to mark out any differences between them and Marvel and they suffered for it.

The third mistake... Universal started their universe with a property that audience was already familiar with. The Brendan Fraiser starring 'Mummy' series only ended in 2008 and audiences likely remembered its slapstick, lighthearted approach and were perplexed by the tonally inconsistent Alex Kurtzman effort that sat before them.

Universal would have been well-advised to start with a less well-recognised property, 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' or 'the Invisible-man' perhaps and worked hints to other characters in gently instead of ramming their planned slate of films down audience's throats with Russell Crowe appearing in a narrative-halting scene as Doctor Jekyll mid-movie.

And it's a relatively unknown property that I think Marvel should start their horror universe with.

Marvel's Hidden horrors...

I wouldn't suggest starting with those characters I named above. Ghost Rider maybe too familiar at this stage and Man-Thing a step too odd for a first experimental foray into horror.  I'd suggest a character who was first introduced as a Spider-man villain, Morbius, the Living Vampire. Morbius has the potential to be an archetype that both the horror and super-hero genres thrive on, a tragic character with a self-inflicted curse, fighting a darker nature and a striking, creepy as hell appearance.
In his comics iteration, Morbius is a brilliant scientist inflicted with a terrible blood-disease, whose attempts to cure himself turn him into a 'pseudo-vampire' with an unquenchable blood-lust. It's that blood-lust that causes him to murder his lab assistant and numerous others. If he doesn't consume blood, he transforms into a more feral, more monstrous form which he can't control. This leads him to consume the blood only of criminals and the guilty, a pledge that has brought him into conflict with Marvel's heroes and villains alike.

Including Blade.

Blade, horror and superheroes: a proven success.

It may be hard to imagine, but there likely wouldn't be a Marvel cinematic universe without Blade simply because, before the release of the 1998 Wesley Snipes-starring New Line original, comic book movies simply weren't considered financially viable by studios. As laughable as it now sounds with a comic-book movie in cinemas poised to take in excess of $2bn. Only Batman and Superman had successful film franchises at the time and both were on the wane, to say the least. A Tim Burton-helmed, Nick Cage-starring Superman reboot had failed to get off the ground and 1997's 'Batman and Robin' all but killing that property. No one really wanted to touch superheroes.

Blade, a film starring a Marvel character barely heard of since the 1970's, changed that. Even though its financial success didn't set the world on fire, it showed that superhero movies were worth the risk. Even more obscure characters could be profitable. This spurred Fox on to develop their first 'X-Men' movie released in 2000 and Columbia to start work on a Spider-man project which had struggled to get off the ground for decades.

After Blade, the horror/superhero mantle was seized by a non-Marvel property, Hellboy, played by Ron Pearlman and helmed by Guilmero del Torro, who also directed the Blade sequel. The franchise which spawned two films and enjoyed moderate success is set to be relaunched this year with a strong horror angle.

At this point, isn't it worth a try?

Look, I love Marvel films and superhero films in general, and I want to see the studio to produce them for a long time, but the key to prolonged success is variety. One formula isn't going to sustain Marvel for another ten years, no matter what properties they re-acquire. There's only so many times we can see the original Iron-Man rehashed in a slightly different context as we arguably did with 'Doctor Strange' (2016). As a final example of why this is a good idea, consider 'Deadpool' (2016) and 'Logan' (2017). Whilst I haven't really been a fan of Fox's Marvel-related output, these movies reflected genuine attempts to do something different with the Superhero genre. They proved that audiences would accept other genres infiltrating and influencing their superhero films. One could argue that neither film went quite far enough in trend breaking with their respective third acts slipping into familiar tropes like 'hero fights a darker version of themselves' which has plagued the genre since 'Iron-Man'. The genuinely affecting 'Logan' especially plays more like a western in theme than a superhero film and it's much better for it.

Blade shows us, they'll accept a horror blend too.

Marvel, bring on the Monsters!