In 2008, a few years before he was helming the first Avengers movie, Joss Whedon was directing Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a musical comedy web-series that is every bit as awesome as the name suggests. It was an independent, low budget affair, put together quickly by Joss and friends during a period of forced inactivity due to a writer's strike. In just over 40 minutes, it packs in a ton of great songs and jokes, and some genuine moments of drama. Most interestingly, it's protagonist, Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) is an 'evil' but well intentioned supervillain, while the resident superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) is a self-centered jerk.
This year will see the release of around 16 superhero movies and TV shows, about half of which feature team-ups and crossovers, putting the superhero count for 2016 somewhere in the forties or fifties.
That's a lot of superheroes! Even The Flash has multiple Flashes now, meaning the title should really be A Flash, or Some Flashes and their Friends. And hey, don't get me wrong, that's awesome. As a matter of fact, A Flock of Flashes is possibly my favourite superhero TV show right now, and I have high hopes for BVS:DOJ, CA:CW, XM:A and other non-coloned, non-abbreviated movies too (looking at you, Doctor Strange).
But as fun as these will be, the unfortunate thing is that we won't see a superhero based on an original concept in the near future. And this is a problem because often, the freedom to write a story without a predefined character, without the baggage of 75 years of story lines, and without the weight of fan expectations is what inspires creators to dream up something new and inventive like Dr. Horrible. Great as Avengers: Age of Ultron was, Joss Whedon later admitted to being unhappy about having to make changes to lay the groundwork for sequels. And we were deprived an Edgar Wright version of Ant-Man when his vision didn't quite fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Weirdly enough, some of the best examples of original superhero concepts are from the infancy of the superhero explosion. Take M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, which came out in 2000. Even the first Spiderman movie wouldn't come out for another two years. Though it had a mixed reception at that point, Unbreakable stands today as a great origin story movie. Quiet and introspective, it broke the mould of superhero movies before that mould was even set. Rather than an epic battle, one of Unbreakable's best scenes is one where Bruce Willis' character David and his son realise how strong he is, as he goes on lifting heavier and heavier weights. The twist ending, which was criticised at the time for trying to replicate the Sixth Sense trick, was just standard set up for a sequel. Unbreakable's chief flaw really just seems to be that it came out ahead of it's time.
And then there's Hancock. Great concept, great cast. It's idea that a superhero still needs to work hard at being a decent person, and the real world-ish treatment of superpowers were interesting. And Hancock works pretty well until it abruptly switches tone towards the end and throws in too many over the top twists. No one remembers Hancock as a great movie, but even today the premise of an alcoholic, wise-ass superhero with an image problem sounds promising.
Until it made a mess of it's third act, Hancock was smart, funny and original in a way that few superhero movies have been since. Which is why it's a shame that it squandered it's potential, and maybe scared movie studios away from trying anything like that again. Possibly the only really successful example of an original superhero movie is The Incredibles. But then, Pixar can do no wrong. We're all pretending Cars 2 never happened, right?
The Marvel and DC universes are doing fine, and they should keep doing what they're doing. But if audiences love superhero stories, they'll love stories that flip superhero tropes on their head too. And seeing more of those is really the next step in the growth of superhero movies.
Scribe: Dinkar Dwivedi
Captain's Log: Dinkar is a core member of Geek Fruit's inner circle. As a professional television show producer and musician, Dinks wields several key infinity gems and puts them to good use at Geek Fruit HQ.
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