With Netflix and Disney having just signed a $2 million deal to create a new, Netflix-exclusive TV show based around four New York superheroes, now seems like the perfect time to re-evaluate the explosion of the comic book superhero in the mass media, and question quite why audience are still enthralled with caped crusaders.
The Netflix/Disney deal is set to bring four relatively unknown superheroes to television and computer screens via the streaming service. Daredevil, – last seen in Ben Affleck’s disastrous 2003 film, of which the less said the better – Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage will be the focus of the series, which is set to be filmed exclusively in New York, with a deal which covers four seasons and sixty one-hour episodes. This deal solidifies the move of superhero franchises from one media platform, film, to a multiple platform environment, something started by shows like Arrow and Agents of SHIELD.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the proliferation of the superhero genre. Although there were several different superhero movies in the years preceeding 2000, the most notable franchises being the Superman films and George Clooney’s outing as Batman (including 1997’s ‘classic’ Batman and Robin) 2000 brought to the big screen the first team of superheroes in X-Men. However, 2001 was a turning point in the explosion of the genre. Rebecca Housel argues in her book Superheroes and Philosophy that ‘since the tragedy of September 11th 2001, the popularity of films featuring heroes in many forms has soared. Naturally, comic book superheroes perfectly fit this need, and comic book-based films have set new box office records’; in the wake of such a tragic event we needed something to look to to provide support and hope, and thus the superhero franchise was truly born. What followed was a sudden boom in the popularity of superhero movies, led by Spider-Man in 2002, staring Tobey McGuire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco.
Groups of superheroes fighting crime together is a common occurrence in the original comic book material, with Marvel or DC heroes featuring in each other’s comic books on a semi-regular basis. However, in film, this has never been hinted at before the inclusion of Natasha Romanov in Iron Man 2, and its Thor-based post-credit sequence (as X-Men has always been a cohesive team movie franchise, with no individual stories before 2010, Iron Man 2 does appear to have been the first). What is particularly startling about the superhero boom is the way that it is no longer comprised of film series focusing on an individual hero, with a couple of movies in a franchise before audiences move on. It doesn’t mean a necessary degrade in quality, like2007’s appalling Spider-Man 3 which showed exactly how not to mash up villains.
Instead, the emergence of a combined Marvel film verse, culminating in a phase one finale of Avengers Assemble, was a game changer for the way that we view superhero films. While you can easily watch all of the Iron Man films as their own series, they slot into the Marvel world, particularly the third which makes direct reference to the events of Avengers Assemble. With the now pre-requisite post-credit (and post post-credit) sequences referencing the next film to be released in
the wider Marvel film verse, as opposed to the one featuring the central character, audiences are encouraged to try films featuring superheroes they may never have heard of (Guardians of the Galaxy seems set to be a good example of this). The way that this new format has changed the way we view superheroes is clear as other studios have attempted to jump on board with the successful format piloted by Disney and Marvel. DC is trying to do this with the upcoming – and as yet unnamed – Superman versus Batman film followed by the scheduled Justice League film, while there are rumours that Columbia pictures wants to make a team style verse out of the Spider-Man franchise, perhaps starting with the – on the cards – Sinister Six movie.
The Disney/Netflix deal expands on the movement of superheroes from the big screen to live action television. While both Marvel and DC comics have been on the small screen in the form of cartoons for a long time, live action superhero series have been around for longer than you might think – Superman had his own live action series in the 1950’s. But it was the 90’s that saw a major resurgence in the genre. What makes the newest series stand out is its connection with external material; Agents of SHIELD does not exist in a vacuum, but rather directly responds to the occurrences in the wider Marvel cinematic universe. Whether this trend continues largely depends on the shows renewal, which is largely touch and go at the moment, so it bears to be seen whether this will be a failed experiment, or a template that DC comics will attempt to follow in the future.
The superhero train certainly shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
With Captain America: The Winter Soldier – which marks the ninth instalment of the Marvel cinematic universe – set to be released at the end of March, Guardians of the Galaxy set to come to cinemas in August this year, and Avengers: Age of Ultron currently filming, Marvel and Disney seem set to continue the conveyor belt of superhero movies well into 2015. The only question now is how long this trend will continue, and whether audiences will bore of the super powered super hero exploits.