Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The World Almost Ended, Again

The current wave of superhero films fail to excite; the magic once created by breathing life into comic book characters has gone missing.

-Rutwij Nakhwa

Four years ago I left Mumbai to attend college in another state, with a deep regret for not being here to watch 'The Dark Knight Rises', the epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. For more than two years, I had waited in anticipation to watch the film on an IMAX screen, it being shot in the format. Such was the extent of my fandom; a legacy of the generation that had western (especially American) pop culture injected into our veins right from childhood. For the generation before us, pop culture was just an odd import. They looked at Starbucks with earnest distaste, we learnt to love it even before it had arrived. We grew up glued to comic books and to the TV where they appeared in animated cartoons.

Even so, I travelled for about four hours to the nearest city with a multiplex to catch the film on its releasing weekend. I also watched it a handful more times since, and about twice in the IMAX after coming home for mid-term breaks.

About four years and a multitude of films later, the way I feel about ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’, the latest offshoot of the monstrous Hollywood superhero genre, is radically contrasting. As much as I hate to admit it, a general sense of fatigue and boredom has settled in amongst my fellow comrades and I. At the cinema hall, see it in each others faces and feel it in our beings, as we sit collectively to devour the next super-hero marvel. 

These films do not excite as much as they did, the magic once created by breathing life into comic book characters has gone missing. Dark shadows of doubt loom over what is being called the Golden Age of this film genre. As the scale of the so called "Cinematic Universes" and the number of characters explodes, there is a marked decline in the quality of their overall storytelling. 

Things went into overdrive with the 2012 Avengers film, wherein for the first time, fans all over the world could see the most iconic comic book characters (which they had been watching in individual films for the past four years), unite to take on a threat so mighty that it could end our world. Since then most films have either featured a super-hero team-up or a world ending catastrophe. 

Marvel Studios’ ‘The Avengers’ and DC’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ pioneered these grand elements; but they were always delicately interlaced with character development and good storytelling, thereby keeping these very large ships from sinking. Something their successors are finding increasingly difficult to replicate. What we are thus bombarded with are a series of half baked, mechanically planned films that attract audiences and will do so for the numerous sequels that will ensue, but leave the viewer a little bit less enchanted each successive time. 

Looking back, 2013’s ‘Man of Steel’, has a controversially dark, brooding Superman who saves the world from a destructive attack. The next year brought ‘Captain America: Winter Solider', a very good film at the time, but now seems to be one of the early steps into this turmoil. In 2014 came ‘X-Men: Days Of The Future Past’ followed the year after by the second Avengers film and a Fantastic Four reboot that nobody liked; all of which feature the same end-of-the-world blueprint and a team-up of the earth’s mightiest — of which every studio, every franchise has it own version. 

The year 2016 has only added to the repetitive dimension of multiple characters/heroes assembling, apocalyptic threats, and to the obsessive “Universe Building” (setting up sequels in the current film). Something that left ‘Captain America: Civil War’ feeling segmented and less than the sum of its parts. But Civil War and DC’s ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’, which critics hated, are refreshing as we see Superheroes going up in battle against each other instead. More enjoyable still is the enormously successful ‘Deadpool’ which blatantly ignores all the genre conventions and even breaks the fourth wall. 

Just as I was beginning to see a silver lining, came the apocalyptic X-Men film embodying the worst of my collective fears. I felt the fatigue deep in my bones as I watched yet another  group of mutant super-heroes unite and save the world for the umpteenth time.  This time, not even the villain seemed to have the conviction to actually destroy it. And this is not the end; there are more grand films coming our way in the two Justice League and Avengers films announced, which have many of these problematic elements built into them by default. It will take no less than a miracle to do right by these films, storylines of which are very iconic to the comic lore. 

Not all hope is lost though, as films like David Ayer’s ‘Suicide Squad’, a super-villain team up and Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ directed by Scott Derrickson, which might just be a horror film, promise something different and hopefully, exciting again.

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