If you're a lover of comic books, fantasy novels, or sci-fi, you should be in heaven right now. All of Hollywood caters to your tastes. Hell, if you're under 20 years old, you don't even remember what it's like not to have Hollywood throw $2 billion worth of blockbuster movies at you every summer (while the rest of us remember that as recently as 1994 they made a Fantastic Four movie so bad, it couldn't even be released).
That brings us to the bad news: The explosion of big-budget superhero movies is a bubble that seems poised to burst. How do we know? Because it's happened before.
It all starts when ...
(Star Wars isn't a bubble, it's eternal. Hence our new Adventures in Jedi School mini-series.)
#5. A Surprise Box Office Success Makes Everyone Jump on the Bandwagon
20th Century Fox
First of all, we're not necessarily saying that there are too many superhero movies out there -- lots of us are excited about Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel and the seven or eight others that are coming out this summer.
But right now, Marvel alone has in production (deep breath) Iron Man 3, Wolverine 2, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Fantastic Four (reboot), The Avengers 2, and Ant-Man. In the course of these films, Thor is going to fight elves, Captain America is going to fight a cyborg, and there's going to be a whole movie about the "Guardians of the Galaxy," which, you may not know, look like this:
"Are you two sure you don't want guns? 'Cause I have like 30 in the ship."
Are you seeing the raccoon?
We'll forgive everything if there's a scene where he uses garbage like Popeye uses spinach.
Oh, and by the way, the new X-Men movie -- called Days of Future Past -- revolves around Kitty Pryde sending her brain back in time. So we're saying that we might just possibly be reaching a tipping point here.
Let's back up a bit:
While no one bats an eye today when The Dark Knight Rises pulls in a bajillion dollars at the box office, that would've been unthinkable just 15 years ago. In the '90s, all of the major money-maker movies were Die Hard knockoffs (Con Air, Broken Arrow, Face/Off), sober explorations of tragedies (Dances With Wolves, Schindler's List, Titanic), Adam Sandler being a dumbass, and Tom Hanks doing things that usually didn't involve having superpowers.
This changed in 2000 and 2001 when X-Men, Spider-Man, and the first The Lord of the Rings came out. Remember that back then those geek-centric movies were all pretty risky investments for the studios. Not only was this the first time that either of those Marvel superheroes would be seen on screen, but the last superhero movie to come out at that time had been Batman & Robin, which, you know, we'd rather not talk about. As for The Lord of the Rings, the last attempt at an adaptation was a godawful cartoon that was made in the 1980s.
How long did it take you to realize that Gandalf isn't jacking off a fire-dick?
All of those movies opened at No. 1 at the box office -- Spider-Man actually set the box office record at the time, and The Lord of the Rings is still going on with its Hobbit prequels. Naturally, all the Hollywood money men had their goddamn minds blown, and today they'll throw a quarter billion dollars at any project that involves a hero in a mask. That's what we're referring to as a bubble.
And It Has Happened Before ...
A similar bubble happened more than 40 years ago. They called it the "New Hollywood" era, and it gave us Star Wars.
It started in 1967, with Bonnie and Clyde. It's considered a classic now, but at the time everyone thought it would bomb because it was heavily influenced by star/director Warren Beatty's interest in weird French movies, it confusingly mixed sex, violence, and comedy, and it ended with all the main characters dying. But like the movies above, it rocked everyone's fucking faces off.
"Sex + Violence = Money. Got it." -Hollywood, 1967
In both 1967 and 2000, a risky movie based on nerdy, obscure sensibilities was given a big release and paid off enormously. Next ...
#4. The Geeks Take Over, and Everything Goes Great for a While
Stefanie Keenan / WireImage / Getty
So next comes the heyday: Geek directors who truly love the source material are suddenly getting the green light to make these movies the right way.
We've documented Peter Jackson's obsessive attention to detail while making The Lord of the Rings, but it's also worth noting that Sam Raimi's Spider-Man contains tons of nods to the actual comics, like the fact that the climax is almost identical to "The Night Gwen Stacy Died," if you change Gwen Stacy to Mary Jane and, you know, don't kill her.
Marvel Comics/Columbia Pictures
And change chest impaling to dick kebabing.
Likewise, X-Men was pretty faithful when it came to characters, pretty much only changing the costumes -- and even that gets a nod when Cyclops suggests that Wolverine wear "yellow spandex." The people who made these movies made it a priority to keep the geeks happy (probably not realizing what a dong-punchingly difficult task that is).
Compare that to 1989's Batman, directed by a guy who said he didn't like comics and written by a guy who thought Batman's origin story was too dumb to work in a movie. It was a new era. The geeks had ascended to the throne!
Digital Vision/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Come to me, brothers of Warner! Kneel before Rod!"
And It Has Happened Before ...
The New Hollywood era was all about film geeks taking over -- a bunch of weird, experimental directors known as the "movie brats," with names like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick.
They stood out because they were the first generation of filmmakers to grow up watching and loving movies, which is why their films are full of little references to the past. If you know your shit, you can recognize these homages -- in Taxi Driver, when Martin Scorsese has a super-stressed-out Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) stare into the bubbles of his drink in search of meaning ...
... he's referencing another scene (as pointed out in the documentary The Story of Film) in Jean-Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, where a man stares at the bubbles in his drink for the same reason.
New Yorker Films
Yup, those are bubbles alright.
Which, in turn, is referencing Carol Reed's Odd Man Out:
The Rank Group
"Waiter? There's a mustachioed personification of anxiety in my drink."
These were the defining qualities of the New Hollywood era, and they're all present in the contemporary era as well -- which we're gonna call the Nerdywood era (so go mingle and use that term among yourselves until it catches on). This passion and excitement about already-existing art that defined the movie brats is also what makes post-X-Men sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero movies stand out: They're excited about their source material.
Nerdywood was the first time that nerds were being openly appealed to, and our response was to lose our collective shit and started dumping our wallets out on the movie studios' front lawns. So, of course ...
#3. The Studios Start Throwing ALL of the Money at Them
Remember when Christopher Nolan was announced as the director of a Batman reboot? Of course you don't, because back in 2003 no one knew what a reboot was or what a Christopher Nolan was or why we should care about a new Batman movie because the last one had sucked.
Think about how many people had to sign off on those costumes before this picture was taken.
But, oddly enough, that's probably why he was chosen: In that story we linked up there, Nolan talks about being passionate about the character (one of the hallmarks of Nerdywood, as explained above), and he had a weird, borderline crazy idea for the new series: Batman would be gritty and realistic. That had never been done on film before, but Nolan was young, nerdy, and excited, so the studios gave him an insane-o-copter ride to the money castle, and holy shit did it ever pay off.
Fast forward 10 years, and you can see that The Avengers is pretty much the same thing, except even more so. No, it's not gritty or realistic, but it sure is weird and risky: It expects audiences to follow one story across two sci-fi action movies, a fantasy movie, a fugitive movie, and a World War II era adventure film. Most movies treat you like you can't even tie your own goddamn shoes, but The Avengers took that risk and ended up going home with 1.5 billion nerd-dollars lining its pockets.
What The Avengers did to the box office.
Now the entire fortunes of studios hang on how these gambles pay off.
And It Has Happened Before ...
Coppola's Apocalypse Now was a weird, morally complicated exploration of war based on a nigh-impenetrable 19th century novel, but it dominated the box office. Jaws was the first ever summer blockbuster, and Star Wars only turned out the way it did because Lucas refused to compromise and made the movie himself.
All these risks paid off hugely, and to the studios things looked pretty simple: big risks, big beards, and big egos mean big profits.
Well, shit, what's the problem? So what if Hollywood created a kind of "bubble" around a few creators and franchises and continued to pour more and more money into them? That's the thing about bubbles! They never, ever burst!
Well, there's just one problem ...