Yes, we all love superheroes. Whether it’s the characters, the action, the stories, the merchandise, or the frequent nods to mythology, it’s quite hard to fault what Marvel and DC have been doing with their respective universes over the past decade or so. All of it does feel a little odd, though, given that superhero movies struggled for an audience during the early 2000s, the era of Halle Berry’s dreadful Catwoman and Ben Affleck's critically panned Daredevil.
While Iron Man (2008) arguably laid the foundation for what would explode into the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe, rival DC actually got a headstart on re-selling superheroes to the world with 2005’s Batman Begins. Unfortunately, the latter has experienced a significantly more difficult time creating a concrete movie universe, with Batman still the only stand-out character for the more senior comic-book company. This culture of trading cinematic blows has been a boon for fans but there’s a sense that Marvel, in particular, just doesn’t know when to stop. Part of the problem is that the MCU has only just reached its apex. Since 2018, four of the top six highest-grossing superhero movies have been made by Marvel. DC only breaks the top ten - at the tenth - with 2018’s Aquaman, starring Jason Momoa.
As mentioned, at least part of Marvel’s success has to do with the public’s persistent interest in historical characters and mythology. For example, in the world of streaming platforms, the critically acclaimed Vikings franchise recently dropped the spin-off series Valhalla to even more rave reviews. The German-made show Barbarians offers a similar mix of themes, albeit from the perspective of the Germanic tribes fighting the Romans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (the same one shown at the beginning of Ridley Scott's Gladiator), while Starz's Black Sails tries to capitalize on TV fans' love of pirates.
As far as digital entertainment goes, the casino operator Betway has games set in Ancient Egypt, like Ark of Ra and Mask of Amun, as well as the perennially popular Norse setting, including Masters of Valhalla. Publishing company Pan Macmillan has also drawn attention to a raft of books based on the sword of sorcery themes, such as Malice by John Gwynne, Brian Staveley's Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, and The Tales of the Otori from Lian Hearn. It’s worth noting that DC doesn’t place anywhere near as much of an emphasis on historical tropes, preferring the idea of secret identities and other psychological themes.
There’s a problem emerging in the MCU, though. Marvel’s apparent desperation to get movies and TV shows out at a rate that eclipses just about every other production company is starting to create cracks. The very first (recent) TV show, WandaVision, was an outrageous success for Marvel but the newer entries in the superhero canon haven’t fared quite so well. Moon Knight, What If…?, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have been described as forgettable lore-heavy slogs by the media, a verdict that’s reminiscent of the poorly-received Iron Fist of 2017. However, it’s possible to forget about all of that, as Marvel’s issues with quality seem to have coalesced into one single series - She-Hulk, which doesn’t actually debut until August 2022. Starring Tatiana Maslany as the titular creature, the series has already forced a few excuses from the creators.
Admitting that they didn’t actually have a plan for She-Hulk’s CGI (odd, for a series that’s based entirely around a CGI character), the VFX teams in charge had to significantly improve the appearance of Maslany’s monster after the first trailer. Now, there’s such a huge discrepancy between the CGI used in the show and in marketing materials that it’s quite hard to get a handle on what She-Hulk is actually supposed to look like. Maslany variously appears as a painted Lou Ferrigno-like figure, a clearly CGI copy, and a woman wearing something like an Instagram filter. While none of this says anything about the quality of the show or the talent involved, the success of She-Hulk could set a worrying precedent for more CGI characters on TV. Why is that such a bad thing? Marvel’s efforts at computer-generated imagery have never stood the test of time.
There’s a feeling that Marvel is creating increasingly throwaway content that’s not supposed to last more than the time it takes to watch it. Whether this is a bad thing or just something that content creators do is debatable but, for viewers, it may mean that their favorite comic book characters don’t get the treatment that they deserve. Preternatural archer Hawkeye is already treated as a background character, for instance - and even his own show went largely unnoticed due to the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home around the time of its debut. What does this mean for upcoming shows and movies like Blade, Thunderbolts, The Marvels, and Agatha: Coven of Chaos?
There’s a lot planned for Marvel over the next three years so we’ll soon see if the company can keep the quality high along with the hype.
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