I went to see Iron Man 2 last week, and while I enjoyed it, I can't help but agree with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's contention that it and movies like it are sucking up a distressing amount of creative oxygen in Hollywood these days. Summer blockbusters have always drawn in talented actors, writers, and directors, of course, be they good movies like Iron Man, Star Wars, and Batman Begins, entertaining but forgettable efforts like Men In Black, the X-Men franchise, or the initial Harry Potter films, or genuine dreck like the recent Clash of the Titans. But by virtue of their box office reliability and inherent amenability to sequelization, comic book movies present a special problem. If a director like Christopher Nolan or Jon Favreau, or a performer like Christian Bale or Robert Downey Jr., makes a one-off foray into blockbuster filmmaking, it's one thing - just one entry in a filmography that has plenty of space to subsequently grow in other directions. However, if they're committed to an entire franchise, which successful superhero movies tend to spawn, it's something completely different. If there's going to be a Batman sequel every few years, that's one fewer Memento or Insomnia that Nolan has time to make in that time frame. If Downey Jr. is busy with Iron Man 3 or its spinoff The Avengers, he's going to have less time for daring comic roles like the one he played in Tropic Thunder or fascinating dramatic ones like his turn in Zodiac. If Guillermo del Toro is making Hellboy 2, he's not making the next Pan's Labyrinth. And so on.
It has been very interesting to see talents like Nolan, Downey, Favreau, del Toro, Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, etc. put their stamp on the superhero movie genre, just as it was interesting to watch the likes of Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson do it twenty years ago. But the imprint of that stamp gets fainter and fainter with each application without a return to the inkpad, and that's essentially what Iron Man 2 (and The Dark Knight, X-Men 2, Hellboy 2, Spider Man 2, etc.) are. Because of this diminishing returns effect, the creators feel pressure to constantly up the ante, with each subsequent outing in the franchise featuring bigger action sequences, better special effects, more and cooler villains, etc. Eventually, things get to the point where the sequels become more reminiscent of the absurd, bloated cartoonishness of the Joel Schumacher-George Clooney Batman period than the taut, well-imagined, and character-driven films that began the franchise re-boots. This happened with Spider Man 3, it happened in my opinion with The Dark Knight, and in Iron Man 2, there are signs aplenty that it's starting to happen with that franchise as well, despite the movie's charms.
Perhaps Raimi, by bailing on the Spider Man franchise after the third installment to go back to making the kind of clever horror and fantasy films on which he made his name, will set a good precedent for other creative types currently absorbed by the superhero craze. Or perhaps too many of these movies being released every year will lead the public to tire of them, and the fad for them will pass, clearing space for other films to be made. As someone who enjoys the efforts of talented people in genres other than the comic book adaptation, I think either would be a fairly welcome development.
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