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The best superhero movies this summer didn't have any superheroes at all

The year other genres finally figured out Marvel's secret formula

As if it couldn’t let the final days of summer draw to a straggling close without showing off just a little bit more, Universal Pictures announced this morning that it had set a new domestic box-office record, racking up $2.113 billion in box office receipts over the course of the year thus far. It’s an impressive feat, capping off a summer movie season in which Universal held four of the top 10 domestic box office spots, easily holding off rivals like Disney despite the spandex-clad power of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man.

How did Universal pull it off? Sure, the studio had the runaway success of Jurassic World, but it also bolstered its slate with diverse successes like Pitch Perfect 2 and Straight Outta Compton. Over at our sister site Vox, the always-excellent Todd VanDerWerff dissected the strategy that led to Universal’s big summer — one it achieved, he points out, without a single superhero. But by now, a film doesn’t just need a masked avenger as its protagonist to be a superhero movie. Within the top titles of the summer are a number of movies that adhered to the familiar conventions, themes, and tropes of the modern Marvel superhero movie — and the result was tremendous success, across the board.

2015 wasn’t the summer when superhero movies ruled; it was the summer when every film learned to be a superhero movie.

Avengers: Age of Ultron promotional still (MARVEL/DISNEY)

Avengers Assemble

There are a few broad traits that characterize the comic book films we’ve come to expect every summer at the multiplex. There’s a general elasticity with physics and logic; and a bombastic aesthetic, offering up an audio-visual roller coaster ride that can’t be duplicated on a living room set-up. The characters and stakes are appropriately comic-booky and larger than life — these aren’t the stories of normal people, we’re told; these are the stories of legends. And if you’re smart, your legends always come in packs.

Since Joss Whedon first established the template in 2012 with The Avengers, the pinnacle of superhero movies has involved the creation of a super-powered team of lead characters. They vary across race, ethnicity, gender, even political ideologies, but the core message is that a team can always affect greater change than just a single person, no matter how gifted that individual may be. That core concept isn’t new, of course; it’s an idea that runs through thousands of years of fiction. But what has become new — and arguably essential — in the last few years is the idea of the superhero movie ensemble, to such a degree that Warner Bros. is now cannonballing into ensembles of both comic book good guys (Justice League) and bad guys (Suicide Squad). Avengers: Age of Ultron kicked the summer off in full force, but it wasn’t the only movie about a super-powered team of heroes.

It's basically The Avengers for a capella singing

The Thanos Complex

There was a time when the stakes of a story could be small, intimate; even personal. In the modern superhero film, however, that simply won’t do: movies ratchet up the destruction and peril to unimaginable stakes, so the fate of the entire world — or even multiple worlds — hangs in the balance. (With the population facing such constant peril, I have a suspicion that therapists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are cleaning up.)

With that kind of danger comes a matching, nearly comical villain — no matter what the genre. If you want a villain that can be intelligent as well as menacing, you’d be better served looking elsewhere. Like in 1988, when Die Hard came out.

Man of Steel promotional still (WARNER BROS.)

You Were The Chosen One!

At the core of every superhero story is some variant of the the Hero’s Journey monomyth: an individual is pulled from obscurity into a conflict larger than themselves, they discover magical skills and powers that help them win a great victory, and then they return, changed for the better. It can be Tony Stark inventing the Arc Reactor and Iron Man suit, or Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider, but the principles are the same. Take away the comic book trappings, and that same pattern showed up all over this summer’s movies.

The most nefarious supervillain of the summer was the L.A.P.D.
Fantastic Four promotional still (FOX)

The Superheroes That Weren't

Of course, sharing traits doesn’t immediately guarantee success, and there were plenty of movies this summer that aspired to the superhero mold but came up short. Magic Mike XXL was the closest thing to a superhero movie about male strippers that the world had seen since, well, the first Magic Mike, but it failed to excite audiences the second time around, and Entourage found itself peddling an aspirational male fantasy well past its expiration date. The ugliest stumble, however, was Fantastic Four.

The source material of Josh Trank’s movie was the blueprint for the modern comic book blockbuster, long before The Avengers came around: a team of people plucked from obscurity, endowed with magical powers, and forced to overcome their differences to stop a villain bent on world destruction. If making movies was as simple as filling out a form, Four would have been good to go. But whether it was the result of directorial issues, studio interference, or a toxic combination of both, it instead managed to emerge as not just one of the worst movies of the summer, but perhaps one of the worst movies in the history of the entire genre.

There may be a group of characters that team up at some point, but they’re never developed, nor are they given the ability to play off one another and overcome their differences. They may be given powers, but those powers induce disgust, not wonder. And when the Fantastic Four finally do unite, it’s not entirely clear what they stand for. Fantastic Four is a superhero movie in name only — hitting the beats needed to whip up a movie poster, but failing in every facet of actual execution.

Audiences can always tell when a movie doesn't deliver what it promised

In that sense, it’s the perfect Hollywood cautionary tale. To the dismay of marketing departments everywhere, great movies aren’t created by throwing together a few topline elements with a plot framework and hoping for the best. Audiences have come to expect a certain amount of structure and familiarity, and as the comic book sensibility seeps into other genres, that arguably becomes even more important: audiences may not always know what they’ll like ahead of time, but they can almost always tell when a movie doesn't deliver what it promised. And the conventions of the superhero movie have been embedded deep within an entire generation of moviegoers.

The good news is that there will be plenty of opportunities for studios to learn that lesson. Judging from this summer’s box office, the superhero movie — no matter what genre it may happen to be in — isn’t going away anytime soon.

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