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2022: A year of trial and error for superhero themed cinema

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The superhero movie industry is fascinating even from a content creation standpoint. Maintaining a reader’s interest in comic books is one thing, but with live-action movies raking in billions of dollars at the box office, and with hit rates at their most volatile phase, leaps of faith are inevitable. Creators have to keep offering something new, in a fresher package, and simultaneously be aware of what’s working and what’s not. In 2022, the superhero genre saw tons of such experiments.

Marvel and its vast arsenal

After many misfires and some surprises, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ended in 2022 with the release of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. It has arguably been the most challenging phases for Marvel, but that’s primarily due to how much the studio pushed the boundaries to experiment with format, form, and content. 2022 was the pinnacle of it, as of now.

It’s no news that Marvel studios have been utilising its streaming platform Disney+ to test newer formats of storytelling. This year, we got regular television series, miniseries, and even telefilms. Given its popularity among younger audiences, it was obvious for the studio to make I am Groot, a mini-series with episodes spanning less than five minutes, apt for casual viewing to see Baby Groot indulge in all types of shenanigans, including a dance-off with a jello-like shapeshifting alien. The newly-introduced telefilm format seems to be working wonders as well, especially for introducing considerably popular comic-book characters economically and with canon value. Man-Thing in Werewolf by Night was one such example.

It wouldn’t be a surprise anymore if Marvel goes on to extend the storyline from successful telefilms to make movies that are canon to the bigger narrative. This is precisely how Marvel uses its other products with a standalone series. The Evil Doctor Strange narrative from last year’s animated anthology series What If…? made its way into the MCU with this year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Marvel continues playing with formats as a segue between tentpole titles. This year, we got a sweet little Christmas telefilm from James Gunn, The Guardians of the Galaxy: Holiday Special, which despite being a great standalone short, had immense canon value especially considering the reveal involving Mantis and Star-Lord. This can be expected from a studio that, last year, gave Falcon a television run to pass on the Captain America mantle.

Putting their collective experience in introducing fresh characters to great use, Marvel gave three spectacular fan favourites this year, all through limited series: Moon Knight, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, and Ms. Marvel. And putting these names beside each other seems bizarre, given how drastically different they are. Ms. Marvel, Marvel’s first South Asian superhero with a comic book, got a stunning entrance. A story about a teenager grappling with teenager issues and superpowers isn’t new to Marvel, but Ms. Marvel fleshes out a real Pakistani-American character who questions notions and reconnects with her roots. This is a series that shows its lead character struggle with everyday issues, along with world-ending ones.

While that series managed to take us to a whole new dimension inside the MCU, Moon Knight upped the notch several times. Everything about Moon Knight, headlined by Oscar Isaac, is refreshing and exciting. An unreliable narrator anchors a mind-bending story that also features a secret society of Egyptian gods inside pyramids. On top of all, never has a Marvel title played so much psychologically as Moon Knight.

You might have known She-Hulk as the cousin of Hulk who loves to break the fourth wall. And Marvel’s miniseries finds a great comedian in the character, a hesitant superhero and criminal lawyer, who is forced to confront her insecurities and the downers of adulting. She stands against sexism, slut-shaming, and body-shaming, while also not pausing to dress like she desires and twerk if she wants to. More than the titular character, it was a blast to see the studios re-introduce Daredevil in the most unexpected fashion.

When it comes to content, even well-established titles got a fresher coat this year. Thor is the only original Avenger with an active solo franchise, and in Thor: Love and Thunder, he proves that there is more scope for innovative storylines in his future. After rebooting the character’s franchise with Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Watiti goes a bit further and even redefines the first two Thor films through a montage voiced by Korg. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever cannot entirely be attributed to the result of experimentation. The film was more of a crisis management, given the untimely death of Chadwick Boseman, but never has real-world grief been explored in such grounding fashion in a superhero movie.

A test of hope for DC

2022 hasn’t been the year for DC with the news about the new studio heads, Gunn and Peter Safran, rebooting the entire live-action universe that was established with Man of Steel. But until the news broke in, DC had a great run with three very different titles trying out three distinct ideas on glorious display: Peacemaker, The Batman, and Black Adam.

Peacemaker was the first sign of a universe that was getting back to its groove. After introducing the character in his rebooted The Suicide Squad movie, Gunn created a black comedy series with John Cena’s character, which became one of the most popular DCEU titles on HBO Max. Gunn took a narcissistic, despicable, dim-witted anti-hero and made him turn on a new leaf through a storyline that is mental, to say the least: an alien species with bodies that look like a butterfly take over people’s bodies, and they survive by drinking the amber fluid produced by a giant alien blob called ‘cow’. No punches were pulled in this adult-only show, the future of which is currently unknown.

Similarly, DC also introduced a new anti-hero to the mix this year, also headlined by a WWE star, but Black Adam is more than just another feature. The film which was the result of superstar Dwayne Johnson’s decade-long efforts was meant to recourse and re-establish the universe. It certainly isn’t an easy gamble to extend so much responsibility to a character that popular moviegoers are not familiar with, but that’s what the creators were going for. Not only did the film have a solid story that opened to a wide range of scenarios, but it also served as a great launching pad for the Justice Society — remember, DCEU hadn’t been lucky with such ensembles. And, of course, Dwayne also breathed new hope into this universe by bringing back Henry Cavill’s Superman, until things went awry for DCEU on the whole.

But the best DC title of the year is none of the above and it also happens to be its wildest and most exciting storyline to look forward to. Introducing a new character is one thing, but how do you present a fresh version of the most popular superhero with infinite versions before you? Matt Reeves’ The Batman is the answer. After Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, this is the second most grounded, sober, and up-and-close portrayal of a caped crusader who also had a shade of vulnerability. Not only did Reeves succeed to overcome all expectations, but he also did it with a form that is unlike any other superhero film and, in fact, was considered unideal for the genre — it was dialogue-driven, pandering to DC’s already much-debated dark visual tone, it has the hero fail more than succeed, and it’s the plot that fuels action here.

Everything is up in the air now. We are still unsure how Marvel’s storyline will bring everyone together for the next Avengers film. Writing-wise, Marvel could do way better, especially with intriguing characters like She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel. However, with Thunderbolts, Blade, The Marvels, Fantastic Four, and Deadpool 3 coming up, the sky is the limit for what to expect in the MCU. So is the case for DC. Gunn recently announced that fans will get more clarity in January. We may not have a Superman currently, but hope prevails.



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