Black Widow was a little boring to me. Maybe it's because I saw it on TV via Disney Plus and not the big screen, or maybe it isn't the movie's fault at all – perhaps I've just spent too much time watching superhero movies over the past 20 years. The enthusiasm for these movies is absolutely still there, but the familiar now feels really familiar.
Maybe Ray Winstone doing a Russian accent isn't enough to dazzle as villains go in 2021. Maybe I'm so acquainted with the origin of the Winter Soldier that I couldn't be shocked by this film doing the same secret assassin twist again with the Taskmaster. Maybe this movie should've been released in 2016, when the Black Widow character really deserved her own spin-off, and not when we know her actions in this prequel are inconsequential to the overall plot of the MCU.
Black Widow felt like a Phase 1 or 2 movie to me, and an origin story for a character who I already knew. There isn't one action set piece in this film that would break the MCU's top 10.
I'm not bored of superhero movies, but I am bored of some superhero movies – and when people express boredom with parts of the genre, like director James Gunn did last month (opens in new tab), I think this is usually what they mean.
The thing is, while its latest movie isn't a favorite of mine, Marvel is doing experimental stuff elsewhere. There's no arguing with the fact that WandaVision and Loki on Disney Plus have expanded the MCU in ways you never would've predicted a decade ago, when we still hadn't seen the Avengers assemble on-screen. These TV shows are as fresh-feeling as big-budget superhero fiction gets – and they do make Black Widow look very safe by comparison.
It's not as simple as saying all superhero movies are boring, or that one particular studio is doing it wrong. Really, the genre has gotten so big that some middle-of-the-pack movies are just inevitable.
When Gunn weighed in on the state of the genre, he honestly didn't say anything that's massively surprising or controversial. Nor was he specific about which movies are the boring ones.
"There are people trying to do some different things with superheroes. So it’s not 100 per cent a rule that everybody isn’t, but a lot of superhero films are boring," said Gunn in an interview with The Irish Times (opens in new tab). "And so for me, I think it’s just about bringing in other elements."
Rather than naming names or criticizing anyone, Gunn was making a wider point about how the genre is so mature now that you need to change it up in order to keep things interesting – or at least, that's how I read it.
"I loved them at the beginning. I was really excited when they first started making those movies. It was about the visual effects when I saw Superman as a kid. I still love that movie. Okay, I know, that’s a guy on wires and bluescreen with this sort of crappy visual effects. And then when Iron Man came out, I was in. You’re able to make a guy fly around who looks like a guy flying around. And that was a beautiful thing to be able to do. But if the movies don’t change, it’s gonna get really, really boring."
Again, this is all totally reasonable. Gunn's movie The Suicide Squad, which just released in the US, is about as radical as it gets for a movie from DC or Marvel – an all-supervillain movie not afraid to kill off multiple cast members and live up to its title, wrapped up with a funny script and exciting visual flourishes.
As counter-programming to boring origin stories go, it's definitely welcome. And it's exactly the type of big swing that movie studios need to take as the years go by.
I wouldn't try and guess which superhero movies Gunn had in mind as the boring ones. The superhero stuff we don't respond to is largely subjective – personally, I'm most wary of vanilla origin stories and sequels that feel like retreads. Those make the genre feel more tired than it actually is.
Captain Marvel is pretty much the last traditional origin story I want to see on the big screen, which I found rote yet enjoyable enough, but I know they're not going anywhere. Hopefully next month's Shang-Chi offers some diversions on the formula.
In recent years, I've personally found mediocre sequels to be just as uninspiring. These are films that are inferior to their predecessors, and fail to meaningfully evolve the main character(s). Thor: The Dark World is a pretty clear example of this because it's so famously bad, as is Iron Man 2, but there are plenty of more recent ones.
I thought 2018's Ant-Man and the Wasp got away with being super dull because it had a cool post-credits scene, and we were all still reeling from the impact of Avengers: Infinity War – the breather offered by a more easy-going film was probably welcome. But that's yet another Marvel movie with a non-event of a villain that I'd happily skip on a rewatch. The first one was tons better.
I'd categorize Gunn's own Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as similarly unnecessary. It's a beautiful-looking sci-fi film, for sure, but it struggled to say anything new about its ensemble that we didn't already learn in the first movie, and came equipped with a planet-sized bad dad twist that everyone could see coming. When you meet the Guardians again in Avengers: Infinity War, the only thing really feels like it's changed about the characters since the end of the first movie is that Mantis is now part of their group. Although, maybe that's because Yondu's death didn't do much for me emotionally.
Wonder Woman 1984, though, to pick on one of DC's movies, was worse than both of them – an overly long and muddled film where its main character seemed reluctant to throw too many punches, even though she kicked plenty of ass in the first film. It lacked good villains, and only had Gal Gadot's chemistry with Chris Pine to depend on. Again, we learned nothing new about Diana, really, other than getting a glimpse at her grieving process over her dead boyfriend.
None of these weaker sequels are symbolic of a larger problem, though; they're just the inevitable result of a crowded genre. I hesitate to say an overcrowded genre, because these have been the most fallow couple of years for superhero movies in a long time, for obvious reasons. And it's not like there are any signs that people are bored of watching them.
The key thing is not to rely on superhero movies as your sole source of cultural nourishment. That's when their limitations become obvious.
Personally, I think we're just about getting enough strong movies (and, now, TV shows) with a genuinely new spin on the material to feel like they're not always repeating themselves. It's like any other popular genre of a certain scale – it's not all going to be gold, even when a lot of it's coming from the same two studios.
The genre is worth too much money for any one studio to risk making only crappy products, though I'm sure we'll still see plenty in the coming years regardless.
Besides, sometimes a movie can actually offer something different but not really get the credit for it. I rewatched Birds of Prey earlier this year, and had a terrific time – alongside its kitschy visuals and John Wick-esque fight sequences, it has a fairly novel way of introducing each of its main characters, and showing how their stories intersect. It reportedly lost a load of money, and it deserved better.
There is still some serious tonal bandwidth in how these comic book characters make the journey to the big screen, too. As rough as 2018's Venom was, Tom Hardy's commitment to talking to himself in that film made it genuinely distinctive. I hope this year's sequel, which looks ridiculous (opens in new tab), doubles down on the parts of that first movie that made it a little bit special, and chucks away the boring stuff of people talking in labs. They might accidentally reverse into making a great movie.
If you ever find yourself totally bored with superhero movies with no sign of a reprieve, there's the possibility that you've just discovered the limitations of how much these 30 to 80 year-old comic book vigilantes can delight you. If that's a natural part of your journey with these films, that's fine too.