Big Data, Hard Culture and the Rise of the Superheroes

 

Superheroes rule Hollywood with a grip as tight as the Man of Steel’s. The question is why. Although it’s simple to quantify the rising tide of live-action superhero movies (see graph), it’s much harder to say what drives this trend or how long it will last.superhero chart_jpg1

Moore’s law plays a role, of course. As computers have gotten smaller, cheaper and more powerful, the shooting format of movies has dramatically shifted from film to digital. Digital gives movie directors a bigger bang for their buck.

The rise of digital has made it possible to create relatively affordable live action movies in which people convincingly fly, shoot lasers out of their fingers, turn into green monsters, and otherwise do things that were traditionally rendered with comic book illustrations or animations.

Of course, “affordable” is not necessarily the same as “inexpensive.” The budget on the new Captain America: Civil War movie was reportedly $250 million. Even for a blockbuster film, a quarter of a billion bucks is a huge bet. So, how can any organization be willing to take such a risk?

Predictive methods and data.

Studios have always tested movies, of course. In the age of analytics, they get even better at forecasting what will and won’t be a hit. As Derek Thompson notes, “Scripts are revised by teams of editors and are studied by analytics companies to tell studios if the plot lines fit with audiences’ expectations of horror movies or superhero dramas. When enough scenes have been aligned to approximate a first draft of a movie, screening companies arrange private viewings for Orange County moms and dads to watch undeveloped versions of the films and give their feedback.”

The process allows for some heroically large budgets, and it reduces the chances of making a flop. Nonetheless, film critics complain that, by rigorously chasing after predictable returns on their investments, entertainment companies are quashing genuine innovation and the possibility of true cinematic surprise.

In the end, this may be what causes the superhero film boom to go bust. Audience members may tire of the same formulas being used over and over again.

Of course, the bust of any boom is easy to predict. It’s much harder to say when it will happen. There are, after all, so many other perplexing factors at work. In fact, no one quite knows why such movies are so popular in the first place. There’s the nostalgia factor, of course, as (usually male) adults use the movies to reminisce about childhood moments spent reading comic books.

But there are even less tangible cultural and psychological factors at work as well. It’s possible that we’re virtually hard-wired for superheroes, as the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell imply.  As far back as recorded history, we’ve had stories of  supernatural heroes who do battle with supernatural villains.

If that’s true, then the superhero movie may have, despite ups and downs, a very long cinematic run indeed.

avenger civil war jpg1

Captain America: Civil War

Of course, there might be more temporary reasons for our communal superhero film fixation. Maybe superheroes are ways for us to deal with our ambivalent feelings about technology. Iron Man represents the superhuman we can all become by virtue of advanced technologies, yet those same technologies can bring disaster in the form of, for example, a malicious artificial intelligence. In fact, most of super heroes have some sort of high-tech origin myth.

Aside from technology, there are many other possible correlates: the state of the economy, the rise of terrorism, growing waves fear and uncertainty, the increase in anger and political polarization (is it just a coincidence that the latest Avengers movie is about a civil war?), etc.

Maybe some analyst will create a prediction model that helps us better understand which factors are convincingly related to the rise and potential fall of such films. That, at least, would be a heroic effort followed by a super achievement.

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