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Did Thor & Co. kill cinema? The movie universe is split

While superheroes have carved out a large niche in Hollywood, a renaissance of small films signals studios walking back on their commitment to only making big-budget movies.

Thor: Ragnarok features the Hulk, from left, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

Marvel Studios

Thor: Ragnarok features the Hulk, from left, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

Depending on which side of the interdimensional divide you sit on, superhero movies are either the best thing to happen to Hollywood since the invention of buttered popcorn or the worst thing to happen to film since Steven Seagal.

Before we decide if The Hulk et al are ruining Hollywood, let’s define what a superhero movie is.

This weekend’s Thor: Ragnarok is most definitely a superhero film. It features characters with godlike abilities dedicated to protecting the public from archenemies.

Most superhero flicks — a genre David Fincher refers to as “spandex, blockbuster tentpoles” — whether they are comedic outer-space operas like Guardians Of The Galaxy or heist flicks like Ant-Man, are bound by straightforward morality and the idea that good always prevails over evil.

“It’s a very delicate time right now on Earth,” said Man Of Steel’s Michael Shannon, “and there’s a lot going on that is pretty frightening. It would be nice to believe or think that there was somebody that could protect us from that.”

Director James Wan adds, “All the good superheroes have some kind of social commentary about why they are who they are. It teaches values and so it’s a very important thing.”

The studios — with Marvel leading the charge — have raked in billions of dollars peddling bigger-than-life movies to fan boys and girls but are they self-defeating? Are Batman and Wolverine really ruining the movie business?

Oscar winner William Friedkin thinks so. “Films used to be rooted in gravity. They were about real people doing real things. Today cinema in America is all about Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Avengers, Hunger Games: all kinds of stuff that I have no interest in seeing at all.”

Marvel Cinematic Universe architect Kevin Feige, the man largely responsible for the influx of cinematic superheroes, disagrees. “If you look through the decades of people who’ve been accused of that — Star Wars ruined Hollywood, Steven Spielberg ruined Hollywood —I’ll be in that company any day of the week.”

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That’s a flippant answer to a hotly debated and complicated question. At the heart of the discussion is the notion that bigger is always better. Does Hollywood’s love of bombast come at the expense of new ideas? Has the sheer scale of Avengers and Company movies made studios greedy, interested only in brands that will gross hundreds of millions. Why spend $5 million to gross $25 million, the theory goes, when you can spend $180 million on an established brand and make $1 billion?

Others worry that the episodic, homogenous nature of continuing superhero storylines aren’t challenging.

The truth is Wonder Woman and Friends haven’t sucked all the oxygen out of the room. The superhero bubble exists but the commercial and artistic success of movies like Get Out and Colossal balances out the equation. Superheroes may provide bang for the buck but smaller, original films are coming back into vogue.

The world of cinema is a big place. There’s room for both Thor: Ragnarok and The Florida Project. The fact we’re seeing a renaissance of small films playing alongside their risky bigger budget cousins like Dunkirk, signals studios walking back on their commitment to only making astronomically priced superhero movies.

So superheroes haven’t ruined Hollywood. They may be popular now but as Feige says, “As soon as there are a bunch of them that are terrible, that’s when it will end.”

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