Superheroes in space may be light-years over audiences’ heads

Looking at the blockbuster releases of the past seven years and at the upcoming slates through 2020, it’s clear superheroes aren’t going away anytime soon. As the market has shown, audiences are mostly willing to embrace comic book deep cuts that were once considered too obscure or “too nerdy” to become major blockbusters. While Marvel has proven that moviegoers will flock to see the Guardians of the Galaxy and even Ant-Man in action, these movies face their biggest challenges yet: outer space.

For Fox’s Fantastic Four, inter-dimensional travel is far down the list of reasons why that movie tanked with critics and audiences alike but it certainly doesn’t help. Those much more familiar with the franchise than myself have informed me that “Planet Zero,” the source of the five main character’s powers, is part of the “Negative Zone.” Wikipedia describes it as “an antimatter universe depicted in publications from Marvel Comics, most frequently in Fantastic Four and Captain Marvel.

Marvel has a tough decision on its hands when it comes to incorporating the dimension into its Captain Marvel movie (scheduled for Nov. 2, 2018). Will the concept can be shared, as the Quicksilver character was between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, or did Fantastic Four changing the game of that other dimension allow them to use the “Negative Zone” name? A lot has been made about Fox’s interference in Fantastic Four‘s content, but changing the name of the Negative Zone to Planet Zero probably avoided putting off mainstream audiences. I have to say, I think that was the right move.

Mixing outer space and inter-dimensional travel with superheroes hasn’t often worked well in past movies. Since the current trend of superhero films began in 2000 with X-Men, there been 10 major blockbusters involving characters traveling between planets and/or dimensions. Seven of those are considered to be disappointments, including the 2005 version of Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Green Lantern and this summer’s Fantastic Four reboot. The other three — Watchmen, Man of Steel and Thor: The Dark World — drew mixed reaction from fans.

Granted, those movies had plenty of other problems, but their high sci-fi concepts didn’t help attract an audience. Three that were successful — The Avengers, Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy — came from Marvel Studios. In fact, two of those films are widely considered to be the prime examples of success in the genre. The Avengers was the highest-grossing movie of 2012, while Guardians drew the third-highest box office of 2014.

Before I completely contradict myself, it’s important to note how those two movies treat their sci-fi elements.

In The Avengers, Thor’s brother Loki, whom audiences first met in Thor, uses the Tesseract — which contains one of the Infinity Gems, called the “Space Gem” — to open a wormhole, allowing an essentially faceless alien army known as The Chitauri to invade New York. That gave our team of heroes a big opponent to fight and look cool doing it.

Guardians of the Galaxy delves much deeper into Marvel’s sci-fi lore. The plot hinges on Ronan, a renegade Kree extremist who plans to give another Infinity Gem to Thanos and eventually destroy the alien capital world of Xandar. Despite all of these foreign names and places, the film focuses entirely on its ragtag team of heroes who have to accept each other and learn to work together.

Both of these movies did something very key to their success: They pushed the sci-fi and space opera plots to the background. In each film, you pretty much just have to know that the evil-looking aliens are bad, while the more pleasant-looking humans and aliens are good.

The other giant science fiction franchise in the room is, of course, Star Wars. But the franchise’s concept is more fantasy than high sci-fi. When Fox was forming a marketing plan, the studio found that the opening title “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” made the movies less alienating (pun not intended) to mainstream audiences by giving it the feeling of a fairy tale. Take away the interplanetary settings and the basic good rebels vs. evil government story could be applied to any number of concepts and it will still work.

The Star Wars prequels, particularly The Phantom Menace, baffled audiences by spending a lot of time on common high sci-fi elements, including intra-government politics that we eventually found out were entirely orchestrated by a Sith Lord posing as a senator. It will be interesting to see how director J.J. Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan handle the upcoming series’ story, but The Force Awakens will likely hew closer to the more simple narratives of the original trilogy.

Marvel knows mainstream fans aren’t willing to go as deep into its comic book lore as diehard nerds, such as this writer. In preparation for Age of Ultron, a friend and I re-watched The Avengers despite my insistence that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the true lead-in for this summer’s team-up sequel. She loves the movie, but when Loki traveled up to the asteroid, she stopped paying attention. Similarly, I watched Guardians of the Galaxy with a group of friends whose knowledge and appreciation of Marvel begins and ends with the movies, and they were less interested in the “space stuff.”

I’m currently reading the Infinity War and Infinity Gauntlet comic books which will inspire the next two Avengers sequels, and given the amount of mythology and space travel built into those stories, Marvel has a tough task ahead. Most recently, Ant-Man included the Quantum Realm as a substitute for death that built stakes into its story. But the filmmakers never asked audiences to understand that concept, but only to know that it’s dangerous. Marvel will likely take a similar approach to that of The Avengers and Guardians, much like Fox did by simplifying the Negative Zone into Planet Zero. But this will be the studio’s biggest challenge yet.

Warner Brothers and DC Comics also have an uphill battle ahead of them, but will be going to outer space a lot sooner with their movies than Marvel. Man of Steel kicked off the DC Cinematic Universe with a roughly 20-minute sequence on Superman’s home planet of Krypton. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice will likely scale back on the intergalactic settings, but we know from the trailer that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) — aka the Amazon Diana of Themyscira — will make an appearance in some capacity. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is also rumored to be referenced.

Once the DCCU gets to its Justice League film in 2017, the heroes will likely be in the space station/satellite headquarters that they use in the comic books by the time the closing credits roll. When the studio reboots its Green Lantern franchise with Green Lantern Corps in 2020, and likely adds the Martian Manhunter character to the Justice League (presumably in the team’s second film), WB will be fully invested in those intergalactic elements.

While Man of Steel featured plenty of sci-fi elements, we have yet to see the role that space will play in the DCCU. There will likely be some revisions or additions from that initial Superman story, but DC and WB have also made a point to be the “anti-Marvel” with a darker sensibility and fewer jokes among its characters. This attitude could very well be extended toward the filmmakers’ use of space, going deeper into DC Comics’ sci-fi concepts instead of providing the bare minimum required to tell these stories, as Marvel has. With characters like the aforementioned Green Lantern Corps and Martian Manhunter, this could make for a smoother transition with superhero-loving audiences.

The original Star Trek introduction refers to space as “the final frontier.” For superhero blockbusters, it’s definitely the next one and will be the most challenging aspect for the upcoming slate of Marvel and DC films to sell to moviegoers. For Marvel, their most popular heroes will be leaving Earth, making it more difficult to hit those four-quadrant audiences. But DC will likely dive in head-first, right out of the gate. From the moment Iron Man was a hit in 2007, it became clear that Marvel was playing a game to see exactly how obscure the studio could go with its characters and films. DC will soon follow the same path, hoping audiences are willing to follow second- and third-tier properties.

Marvel has certainly won over audiences with its successful franchises, but DC has an uphill climb to get anywhere near that level in a rather short amount of time. Batman — the most popular character of either company — could get them there. Hopefully, audiences follow him from the streets of Gotham City into the black of outer space.

About Tyler Lyon

When Tyler isn't thinking about the lack of a Canadian presence in D2: The Mighty Ducks, whether Princess Leia can now be considered a Disney Princess or discovering 8-bit classics on his 3DS, he's cheering on the Cubs, Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, and Hawkeyes.