Studios bank on increasingly ominous superhero epics

Summer 2012 has demonstrated anew the impact of the industry’s avid commitment to superheroes and also its tacit abandonment of cost constraints and of counterprogramming. The box office returns indicate that the ride is getting ever bumpier. The winners (“The Avengers,” “Dark Knight Returns” and “The Amazing Spider-Man”) are winning bigger than ever. But the losers (“Battleship,” “John Carter” and “Wrath of the Titans”) also are losing bigger than ever.

And the corporate bean counters are ever more secretive about the true numbers of their marginal releases like “Dark Shadows” or “Prometheus,” which were bailed out by ever-loyal audiences overseas. It’s notable that ambitious projects like “Mirror Mirror” or “Battleship” won’t even crack the $100 million mark in the U.S. (even “Men in Black 3″ is doing twice as much business abroad vs. domestic).

The formidable numbers rolled up by “Dark Knight Rises” underscore the upside potential of the superhero genre, yet the tragedy in Aurora, Colo., raises questions that should give filmmakers pause. Looking at the faces of the children emerging from the theater leads one to ask, is this the appropriate audience for these increasingly dark superhero epics?

It was the astute Joe Morgenstern, writing in the Wall Street Journal, who observed: “During the Great Depression moviegoers flocked to escapist films but the immersive and assaultive ‘Dark Knight’ reminds us that ‘happy days are done and gone.'”

A generation ago Hollywood was showing the world the foibles of eccentric adventurers like Indiana Jones or eager-to-learn wanderers like Luke Skywalker. In his myriad filmic encounters, John Wayne never carried the psychological baggage of Bruce Wayne (alias Batman) nor had to cope with a world of terrorists and nihilists. I’d be curious to see a study of how young filmgoers around the world are dealing with the muffled ravings of Bane, the Batman heavy, or whether many were able to follow the ominously abstruse plot.

Christopher Nolan is a very accomplished, occasionally pretentious filmmaker, but does he understand that the dark disarray of his superhero universe may prove both troubling and disorienting to the kids trying to cope with their own messy realities?

The studios are in a frenzy to reinvent and reboot an array of new tentpoles. Marvel, annexed by Disney, is desperate to put its superheroes back on the assembly line. Then there’s the looming presence of Warner Bros., which will shortly unleash a new Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” to be produced by none other than Chris Nolan. That filmmaker, however, insists he will not do another Batman, despite the urgings of Warner Bros. — thus causing the studio to embark on the equivalent of an archeological dig to unearth forgotten superheroes.

All of which leads filmgoers to wonder, will the universe of superheroes continue to become ever darker?

Aside from its bleakness, “Dark Knight Rises” also points up the trend of movies (especially superhero movies) to be unsparingly noisy — Nolan’s reliance on a relentlessly pounding score designed to heighten suspense is a prime example.

The New York Times ran a fascinating expose last week of the callous use of noise deployed by restaurants and stores to buttress sales. When the bombardment of sound rises to 100 decibels, according to the Times, hearing loss becomes pervasive; at 85 decibels the government demands some form of protection for the ears. Yet many of the restaurants surveyed in the article routinely pumped up the volume to dangerous levels, and some stores like Abercrombie & Fitch deliberately broke the sound barrier.

That’s because their “noise consultants” (surely a new species of bureaucrat) advised them that buyers in stores tend to make their purchases faster when they are under a siege of sound, and in restaurants people devour their food more quickly, thus turning over their tables.

In the movie business decisions to raise sound levels are equally manipulative. I have been to previews when filmmakers raised the sound to deafening levels in an effort to build jeopardy. I also have seen people flee theaters, hands over their ears.

The message of the Times story: Be wary of the tyranny of noise. Even if it means walking out. Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Cynthia Littleton wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson

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