Voices: Don’t turn your nose up at comic-book films – our cinemas need them

There’s a definite feeling of comic-book-film fatigue among film critics. One podcast I regularly listen to seemed positively offended by Black Adam, The Rock’s entry into the DC Extended Universe. Surely that’s an overreaction. It might not be a very good movie. It might be a straight-up bad one. But offensive? Please, that’s a bit far.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, now dominating Britain’s screen space, received a rather more positive reception. But at least a chunk of the praise can be filed under “grudging”. These movies really do seem to get under the skin of those who have decided to dislike them.

Perhaps it’s because of the budget. Black Adam’s was reportedly in the $200m (£168m) range. Wakanda accounted for $250m. Remember, too, that those numbers cover just the production costs. The standard rule of thumb is that you double them to account for promotion, marketing and ancillary expenses. There are a lot of studio eggs going into these baskets, which inevitably squeezes what’s available for alternatives – another reason for their detractors’ distemper.

Perhaps it’s also irritation at their box-office success that turns noses up at these films. Lukewarm reviews haven’t stopped Black Adam from being set to “comfortably” pass £20m here in UK box offices, which qualifies it as a mega-hit. That’s a mountain of cash for The Rock to sit atop. As for Wakanda, it pulled in £12.4m during its three-day opening alone.

You can hardly blame cinema operators for filling their screens with bona fide sure things. They’ve been starved of that sort of hit recently – in fact, they’ve been starved of releases full stop. When I started investigating what had happened to the post-pandemic movie industry for The Independent a while back, I found that the number of medium-sized films – those grossing between £2m and £20m – getting into cinemas had fallen by nearly 50 per cent. Their collective box-office takings were less than half the pre-pandemic number.

This isn’t because of studios making too many comic-book films. Those medium-sized films are still getting made. Recent examples include the horror flick Smile and Don’t Worry Darling, featuring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles. But today they are as likely to go direct to streaming as they are to get a cinematic run.

The big studios tried streaming superhero movies during the pandemic. Some were released simultaneously via both platforms. It didn’t work out so well (and even ended up with a disgruntled Scarlett Johansson filing a lawsuit against Disney over the release of Marvel’s Black Widow).

Films with seven-figure budgets need not only the revenue and the publicity, but also the cultural imprint of a cinematic release, and that means a window of exclusivity, even if it is shorter than the 90 days that used to be demanded. Wakanda underlines the point, as it delivered a much-needed shot in the arm to the nation’s – and the world’s – beleaguered cinema operators. Globally it has pulled in $400m plus.

Clearly, there are scant signs of superhero fatigue among the cinema-going public. And is it any wonder that audiences are prioritising escapism? My daughter reported that she had both laughed and cried at Wakanda. She cheered at the conclusion of a still-rare superhero property majoring on women. That, there, is a movie.

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I heard laughter, cheers and tears, too, at my local Picturehouse, where the management clearly recognised the film’s cultural importance. The foyer featured stalls full of African produce. There were books and graphic novels on show devoted to the characters, but also titles such as 100 Great Black Britons. That’s surely something to be celebrated.

The next day I took in Living. A critical darling, featuring a career-defining performance by Bill Nighy, it’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s arthouse classic Ikiru. Deeply moving, it deserves its plaudits. Rare is the remake that can live up to the original that inspired it, but Living pulls it off.

It might be a small film, but its impact was greatly enhanced by seeing it on a large screen in a dark cinema. Make no mistake, it’s films like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever that make that possible.