Are superhero films entering an endgame of their own making?
At risk of stating the obvious, the superhero movie remains the king of blockbuster cinema. As you read this, you’ll likely be hard-pressed to find any theatre near you that isn’t showing the latest Marvel or DC instalment on at least one of their screens. The clockwork-reliable release schedule of superhero films means that there’s very little downtime between the latest fix of CGI-action-adventure and the next, which in turn means that fans of the films can rely on regularity of production and consistency of content that few other creative sectors could ever dream of. In many ways, the Marvel and DC universes have become a cultural rhythm; the familiarity of their near-continuous presence in cinemas has become as much a part of their identity as the content of the films themselves. Yet this familiarity may be slipping into monotony.
As several news outlets have noted (some as early as 2011, when the phrase ‘superhero fatigue’ was first coined), superhero movies, as a genre, had begun to tire. Although the franchises involved remain, on the whole, highly lucrative and closely followed by fans, the fact remains that the genre is becoming oversaturated with material, much of which has been becoming increasingly weak and poorly received in recent years. In 2021, on the back end of the COVID-19 pandemic, industry giant Marvel Studios began to stumble; Black Widow, although making a firm profit, still made well below what might be expected from a Marvel movie. Later in the year, Eternals performed well financially, but was poorly received by critics, eventually settling at a sub-par 47% Rotten Tomatoes score. In 2022, DC’s Black Adam failed to break even; a year later, Shazam: Fury of the Gods also bombed, scraping an $11 million profit out of a $125 million budget.
Much of the blame for the current state of the genre is – quite rightfully – laid at the feet of the studios in charge. With the watershed success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in the late 2000s, a slew of successors sprang into action, pursuing Disney’s huge profit margins by acting largely in imitation of their formula; sprawling, ensemble action scenes, quippy comedy, and tantalising post- and even mid-credits ‘bonus scenes’, which functioned largely as built-in trailers for upcoming sequels.
Indeed, it was those bonus scenes that came to represent exactly what was most successful about the early Marvel films: their potential. The implication of ‘how much more’ there was beyond the edges of the screen proved tantalising. Throwaway lines that implied or acknowledged the shared existence of other Marvel films, spoken casually enough to be missed by a first-time viewer, consistently confirmed the in-universe connections that were so romantic for the late 2000s and early 2010s audiences. The in-joke; the ‘club membership’; the idea of belonging to something bigger and shinier than you might ever encounter in real life, was consuming – particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the aftermath of which made the power fantasy of a superhero flick all the more vindicating.
Rival studios wasted very little time in following suit. 20th Century Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four films, Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, and more recently Sony Studios’ own so-called ‘Spider-Verse’, have all aimed to emulate the interconnected, grand narrative style that made the Marvel brand so successful. Yet, the repeated attempts of Marvel’s rivals to mould their various comic-book intellectual properties (IPs) into their own serialised mega-franchises is what has led in part to the over-saturation of the genre, thick as it is with remakes, reboots, and reinventions of wildly varying quality. The drive towards a product that is both familiar and digestible has repressed innovation and encouraged a formulaic style of filmmaking based purely on what has been deemed most profitable. Individual directors struggle to maintain creative autonomy under the decisions of the studio higher-ups; the troubled production and poor reception of DC’s Justice League, and its subsequent re-release as the far better-received Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is clear proof of the potential of studio demands to hamstring otherwise successful projects.
Besides the rigidity of this template, the superhero genre was, inevitably, stretched even thinner by the inescapable spectre of COVID-19. The pandemic put a hold on active projects, which meant that a bottleneck of content that had been intended to come out months apart were released as the pandemic wound down, in quick succession and across numerous platforms, saturating the viewing market with material. While the meteoric rise of streaming services allowed studios to push more content, more directly to audiences (Disney+ in particular enjoyed a huge spike in viewers in early 2020, directly due to the effects of the global lockdown), it also had the effect of increasing the fan labour required to keep up with in-universe developments. Where once, for example, Marvel’s overarching storyline could be followed, without much difficulty, from movie to movie, fans now also had to keep up with an accelerating slew of Disney+ shows in order to maintain their grasp on that iconic ‘in’ feeling. The work required to access the entirety of the mythos – scattered as it is across numerous films, television shows, and platforms – increasingly isn’t worth it for the reward of simply being able to understand the delivered content; particularly when that content is of noticeably poor quality.
It isn’t a stretch to say that storylines have weakened, special effects have worsened, and superhero films have felt more and more rushed in recent years. Plenty of these problems can be blamed on the sheer quantity of material being pushed by the big studios in their attempts to maintain growth in their most lucrative sectors – but such a focus on profit has real human consequences. The ongoing writers’ strikes in Hollywood have exposed numerous instances of business malpractice; in particular, the so-called ‘one-step deal’, which puts writers under immense pressure to deliver a first-draft script which the studio will accept without having to pay for revisions, and which, if nothing else, ultimately comes at the cost of the quality of finished films. Special effects workers – perhaps the most essential staff for a superhero movie, thickly populated as they are with energetic and extensive CGI sequences – have also spoken out about the gruelling hours forced upon them by studios in order to meet shifting and unstable deadlines, conditions which undoubtedly resulted in the widely mocked special effects of Thor: Love and Thunder.
It’s also true that real-life bad publicity has managed to find a foothold on the public relations side of the big superhero studios. Both Warner Bros. and Disney have been left in uncomfortable positions surrounding two prominent super-actors; Ezra Miller, who plays DC’s The Flash, has been involved in several high-profile instances of harassment, trespassing, and burglary, while Jonathan Majors, who played Kang the Conqueror in Marvel’s Antman and the Wasp: Quantamania, was charged for assault and harassment in March. While these cases in themselves can’t really be blamed for any broader downturn in the superhero genre, the sheer, too-big-to-fail scale of their parent studios serves to elevate these scandals to an international level of publicity, which in turn could spell genuine shifts in public perception towards the franchises themselves.
Along with the decline of mainstream superhero films, a parallel rise in the popularity of smaller, more innovative projects has recently bloomed throughout the genre. The latest critical and financial success of the lovingly animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has followed the grimly alternative projects The Boys, Invincible, and Joker, whose dark and hyper-violent stories were seen by many as a welcome antidote to the bright and digestible tropes of Marvel and their derivatives. The comparatively modest budgets and satirical storytelling of these entries didn’t preclude them from coming away with the kind of critical attention that their big-budget cousins could only dream of. To state outright that the superhero movie is dead is perhaps, therefore, a little disingenuous. For all their failings, millions of fans still flock to the latest instalment of beloved IPs beating CGI snot out of each other. As an A-list actor draped in spandex pauses between punches to deliver a witty rendition of an out-of-date internet meme, and Bob Iger watches another billion dollars gush into Disney’s coffers, a vast majority of the global audience continues to roar their approval. For fans tired of the blockbuster template, quieter, darker, and more alternative entries are becoming increasingly popular and successful, further expanding – and therefore sustaining – the breadth and appeal of the superhero genre. It’s easy for some to point out that The Flash made ‘only’ $139 million on its opening weekend, while missing the fact that the superheroes of these franchises are still among the most lucrative intellectual properties available to their parent studios. Until such a point as it becomes no longer profitable, it’s likely that we can rely on the comic-book movie to stay put – at least for the foreseeable future.