Where Is The Superhero Movie Genre Going? | Column from the Editor

After “Avengers: Endgame,” there was a lot of speculation about whether this was it for Marvel: Where do they go from here? With DC’s live action forays being hit or miss but overall inconsistent and lacking the same level of success, Marvel became the face of the genre, which were among some of the most lucrative blockbuster films of the 2010s.

The 2020s, however, have not been kind to it. A global pandemic in 2020 shuttered most releases until 2021, in which many, like “Black Widow” and “The Eternals” underperformed. DC has had its fair share of struggles, via “Wonder Woman 84,” “The Suicide Squad,” and more recently “Black Adam,” but it is worth noting that the genre has managed to put out its fair share of hits in films like “The Batman” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” And on streaming, shows like “The Boys,” “Peacemaker” and a selection of Marvel’s Disney Plus series like “Loki” and “WandaVision” have made great waves online, with the latter being a big draw to the still-relatively new streaming service.

Still, the genre doesn’t seem to have the same amount of steam it once had, as is evident by box office returns. I suspect some of this has to do with consumers getting used to returning to movie theaters — pandemic-era films like “The Suicide Squad” and “Encanto,” for instance, are beloved but bombed when they released in theaters. Oversaturation of the genre I think is also a factor, with Marvel being the prime offender. Phase 4 and 5 films like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” all require prior viewing of multiple previous films and Disney Plus TV shows to get the full experience; it’s getting harder and harder for the average moviegoer to jump into these films.

Superhero fatigue has been long discussed, but I think it is becoming particularly relevant now, as we’ve seen what would have been effortless box office darlings like “Black Widow” and even “The Eternals” struggle; leading up to “Avengers: Endgame,” even middling films like “Captain Marvel” were virtually guaranteed box office success. Marvel is no longer has the security it once had and now finds itself in a strange place where it has to reboot itself while also catering to fans of the pre-Endgame MCU.

In no way is this more prevalent than in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” which struggles with featuring its established stars of Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly as Scott Lang and Hope van Dyne and Lang’s daughter, Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who is their clear replacement. The film should have been a clean transition to Cassie taking over the role of Ant-Man (or Ant-Woman) in the MCU, giving the franchise a much-needed reset, yet it fails to pull any punches, as even the even Scott and Hope’s mentors, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) make it out of the film unscathed, their stories done and left with nothing to do.

“Avengers: Endgame” was perhaps the best thing for Marvel because it wrapped up the stories of the original roster of Avengers in a satisfying way before they overstayed their welcome, with Black Widow, Captain America and Iron Man getting complete closure to their stories with their deaths and/or retirement. It allowed some of the old roster to stay on the sidelines, but created an opportunity for new characters to take their place.

The issue is that much of Phase 4 and 5 have been sequels to the franchises we’re familiar with, as much of the new franchises have been relegated to stocking Disney Plus. It’s been great for Disney Plus, but most of these shows feel like six-hour movies that could have been two. Worse, relegating them there in a way has blunted their impact, especially in terms of characters like Ms. Marvel and Sam Wilson’s Captain America, who will later appear in theatrical films.

DC hasn’t fared better theatrically, though Robert Pattinson’s Batman film has been a bright spot. DC is likely on track for a complete reboot via Ezra Miller’s Flash movie. Hopefully it’s learned its lesson about trying to start cinematic universes too early; the studio need not repeat the sins of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

Given its capacity for hits when it delivers films that there’s a demand for, I suspect that the superhero genre is far way away from going the way of the Western, but it is greatly weakened and the conditions are right for another genre to eclipse its prominence at the box office. Superhero films rose because of their easy-to-follow storylines and ability to showcase modern CG special effects — they have everything audiences wanted to see last decade and apparently what some want to see this decade.

But audiences can only watch the same handful of superhero films repackaged so many times. The genre needs to adapt or it will die. Perhaps this is why shows like “The Boys,” “Invincible” and “Peacemaker” have received so much acclaim, as they subvert expectations and freshen up a stale genre by satirizing it.

I do not have much faith in DC, especially given the state of its corporate leadership. Marvel still has its MCU versions of the X-Men and Fantastic Four to give us; even dysfunctional studio direction from Fox was able to give us nearly two decades of X-Men films — they alone could keep the MCU going for a decade or two.

So far, the genre seems like it will take on a diminished role, but it’s nowhere ready to die. And it’s worth noting that while films like “Black Widow” and “The Eternals” failed to be box office darlings, they also did not sustain massive losses, earning back at least twice their budgets (“Black Widow” accomplishes this when you factor in the revenue it received through Disney Plus Premiere Access, which allowed subscribers to watch it when it was in theaters for $30 via Disney Plus). Despite all the hot takes online, Kevin Feige’s massive Marvel machine hasn’t sustained much damage.


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