Why Superhero Movies Might Never Die – and That’s Okay

So, if you follow movie news and reporting, you probably heard the term ‘superhero fatigue’ being bandied about – the idea that the general audience is getting sick of superhero movies due to overexposure. Usage of that term seems to have dropped off steeply since 2018, which isn’t surprising – 2018 brought us Black Panther, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Infinity War from the MCU, which combined made over four billion dollars.

Of course, that’s only the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a franchise juggernaut that breaks all rules. On the other hand, DC can’t break the billion dollar mark, even with the successful Wonder Woman…until they did in December with Aquaman, which made over a billion dollars.

But fine, they were eventually going to get it right.

For a given value of ‘right.’

Sony can’t make a good movie without Marvel’s help, Venom was sure to bomb…but instead it made eight-hundred fifty-five million dollars. Then they followed it up with Into the Spider-Verse, one of the best superhero films of all time even if it didn’t perform as well as the others on this list.

I could go on, talking about Deadpool 2’s success proving the allure of superheroes can overcome R-Ratings and Incredibles 2 proving you don’t need to be based on a comic book to do well…but I just did, so we’re covered there. In 2019 we’ve already had four superhero movies, and of those only Hellboy is a legitimate bomb, and that’s because Hellboy is fucking awful. Captain Marvel made over a billion dollars, Shazam didn’t do amazingly but still made over three hundred million dollars on a budget of only a hundred million, and Endgame is the first movie in ages to have a shot at unseating Avatar as the top-grossing movie of all time.

What I’m saying is, the superhero genre only seems to be growing. Given that these movies have been a dominant box office presence for nineteen years now, they’ve enjoyed a box office run stronger than any other genre outside of Westerns – and in only eleven years, they’ll have managed to beat that record. At this point, I’m starting to think that comic book movies are going to never die. They might go through peaks and valleys, but they’ll never really go away.

Here’s why:

They’ve survived bombs already:

Back in 1999 when Blade came out, followed by X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2001 and kickstarting this current era of superhero dominance, the genre had been declared ‘dead’ once already. Batman Forever had come out and been such a terrible movie that people were claiming that this genre would never recover – that this was the end of the superhero in the film. Other, less hyperbolic critics were still saying the genre was dead for now. And they were right. Batman Forever did kill the superhero genre…for eighteen months.

Batman Forever.jpg
Remember how bad this was?

Most deaths of characters in comic books last longer than that.

Since those three movies revived the entire genre, there have been some absolutely terrible movies. Catwoman. Both Ghost Riders. Green Lantern. Wolverine: Origins. Daredevil. Justice League. All movies based on The Fantastic Four. And those are just the ones that were flops both in terms of storytelling and commercial success. That doesn’t include movies that were terrible even if they didn’t bomb. Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. Spider-Man 3. X-3. There’s more I didn’t think of, I’m sure.

I have to remember this film. So do you.

None of those movies have even put a dent in the overall popularity of the genre. Superheroes are still a huge business, and for each bomb, I can name two movies that did good money and were good movies. I honestly can’t imagine how a movie would kill the genre at this point. Let’s hypothetically imagine that Dark Pheonix bombs, just because it’s the next movie to come out. Well, Spider-Man: Far From Home is bound to do well a month later, New Mutants is going to be 50/50 on how it does, and the buzz around Joker has me certain that DC’s going to have another solid box office under its belt.

But even if, hypothetically, all four of those movies are flops, that won’t stop studios from releasing Wonder Woman 1984, Birds of Prey, Venom 2, and Mobius – all of which are not MCU movies since we don’t have firm dates for phase 4 yet, but they’re bound to release one or two next year since they have Eternals and Black Widow in production.

For the superhero genre to truly flop, there would need to be 10 flops consecutively at this point. Even on a light year, it would require six movies to bomb – and some of those movies are going to do well, no matter what. Spider-Man and Wonder Woman are huge draws with a ton of buzz, Venom was popular enough that its sequel will do well, and we still have sequels coming for Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Into the Spider-Verse, and Aquaman in the wings. All four movie’s last chapters were strong enough both with critics and general audiences that their respective studios would be insane not to make more of them.

Financially, superheroes are the safest bet in movies right now. I don’t see studios wanting to abandon these cash cows anytime soon.

It’s an adaptable genre

As I alluded to earlier, superhero movies are most often compared to Westerns in terms of their box office dominance. However, I don’t think that’s the best comparison. See, the problem with a Western movie is that, no matter what you do with it, there are some things you have to do for it to actually be a Western. It needs to be set in the American West during the period the west was the ‘wild west.’ It needs to have cowboys and outlaws – or at least people on horseback shooting period appropriate guns with hats. If you don’t do those things, it’s not a western anymore, it’s a western themed something else.

Space-Western isn’t the same as Western. It’s just awesome.

Superheroes, on the other hand? All you really need for a superhero movie is people with superpowers in the real world…except that’s not even true, because Batman films are superhero films and he’s just a rich dude with a bat fetish that likes punching the mentally ill, while Harry Potter takes place in the real world and has people with powers but definitely isn’t a superhero film. So I guess all you really need are costumes? Well…not exactly, because the Guardians of the Galaxy don’t wear costumes, so that can’t be it. How about one based on a comic book character? That definition would exclude The Incredibles but include Men in Black and 300. You could define a superhero movie as an action movie where people have colorful codenames and survive impossible things…but then you’d be saying Chronicle and Handcock aren’t superhero films, while James Bond films are.

See how tricky this is to define? At the end of the day, I think superhero films are like porn – you know it when you see it.

And like porn, that means there’s a lot of different things you can do with it. Just to pick a few superhero films at random – Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera, Doctor Strange was urban fantasy, Winter Soldier was a technothriller, Wonder Woman was a war movie and a Greek mythology film, Logan was a post-apocalyptic western, and Ant-Man was a heist film.

That’s the big thing here. Superheroes, as a genre, is such a vast thing that has a ton of potential. New Mutants, coming out this year, is going to be a horror film – as will Brightburn, which looks awesome even though it seems set to be buried under the other, bigger films coming out around it. You could do a superhero western, a superhero rom-com, a superhero epic fantasy. You can do pretty much anything you want and attach a superhero to it and instantly have a unique twist on the genre.

Seriously this looks rad as hell.

Westerns died out because they were tied, inexorably, to a particular style and period of time. Superhero films don’t have that restriction, so don’t grow “stale” the way Westerns, Spy-Thrillers, 80’s style-action, monster movies, fantasy, space opera…really, any other genre does. It’s possible classic superhero movies – people in costumes in the modern world fighting other people in costumes – will die out, but the films can just pivot to focus on other things that fall under the same heading.

It’s perfect for a global audience

Increasingly, popular culture is heading more and more towards appealing to a global audience. If you want to do well at the box office, you need to be able to appeal to United States audiences and Chinese audiences – those being the two biggest box offices on the planet – and you’re going to want to at least get some traction with other regions. The Indian box office is huge, although it’s harder for Hollywood to break in there. Give it another decade or two, and Nigeria is going to be the number four target after those three.

No, seriously, Nigeria is going to be huge in the box office world by 2040 unless something disastrous happens.

The problem is, blockbuster movies are pretty much always built around action films, and those don’t translate as universally as you might think. Sure, everyone can enjoy explosions and the sheer mindless spectacle of it – that’s pretty universal – but a lot of the messages don’t translate well. American action films tend to focus around a lone individual who Knows What’s Best taking on hordes of faceless mooks. That plays great in America but isn’t going to do as well elsewhere in the world. They draw upon cultural reference points that are specific to the culture they’re from.

Superheroes don’t need to do that. Superheroes moral standings tend to be arch, universal ethics that are generally agreed upon globally. Murder bad. Friendship good. Mass destruction bad. Family good. Honor and nobility that isn’t attached to a particular culture’s specific moral codes, and villainy that – even when it’s coming from a Killmonger type that has a culturally specific motivation – manifests in forms that can be agreed upon to be evil.

No matter where you are from, killer robots are bad.

The cultural reference points in superheroes also tend to not be specific to a nation or region, but instead draw upon their own internal mythology. References to Stark Enterprises, Lexcorp, Wakanda, Latveria, Krypton – those are not part of any particular culture, those are broad and universal things. The capes and spandex look may have originally been drawn from the early nineteenth-century American circus strongmen, but most Americans don’t even recognize it anymore – everyone sees it and thinks ‘superhero.’ It means they translate well no matter where in the world you go, even if the settings, character, and costume is undeniably American. 

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The guy wrapped in the American flag has been in some of the most successful movies of all time.

That being said, those broad reference points can still be used to make culturally specific points. Winter Soldier was about mass surveillance in general but also spoke to a specifically American concern about government overreach. (Although I can’t help but wonder if that had a particular extra layer of resonance with some other territories as well.) Spider-Man: Homecoming was about the experience of being a teenager, but also had anxieties that were designed for the American teen in particular.

Personally, I think it’s a good thing. The superhero is global, flexible, and durable enough to be the new model for Hollywood box office going forward, and I think it’s going to be interesting to see what new generations of filmmakers do with it.

And if you think it’s impossible for superheroes to dominate the movies indefinitely, just remember – there was a point in time where the biggest comic books weren’t about superheroes, either.

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3 thoughts on “Why Superhero Movies Might Never Die – and That’s Okay

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