Flying too High – Is the Superhero Movie Genre on the Verge of Collapse?

superhero movies

Our recent summer season revealed a few things to us, particularly with the abundance of Superhero movies released in the last few months.  First thing we know is that the genre still has power at the box office, with 4 of the 5 Superhero movies this year meeting or exceeding their projected grosses.  But, what we’ve also seen this year is a much more mixed reception from both critics and fans towards the genre.  There are a variety of factors for this, though it mostly comes down to some movies just being better than the rest.  But, the other underlying factor that is also starting to develop in response to these movies is a feeling of fatigue.  It may not be a dominant factor, but it’s there and it’s growing.  Some people are just sick and tired of hearing about what’s going on in the Marvel universe and the DC universe, or have just stopped caring.  And while it’s a feeling that hasn’t hit me just yet, it’s one that I do understand.  Hollywood goes through many cycles, with audiences taking interest in one type of genre of movies before eventually losing interest and finding something else to watch.  Superhero movies has been surprisingly resilient in the last decade; staying strong long after many industry predictions would have guessed it would die down.  But, by being on top for so long, the Superhero genre also runs the risks of eventually having a bigger collapse, one that could leave it fractured and dormant for a long time.  It may seem alarmist to think of this now after the success that we’re still seeing this year with movies like DeadpoolCaptain America, and Suicide Squad, but as Murphy’s Law states, what goes up will always come down, and it depends on the genre itself to determine how far it may fall.

To see where there may be signs of a downfall on the horizon, we should look at the results of this year’s slate of Superhero movies.  The year started off strong with surprise showing from Deadpool, a film that took an irreverent look at the genre as a whole.  Then came Batman v. Superman, which rode a hype train towards a strong box office, but was savaged by critics and ultimately also by disappointed fans.  Then Captain America: Civil War continued Marvel Studios hot streak and grossed a billion worldwide.  After that, Fox released their eighth X-Men film Apocalypse to an underwhelming reception, becoming the lowest grossing film of the series in over a decade.  And then finally, there was Suicide Squad; probably the most divisive film released this year overall.  Looking at all of these, it’s really hard to say if the genre has hit a turning point yet, but the signs of fatigue are certainly there.  The mild reception of the new X-Men movie probably is the biggest indicator of the bunch that following the same formula may not be working out as well as it used to.  But, at the same time, it’s also the only real failure of the movies I named.  So, where is the problem?  I think it has more to do with than just the box office numbers.  The highly negative reception towards DC comics two big blockbusters this year also indicates a growing level of distrust towards the people making these movies.  Customers can only be sold a bad bill of goods so long before they turn against the merchant, and DC right now is dangling on the edge.  The ability to reach it’s base audience has managed to keep DC afloat in this year’s box office, but their problematic movies are not winning them over any new fans either.  Audience apathy is what ultimately kills a genre’s staying power, and given the long life span this genre has had, a significant shift can be expected if this kind of reception gets any stronger.

One only has to look at how other genres have fared over the years to see what the future might mean for the superhero genre.  Fantasy films were for the longest time a long marginalized genre, even with a brief upswing in the mid-eighties with movies like Labyrinth (1986) and The Neverending Story (1987).  Then in 2001, we got the double-whammy of the first adaptations of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy; both juggernaut box office hits.  Suddenly, a long dead genre saw new life and many other Hollywood studios quickly tried to cash in on other properties.  There was a brief window of time where it did seem like this was a genre with lasting power, as Disney’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe also became a hit.  But probably more quickly than many expected, the genre lost steam fast.  The Narnia franchise lost it’s mojo by the second film, and other would-be franchises like The Golden Compass (2007), The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) and The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007) barely took off at all.  More recently, we have seen the sad fall of Hunger Games (2012) clones in the last year, with The Maze Runner (2014) being put on an indeterminate hiatus and the Divergent (2013) series being reduced to having it’s last film made for TV instead of theatrical.  Not to mention other genres like the Western which have stayed in hibernation for ages now.  Superheroes movies have the benefit of broader appeal and more diversity of the stories that can be told than some of these other genres, but it is not immune to changes in the tastes of it’s audience like them.

The Superhero genre has gone through peaks and valleys before, and in one case, you could say that had crashed.  It’s also a genre that took a long time to come into it’s own.  It was Richard Donner’s Superman (1980) that really marked the beginning of the genre, but the series took a dive once Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) came out.  A couple years after, the genre hit a high point again with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but like Superman, that franchise lost steam and resulted in a movie that many claim could have been a genre killer with the campy mess that was Batman & Robin (1997).  Yet, the genre endured with highs and lows as Marvel started entering the fray with their adaptations of X-Men (2000) and Spiderman (2002), which of course led to the less beloved X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and Spiderman 3 (2007).  But, then Marvel began their ambitious plan for a Cinematic Universe where all their movies would be interconnected and aimed towards culminating in huge crossover productions.  This is what ultimately ended the up and down trajectory of the genre and instead brought Superhero movies to full dominance in Hollywood.  That’s why it’s hard to say whether or not the genre is due for a downfall or not, because Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is something that we’ve never seen accomplished so well in Hollywood before.  Marvel has found it’s Midas touch and it hasn’t let them down yet.  The same can not quite be said for their rival DC comics.  While their movies do see huge opening weekends, they can’t quite match Marvel’s numbers and their movies are far less beloved.  The perception that DC is just in the game to capitalize on the success of what their rivals have built is another sign of weakness in the genre that could lead to a downfall later on.  When you start to do what’s best for your bottom line instead of what’s best for the material and characters in question, then you begin to lose the goodwill with the audience that could help you sustain success in the long run.

Despite the fact that Marvel’s done things right so far, even they may not be immune to a dramatic shift in attitude towards the genre.  And that shift in attitude may have found it’s origins this year within a product from the genre itself.  The success of Deadpool indicated several things about the genre as it stands right now and they are things that should give the big studios pause and concern right now.  For one thing, Deadpool found it’s best laughs by openly mocking the state of the Superhero genre; with it’s formulaic origin stories and often obnoxious self-importance.  Though most of his jabs were aimed at the increasingly stale X-Men franchise, Deadpool did brutally critique the Marvel and DC formulas as well; including a hilarious spin on Marvel’s predictable post-credits scenes.  And secondly, Deadpool managed to become a success without any meddling from the studios.  This makes it an anomaly in a genre that’s increasingly micro-managed by studio executives; much to the detriment of DC’s recent movies in particular.  The fact that this upstart, irreverent little movie was able to laugh right in the face of it’s bigger adversaries and become a hit because of this shows that audiences are ready to embrace something that is able to skewer the genre as a whole.  And for a genre that currently is caught up with trying to make their grand plans bigger and more meaningful, this sudden shift in perspective could undermine what they are trying to build.  Not that it’s Deadpool‘s intent to destroy it’s competitors and change the genre to suit it’s needs.  Like the character himself, the movie is more or less there to be a silly diversion for the comic book world; never taking itself seriously, while still embracing the genre cliches it’s also trying to critique.  But, given that the response to the movie was so big, it’s irreverent tone may have more of a lasting impact on the genre than it’s creators had originally intended, and set a tide against the genre that could shift how well the ongoing story-lines evolve from here out.

This has already affected DC’s plans for it’s cinematic universe.  When they first embarked on building their franchises, the idea was to take a far more serious, dark tone, inspired mostly by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  This, however, changed in the wake of Deadpool’s record breaking success.  Released on a month before Batman v. SupermanDeadpool managed to still out-gross the more high profile release; making a $363 million gross on a $50 million budget, while BvS settled at $330 million against a $250 million budget.  DC and their parent studio Warner Brothers sensed something was amiss and they quickly reshuffled their creative team behind their future films, including giving star Ben Affleck more of a role and director Zack Snyder less of one.  This also led to costly re-shoots for Suicide Squad and a re-edit to make it more comical that many believe made that movie much more of a mess that it would have been.  So, one unexpected hit that deconstructs the genre has already caused cracks to form at one of the major comic book empires already.  But, is the mighty Marvel vulnerable as well.  Well there has been no sign of fatigue just yet, but by climbing so high they may ultimately be the bringers of their own doom.  You see, what Marvel has done is put a lot of investment on the end game of their grand master plan of a Cinematic Universe, and that end game is coming up soon with the release of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War in the summer of 2018.  For the whole plan to be worth the time we’ve spent watching all of it, Infinity War needs to be a outright masterpiece, otherwise we’re going to look at the whole build-up as worthless in the end.  It’s been a fun ride to be sure, but Marvel has to know that they need to deliver on this, otherwise the genre itself may never be able to reach the same highs ever again, because we would have been put through the biggest of letdowns.  That’s the risk associated with being on top for much longer than you were expected to be.  The inevitable fall could be not just damaging, but crippling as well.

So, when will such a downfall eventually happen to the Superhero genre.  Well, that’s ultimately up to the filmmakers and studios behind the movies.  The thing that can kill a genre over time is a growing disconnect between what the audience wants and what the studios think the audience wants.  Marvel, at this moment, has been very good at anticipating the desires of it’s audience and delivering them to us on screen.  The successful relaunch of Spiderman into the Marvel Universe is an example of how they’ve managed to deliver on such a promise, making us once again eager to see the webslinger on the big screen again by actually focusing on his character and personality rather than his abilities.  DC on the other hand seemed to be doing things the way they wanted to, and once it became apparent that they needed to change direction, it became too late.  And X-Men faulted when they decided to just coast on formula and perhaps spread themselves too thin with a way too big cast of characters in Apocalypse.  But, when you’ve been on top for so long, it becomes tempting to just follow the rules instead of take a gamble.  That’s why the last thing that the Superhero genre needed right now was a game-changer like Deadpool.  Because of Deadpool, now both Marvel and DC are second guessing themselves after investing so much effort in building their respective cinematic universes.  Do they stubbornly stay the course, or do they alter things just enough to stay relevant.  I think what has benefited them up to now is that the worst that the genre has produced over the last few years has been marked as disappoints rather than outright disasters.  We have yet to see this generation’s Batman & Robin.  Last year’s Fantastic Four could have been that tipping point, but there was no legacy for that film to ruin, so it ended up just being a forgotten failure that didn’t effect the industry in any way.  But, if second-guessing their plans and using unnecessary last minute fixes become the norm for both Marvel and DC in the years ahead, then we may end up seeing a point where the Superhero genre comes crashing down.

So, the Superhero genre remains fine for now, but the seeds are planted for an eventual downturn.  It remains to be seen how the genre will fare in the years ahead.  We know now that an overabundance of genre entries can wear down and overwhelm an audience and that tastes can wane over time, diverting towards something else.  At least for now, that something else is another representative of the same genre with Deadpool, but at the same time it’s a movie that deconstructs the foundations that the genre is built upon.  The release of Marvel’s Infinity War in a couple years will tell us if the genre has hit it’s apex yet, and if there will be a future ahead of it still.  But even before then, are we going to see a backlash develop all of a sudden towards Superhero movies?  If there are a string of disappointments, or if DC continues to alienate it’s base by continually trying to meddle with their movies before they’re ready, than that day may come sooner than expected.  The truth of it all is that the Superhero movie genre has enjoyed a very good run, but it’s time will come eventually too.  Just like how Hollywood has abandoned fantasy and western films in the past, despite some worthwhile releases, so too will audiences tastes change towards something new and fresh that’s not in the Superhero genre.  As of right now, Superhero movies are the mainstream, and there is a constant trend in the film industry to renew itself every several years by subverting the mainstream and finding that fresh new thing.  My hope is that while the industry will eventually move away from the superhero genre, that it will be a gentle fall for them and that the whole thing won’t be brought down by one particularly wretched failure.  The best we can hope from Marvel and DC now (and also Fox with their Marvel licenced characters) is that they still create entertaining movies that don’t ruin the characters we love.  Their own bad judgement can be their kryptonite, and it’s a walk along the edge that none of them would like to take right now.