It happened to the musical, the Western, and even zombie movies. Will superhero movies be next?
Hello all and welcome back. Franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and X-Men have dominated U.S. cinemas for the better part of a decade. Even before that in the 2000s, some of the most critically acclaimed big-budget films were comic book thrillers like Watchmen, the Spider-Man trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s Batman, and the first X-Men and Wolverine films.
But nothing lasts forever, and rumblings about superhero movie fatigue have begun to pop up in recent years:
- 10 Signs You Have Superhero-Movie Fatigue (rollingstone.com)
- When Will Superhero Movie Fatigue Finally Hit? (culturedvultures.com)
- Marvel’s Kevin Feige Addresses “Superhero Fatigue” (comicbook.com)
A couple of those stories pose their own theories, but I decided to do a little bit of my own detective work. To be clear, I’m talking today about wide-release Hollywood movies; I’m not looking at TV series like Netflix’s Daredevil, or at comic books themselves.
Superhero Fatigue at the Box Office
So let’s start off with some number crunching. I decided to look at the ten top grossing films of each year for the last decade:
- In 2008, 3 of the 10 top-grossing films were superhero films, including Hancock (I count it despite it not being adapted from a comic book) and Iron Man. The top grossing superhero film that year was also #1 at the box office for 2008: The Dark Knight, for approximately $500 million domestic.
- The next year with top-grossing superhero films was 2010, with just one: Iron Man 2, which came in at #7 for the year at $312 million domestic.
- Skip a year again to 2012, and there are three top-grossing films: The Avengers at #1 for the year with over $623 million domestic gross, making it the fifth highest grossing film of all time; The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man.
- In 2013, with three top-grossing films, the top-grossing superhero film for the year came in at #2, and it was Iron Man 3 at $409 million domestic. The other two were Man of Steel and Thor: Dark World.
- In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was the top-grossing superhero at #3, with a domestic gross of about $333 million. That year also saw top gross for X-Men: Days of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. That’s a whopping four top-grossing superhero films for the year.
- In 2015, once again just one superhero film was top of the box office, this time at #4. That was The Avengers: Age of Ultron with $459 million domestic gross.
- In 2016, again there were four top-grossers, with Captain America: Civil War sitting at #1 for the year at $408 million domestic. The other three films were Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, and the ever-divisive Suicide Squad.
- Finally, in 2017, another four superhero films dominated the box office. However, the top-grossing superhero film for that year, Spider-Man: Homecoming, was only ranked #6 for that year with $334 million. The others were Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Wonder Woman.
That’s quite a bit to take in, so let’s visualize these numbers along with respective audience ratings from Rotten Tomatoes:
As you can see, audience ratings of superhero films have actually remained fairly consistent, and there isn’t a single movie on here except Hancock that has made less than $200 million domestically. And despite hitting a “low” point right around 2013 to 2014 (and keep in mind these are still top-grossing films of their respective years), it looks like studios – and especially the Marvel Cinematic Universe – should be just cashing in nowadays, right?
Actually, there are some interesting things going on with the individual data points. First, nearly nothing since the original Avengers film has crossed the $500 million mark, and even that film was surpassed only by Black Panther a full six years later, with a stunning $655 million North American gross.
Second, after the release of The Avengers, there was a huge drop-off in box office sales until Age of Ultron, which didn’t earn close to the same numbers as the original. And while there hasn’t been another significant drop-off in box office sales like there was after the first Avengers, nothing since then (except Black Panther) has reached the same heights as The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises. You might even say box office sales of superhero movies since 2015 have stagnated. And yet 2016 and 2017 had four superhero films become the most profitable films of the year?
You see, superhero fatigue isn’t just about people going to see fewer superhero movies; there’s also the fact that a glut of superhero movies means that each movie is fighting for a smaller share of the overall annual box office profits. In other words, the market for superhero movies is reaching a point of saturation. They are still king of the box office, but the throne itself is looking a little wobbly.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, entertainment news outlets made a great big hubbub in the summers of 2016 and 2017 about generally declining box office sales. While the total gross in dollars for most of this time period has mostly gone up, the ticket sales for fully seven out of the past ten years have been on the decline. So while their profits continue to rise, the superhero movies are fighting for a progressively shrinking movie-going audience, in possibly the first symptoms of superhero fatigue.
Going the Way of the Western
Aside from the numbers, there’s also the public’s changing reception of the films themselves. Ignoring for a second that so far none of the D.C. Extended Universe films have achieved lift-off with audiences with the possible exception of Wonder Woman, few superhero films indeed have achieved the sort of sustained critical and audience acclaim enjoyed by earlier movies like The Dark Knight and The Avengers. To the contrary, a lot of massively hyped releases, like The Wolverine and, in a particularly infamous example, Suicide Squad, have simply not lived up to that hype.
Even among the top grossing superhero films, the releases evidently don’t generate the same excitement they once did. As suggested in the Cultured Vultures article above, the Marvel Cinematic Universe may enjoy the consistent viewership it has because of the obligation required to stay up to speed with the meta-story. But eventually, the cash and energy required just to keep up with these releases may no longer be worth it to the movie-going public when you can stay caught up with popular TV series for far less money and energy.
Also, for all of 2015 through 2016, Deadpool is the only film to reach a 90% rating with audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, while all of the top-grossing superhero movies of 2017 attained a solid but not quite impressive 88%. Even Black Panther currently sits at only a 79% audience rating, despite being hailed as a major game-changer for the genre.
Indeed, since 2013 or so, there’s been an emerging trend in what kinds of superhero films have been more favorably received. This list includes the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Deadpool, and Thor: Ragnarok, among others. All of these films have one crucial thing in common: they are subversive genre deconstructions, upending our traditional expectations about superhero films. There’s a liberal use of humor and snark that would make even Tony Stark blush, and the protagonists are not necessarily on the right side of the law or even particularly good people.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it happened with Western films in the ’60s and ’70s, and much more recently with zombie films. Does anybody remember Warm Bodies, the zombie romantic comedy film from 2013 with the protagonist who oddly looks like he jumped out of a mid-2000s emo band? Here, let me jog your memory:
In the case of Westerns, the beginning of the end is usually attributed to epics such as Once Upon a Time in the West, which cast a beloved American star against type as the villain, as well as to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, both of which glorified the outlaws. At the same time, Revisionist Westerns recast the history of the American West from the point of view of outlaws and indigenous American Indians, breaking with the old John Wayne orthodoxy in order to try to keep the genre afloat, but times and tastes changed too quickly for studios. By the time the bloated and over-long 1980 film Heaven’s Gate was released, the Western’s time defining America’s cultural soul had ended.
Similarly, Black Panther does what any good later-stage genre film would do: it tries to change up the formula on a scale similar to the Revisionist Westerns, in this case by directing the hero’s attention to the defense of his homeland of Wakanda and eschewing the high-stakes, planet-killing villain for a smaller-stakes human usurper. It pulls that off exceedingly well and it is an excellent film in its own right. However, it is a sign that the traditional elements of past hits such as the league of superheroes, a meta-story, and god-like villains are becoming old hat at best and tiresome tropes at worst. As times change, so do the tastes.
And indeed, tastes appear to be changing. As decadent wealth and celebrity have permeated our government and culture, characters like Tony Stark have become less sympathetic and more distant from the experiences of viewers. Instead, Spider-Man: Homecoming surprised me with its antagonist Adrian Toomes, the owner of a scrap company struggling to make ends meet. As people and families are increasingly struggling daily to pay the bills and find financial stability, Toomes has become just as sympathetic as the young Spidey himself. There may come a time – and it could be soon – that audiences will feel alienated from superheroes, these larger than life beings who seem to matter much more than the people they protect, and they will abandon these leagues of justice and their ass-kicking entirely.
The Verdict: Are Superhero Movies Still King?
Just because this pattern has shown up before doesn’t mean that superhero movies are fated to crash soon or in the same way. The modern superhero film does still have some strong qualities going for it: a sincere effort to give their characters depth, great action and visuals, and a broad and compelling narrative that still keep people coming back for more. The humor from heroes such as Starlord and Deadpool helps too, I won’t lie. I guess we’ll see if superhero movies continue to adapt to the times or if this time will be looked back on as a golden age from which the genre eventually fell. Thank you for reading. See you next week!
Do you think superhero films are in decline, or are they better than ever, and why? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!