The Fate of the Superhero Movie
A Pop Culture Bubble?
June 4th, 2016
Photo: Easton Way
The Dark Knight, the Man of Steel, and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man have all retaken the world by storm in the past few years. But nowadays it seems as though our entire lives are being overwhelmed by an apparent surge in popularity of the modern superhero. We’re starting to see movies and storylines common geeks only previously dreamed of with properties ranging from the well-known Superman and Batman to the more obscure Ant-man and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Superheroes, though, have been a statement of pop culture for almost a hundred years, dating back to the original outcast himself, Superman. Way back in 1938, America’s most popular superhero was created, paving the future for superpowered people as their presence began dramatically increasing. Through World War II, heroic icons like Superman and Captain America were even used to influence public opinion on the war by battling Nazis and the “big bad villain” Hitler. As the years continued, new characters like Batman, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the Justice League, the Avengers, and many more began appearing as their popularity skyrocketed. Now, superheroes are everywhere, most notably in film. But during the rise of this genre, are superhero films oversaturating the entertainment market and doomed for a decline? Or are they fitting in with the market and here to stay?
Superheroes have been and will continue being an integral part of our society, but now they’ve started being used as tools to make a quick profit in the theatre. Films like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Avengers: Age of Ultron have become so large and expensive that they aren’t considered profitable unless they cross the $1 billion mark. Such huge blockbusters have also taken heavy artistic criticism due to claims of over bloating, a lack of character development, as well as several other elements.
Now, in 2016, there are six superhero films slated for the year, including lesser known properties like Suicide Squad, Deadpool, and Dr. Strange. Large profits from risky superhero films like Guardians of the Galaxy have begun a new trend in the genre, causing studios to pump out more and more movies with largely unknown characters. These films, though, showcase an interesting position for superhero films because if they are successful critically, commercially, and artistically, then they aren’t problematic for the larger movie-going society. Film fanatics are less likely to complain when impressive movies like Captain America: Winter Soldier are released and blow people away. But it’s the lukewarm, or sometimes just plain bad movies that people always point to when claiming Hollywood favors the superhero genre or that they shouldn’t be made anymore.
Additionally, though, the yearly number of superhero films produced is increasing as more studios like Detective Comics (DC) and Sony are beginning their own series of films effectively lowering the overall quality of the genre. Films such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 have been recognized for their lackluster performance, both critically and commercially, and are used for reasoning as to why the genre is coming to an end. Audiences are also becoming disappointed by the mounting failures in superhero films, pointing out several problems like Marvel’s unwillingness to kill off key characters like Nick Fury and their ever-expanding number of characters. As the cinematic universes gain more plot and connectivity, they also add more and more characters, many of whom will get their own movies, making for a further exhaustive audience experience.
The connected cinematic universe idea also presents a possible problem for the genre. While the interconnectedness of so many films may appear, and may even be, innovative as a new turn for Hollywood film, it is also exhausting for many viewers. Trying to keep pace with the multitude of blockbusters from Marvel or DC studios may cause people to get lost in the mess. While you don't absolutely need to watch all of the films prior to Captain America: Civil War to understand it, the film, as does most other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, has many callbacks to those films which makes it difficult to keep up without them. This one-universe concept also fills the pockets of these major studios causing film-goers to watch every MCU movie even if they weren't originally interested. Such ideas have caused analysts and critics alike to view the connected-universe idea as a marketing ploy rather than an interesting storytelling technique as well as a plague upon Hollywood film as many imitators like Transformers, Universal Studios monster movies, and Ghostbusters have attempted to duplicate its success with connected cinematic universes.
The Avengers (2012)
The Superhero Frontier
Many analysts also believe the superhero genre will take the way of the western, inevitably dying out due to an overproduction of similar films complete with repeated storylines. The western was undeniably the profound genre of the 1950s and ‘60s, pumping out hundreds of films in its heyday, far more than any point in the superhero film’s longevity. The western, as did the superhero genre, took the country by storm allowing it to hold the limelight for as long as it did. But eventually it fell out of favor and its numbers dwindled to nearly zero. Nowadays, only a handful of westerns come to theatres every year, and when they do, they seem hard pressed to earn a profit. Some experts point to this as reasoning for the predicted decline in the genre, however there are major differences. Firstly, the western had far more films yearly than the superhero genre currently does; and secondly, the western was never as chameleonic as superhero films which have showcased an ability to weave between genres with films like Captain America: the Winter Soldier acting as a spy thriller and Guardians of the Galaxy acting as a space opera.
Many opponents of the superhero genre also point to issues such as an oversaturation of the market, problems with the quality of the films, and a repetition of the same plotlines; but such claims are often overused or miscommunicated. For example, this year there will be more superhero movies than almost any other year, yet there will only be seven, and while that may seem like a lot it really isn’t. Think about it like this: there are seven films of the same genre coming out this year at a total of seven, but the horror genre will have many more than seven films in 2016. So why aren’t people discussing why horror films are oversaturating the market or running out of original ideas? Well it’s because the horror genre doesn’t have enormous blockbusters that take up the spotlight. However, there will still be many horror films this year, with at least one coming out every month. The enormity of superhero blockbusters like The Avengers overshadow just how relatively few there are in the genre compared to others.
Superhero films aren’t a new idea either. Films like Batman 1989, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and the Superman series were all released decades before this recent upsurge in superhero popularity and had a profound impact on cultural values and opinions towards the genre. Such films illustrate the enduring nature of superhero films but may also suggest that the genre is destined for certain peaks and valleys. The release of Batman and Robin describes this phenomenon precisely because its low critical and audience success is often blamed for napalming the superhero business, at least for a few years, before films like X-Men and Spider-Man resurrected the market in the early 2000s.
Since then, film-goers have shown their support for the superhero genre, as many claim that the films are actually improving in quality, not declining. Marvel films like Captain America: Civil War and Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy have some of the highest critic ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and are also some of the most profitable according to Box Office Mojo, even though they are three of the most recent MCU films, showing a current rise in the genre. While some people see these films as damaging to Hollywood cinema, many view them as entertaining and enthralling, eagerly awaiting the next one.
Perhaps another decline in the genre will occur in the coming years. Many believe that the genre is at a tipping point, claiming audiences have become overindulged by the expansive number of films in the genre and are only awaiting another so-called Batman and Robin or otherwise disastrous superhero film to arrive before the general audience becomes unaccepting of them. Will they take the way of the western, a genre which eventually fell out of favor, or will they prevail, continually adhering to the spotlight of Hollywood?