Following a summer of somewhat tepid box office success for superhero movies, Hollywood luminaries have begun coming out of the woodwork to declare that the end of the comic book blockbuster is nigh. Steven Spielberg told the Associated Press that “there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.” Uproxx translated that into a headline blaring that Spielberg “Thinks Superhero Movies Are About To Crash, Hard.” Similarly, actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson had expressed extreme fatigue with the genre.
Audiences may be getting weary of it, too. “The Fantastic Four” was a disaster, ignored at the box office and trashed by critics. Marvel’s “Ant-Man” drew only middling returns. And Disney apparently considered “Avengers: Age of Ultron” a failure, despite its taking in $1.4 billion to rank as the second highest grossing picture of the year. The sequel got less than glowing reviews and made $200 million less than the first Avengers film.
With all of this negativity, the resurgence of the genre that began with, depending on who you ask, Sam Raimi’s 2002 “Spiderman” or Christopher Nolan’s 2006 “Batman Begins” is at least looking tired if not completely exhausted. But fans of the genre shouldn’t start grieving just yet and detractors can hold off on the celebrations.
Before we explain why, though, let’s first acknowledge that Spielberg does have a point: Film has historically gone in cycles. The ‘40s had film noir, which sprang from post-war shellshock and a fear of liberated women. In the ‘50s, one of every four movies made was a Western. The ‘80s were known for both slasher films and big budget, high-concept action spectacles, which could be seen as the byproduct of the Reagan approach to the Cold War. The ‘90s had the Tarantino-inspired hipster-gangster films.
Our particular moment will almost certainly be remembered as the age of the comic book hero, fueled by 9/11, the subsequent political atmosphere that it produced, and the ensuing financial crisis. We no longer believe our problems are fixable by mere mortals, and our institutions have failed too thoroughly to be our saviors (those responsible for the financial crisis, remain largely unpunished). We’re all waiting for Superman.
But as a younger generation of moviegoers comes of age, with no real personal memory of 9/11, they can view this focus on the terrorist attack and its aftermath as somewhat overblown, in the same way Gen X-ers mocked Vietnam fixations. It is already clear that their outlook is less glum than that of their predecessors. The appetite for gritty reboots has been replaced by a desire to have a good time.
There are a few factors, however, that will keep the superhero genre front and center for the foreseeable future, and will preserve it as a part of the entertainment world’s DNA forever.
First is the slate of films and television shows announced by Disney as it continues its fascinating effort at building out the Marvel universe, for better or worse, over the next few years. Remember that Disney paid $4 billion to buy Marvel in 2009, and it’s going to keep looking for ways to maximize the return on that investment, including a new partnership with Sony to bring Spiderman into the fold. Cleverly, Marvel has also developed its properties for television, with “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” and the quartet of Netflix shows that have begun rolling out, starting with the excellent (and definitely not for kids) “Marvel’s Daredevil.” By having these shows exist in the same universe as, and be affected by the events of the larger movies, they function as a kind of commercial. To keep up, you need to watch them all. This is a trick that comic books, with their tie-ins and crossover issues, have been pulling for years.
For its part, DC Comics, has so far had real difficulty bringing its non-Batman characters to life on the big screen. Both attempts to reboot Superman were glum and disappointing, any attempt to bring Wonder Woman to life has died in production hell, and let’s not even talk about “Green Lantern.” The venerable old man of comics is making its best effort to keep up with the upcoming film “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and an ongoing expansion of its television properties, including the CW’s “Arrow.” But the model works too well, and the interest in these characters is still strong enough, for anyone involved to simply drop these efforts altogether.
Hollywood has finally learned that comic readers are a fanatically loyal and voracious audience. Comic book sales in 2014 totaled $934 million, with $100 million of that in digital sales — not bad for a print industry in this day and age. And in many cases, these are characters and storylines that have been going on for nearly a century.
Consider the increasing prominence, and attendance, of most of the country’s larger Comic Cons. As little as five years ago, you were unlikely to hear much entertainment reporting on the Cons. Now it’s a mainstay of entertainment coverage and Hollywood knows an effective marketing tool when it sees one. Comic book fans, due to their rabid geeky loyalty, have been a giant boon for Hollywood, ensuring the success of movies when the industry overall is struggling to fill seats and suffering from diminishing returns. The general public may tire of the comic book movies, but as long as the loyal (and ever-increasing) army of the faithful keeps attending, Hollywood has an incentive to keep giving them what they want.
Also, even if the broader audience appetite for superheroes does fade and these genre movies go out of vogue, they won’t go away completely. We still make snarky gangster movies and big budget action films. We even still make some film noir and Westerns (see Tarantino, Quentin). For some reason, we even make a few musicals. So even if the production of superhero movies does eventually slow, we’ll still see our favorite characters brought to the big screen as other trends emerge.
But as the general movie-going audience gets smaller, the industry will be happy to keep hold of a particularly large and loyal slice of the pie. It may be the only real hope Hollywood (or at least the portion of Hollywood that still cares if people go to movie theaters to see films) has of maintaining profitability domestically. Of course all of this ignores China. As long as superhero films continue to rake it in overseas, Hollywood will keep making them, whether Americans are tired of them or not.