Captain America: Civil War is the latest in the endless line of Marvel superhero movies, and its May 6 opening could be a turning point for people who are burned-out on comic book movies. If the movie—where almost every superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe fights almost every other superhero—performs below expectations, it could mean the superhero bubble is finally bursting. And if it’s a big hit, we can look forward to at least 10 more years of costumed heroes.
Complaints about the superhero domination of movies are even more frequent than new superhero releases themselves. “Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things—comic books, superheroes,” actor-writer Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) lamented last year. “Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.” That same year, director William Friedkin (The French Connection) said movies used to be “about real people doing real things,” but now “cinema in America is all about Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Avengers.” It got to the point where Kevin Feige, producer of the Marvel films, had to defend himself in Rolling Stone magazine against the charges that his type of movie is “ruining” the industry.
True enough, it has seemed that the reign of costumed heroes might finally have peaked over the last few years; there were signs that people had had enough of the formula. This year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, intended by Warner Brothers as the first installment in a huge new series of interconnected superhero films, lost 70 per cent of its audience after its opening weekend. “The filmmakers managed to attract the film’s core audience,” says Clive Young, author of POW! The History of Superhero Movies. “The rest of the potential audience—people who aren’t diehard fans but would consider going to it—took the bad vibes surrounding the flick to heart and decided to do something else.”
Before that, Marvel’s sequel to The Avengers made less money than hoped, while Fox’s reboot of Fantastic Four was a flop. And when Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 did less well in 2014 than the production company had wanted, the studio got out of the superhero business and allowed Marvel Studios to handle the character.
The only recent superhero movie that performed above expectations was Deadpool, which was based on a very different model: an R-rated, highly verbal comedy. “It has outgrossed Batman v Superman in the U.S.,” says Liam Burke, author of The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre, and that suggests that audiences are “arguably tired of the superhero movies, and are ready to see the genre’s conventions parodied.” Traditional superheroes haven’t been growing in popularity—and in modern Hollywood, where a lower-than-expected profit is considered a failure, a genre that isn’t growing is a problem.
But hoping for the superhero form to burn out might be wishful thinking. Superhero films increased in popularity at the turn of the 21st century, when special effects technology finally made it possible to show superpowers in a convincing way. “The modern superhero movie trend began in 2000 with the release of X-Men and gathered pace with the then record-breaking gross of Spider-Man in 2002,” Burke says. Naysayers, he adds, are as old as the cycle itself: “Almost as soon as the trend began, box-office commentators began to prophesy its decline.”
There was even a period in the mid-’00s when it looked like the decline might actually happen. The pessimism of the post-9/11 era was causing audiences to tire of escapist entertainment, and the studios seemed to be killing the format by releasing under-performing sequels like Elektra and X-Men: The Last Stand.
Instead, the late ’00s saw superheroes come to dominate the world, thanks in part to two movies. One was The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins, which Burke says became “the first billion-dollar superhero movie,” and even managed to win an Oscar (for Heath Ledger’s Joker). The other was Iron Man, where Marvel’s Feige proved that big money could be made from relatively obscure comic book characters, and that characters could be linked together into a shared universe. These movies, and their many imitators, also showed how superheroes could capture the mood of the world after 9/11: The Dark Knight was openly about issues of surveillance and the trade-off between liberty and security, and most superhero movies through Civil War have dealt with similar themes. These characters may be old, but no one accuses them now of not being timely.
There’s a self-perpetuating aspect to this, too: Burke says the corporations that own these characters, like Disney and Time Warner, “favour spreadable content—characters who can move easily across a number of media platforms. Iconic superheroes with their readily identifiable costumes meet those transmedia demands better than most characters, prompting studios and the larger conglomerates to gravitate toward these heroes.” According to The Licensing Letter, Batman generated merchandising revenues of $494 million three years ago, topped by Spider-Man at $1.3 billion. The movies fuel the characters’ money-making abilities in other areas.
Which means that the superhero craze hasn’t only taken over the box office; it’s also helped fuel a retreat away from original properties, and toward older, familiar characters owned by a few big companies. Disney, which owns Marvel, now primarily specializes in dusting off old characters and repackaging them; it also has the Star Wars movies, makes live-action versions of cartoons like The Jungle Book, and has a new Indiana Jones series on the way.
It used to seem possible that heroes owned by their creators, or by smaller companies, could break through into the world of big-budget superhero movies. Young points out that the 1990s found success with “films like The Crow and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, both based on indie comics,” and in the ’00s, the small-press comic Hellboy became a successful movie. But it was easier for those characters to get noticed back when only a few superheroes were on film or TV. Today, the glut of Marvel and DC product means that, as Burke puts it, “it is almost impossible for other superhero movies to compete with the brand recognition of the Marvel and DC heroes.” Unlike other Hollywood genres like westerns, which allowed for many new characters and approaches, the modern superhero genre is limited to a narrow range of ideas—most of them created before 1970.
We might expect that audiences would tire of the same concepts, but studios find ways to keep people interested. One method is simply to make superheroes into something else. Young thinks one of the reasons for Marvel’s continued success is that it has managed to “bolt” superheroes onto other genres. “Take Captain America: The Winter Soldier; it’s basically a superhero version of a 1970s conspiracy thriller,” he says. “Thor in many ways is a western, culminating in a final faceoff down the main street of a small New Mexico town. And the list goes on.”
These movies also benefit from the fact that the slightest departure from the formula can seem like a great innovation. Captain America: Civil War is receiving praise for not being about a supervillain trying to take over the world, even as it follows the usual form in other ways.
Another way to sustain the boom is to keep stocking the movies with stars. Batman v Superman may have under-performed, but it did better than the previous film, Man of Steel, that just featured Superman by himself. The reviews for Captain America: Civil War have been excellent, but the creators of the movie admitted it wasn’t originally supposed to have as many characters as it does (among many others, it introduces the stars of Marvel’s planned Black Panther and Spider-Man movies). By injecting popular characters to energize their films, studios may be trying to extend the life of their franchises: Marvel’s biggest star, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, has already been announced for a role in the new Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: Homecoming.
A look at the current movie landscape shows that some franchises never burn out. James Bond movies were thought to be in decline as early as 1967, when the craze for super-spy movies started to fizzle out and Sean Connery quit the series. And yet the Bond series has survived to this day, based on the brand recognition of the character and the ability of the producers to keep turning out hits.
Familiar superheroes may be the same way: the characters are so bankable that they can survive any changes in audience taste. If Civil War is a major success, it might turn out that all it took to re-inflate the superhero bubble was another good movie. Asked last year when the superhero trend would end, Feige said: “As soon as there are a bunch of them that are terrible, that’s when it will end.”
It could be that if Batman v Superman can’t kill superheroes, nothing can.