What's going on with superhero movies?
Audiences seem to be turning away; what was the breaking point?
There’s an interesting trend going on in the world of comic book-inspired and superhero-related movies (hereafter referred to as CBMs): audiences don’t seem to like them anymore. Oh sure, the third installment of Guardians of the Galaxy seems to be doing fine and Across the Spider-Verse has already completely outgrossed its predecessors, but let’s take a look at the last twelve months of theatrical CBM releases:
July 2022: Thor: Love and Thunder
July 2022: DC League of Super-Pets
Oct. 2022: Black Adam
Nov. 2022: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Feb. 2023: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
March 2023: Shazam! Fury of the Gods
May 2023: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3
June 2023: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
(Not theatrical, but since it’s part of a “cinematic” universe, Disney+’s “She-Hulk” show also dropped in August of last year. Also — these were all just preceded by Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and internet darling Morbius.)
This isn’t a box office diatribe: unlike others in the film community (dear friend Ryley Trahan included), I’m not a theater guy, so this isn’t some plea to get back to theaters and support a largely average-at-best slate of offerings. Nor is this post meant to be an old man yelling about how old things rule and new things suck — I’m still into this stuff! Even if I don’t go see them in theaters (Wakanda Forever being the lone exception of the list), I stream them as soon as they’re available.
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No, this post is to help elucidate a revelation I had while watching the latest Ant-Man adventure. The film was dismissed by critics (46% RT, 48 Metacritic), ignored by audiences (B CinemaScore, $476M WW gross vs. $200M production budget), and derided online by the film and comic book communities for myriad issues (silly plot lines, bad CGI, MODOK). By the time I finally settled down to watch it, I’d been led to believe Quantumania was a disaster approaching the level of Joss Whedon’s Justice League.
Imagine my surprise when it turns out the internet greatly exaggerated things. (/s) Turns out Quantumania is fine, a madcap adventure through an alien world and against one of the MCU’s more genuinely formidable antagonists. What occurred to me while watching the movie, however, was that it’s the latest in a recent string of CBMs that do a good job of largely mimicking the experience of reading an actual comic book; that’s to say, there are wild plot lines that initially seem insane, there are characters that flit in and out with nary an explanation, and there are crazy silly elements like multiverses and multiple versions of the same characters and a Humpty Dumpty-looking guy in a floating wheelchair.
Audiences aren’t against stuff that’s far out there; that rubicon was crossed with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. What’s interesting is that Marvel’s greatest strength has, apparently, now become its biggest weakness: their ability to introduce serialized storytelling to mainstream movies effectively taught general audiences to accept the tropes of comic books, but it’s now come back to the bite them as their newer movies increasingly play like literal comic books.
The relatively tepid response to Multiverse of Madness, Love and Thunder, and now Quantumania — all three of which are perfectly decent MCU movies, embracing Marvel’s overall comic book zaniness more than just about any of their MCU predecessors — simply proves that general audiences don’t really like actual comic books.
Phase 4’s most well-received movies are Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, which catered to wide audiences and kept things predictable. General audiences seem to be saying that the more comic book-y these movies get, the less audiences and critics are going to like them. They still need to be “movies” first and foremost, not “live-action comics.” Which is funny, because I thought we all liked Marvel precisely because they’d nailed the comic book translation so well.
So what was the breaking point? Are we still in a post-Endgame hangover, compounded by Zack Snyder’s Justice League to a lesser extent, making the takes so damn BIG that smaller stakes just don’t matter anymore? No Way Home would say otherwise. Do audiences just want cheap multiverse tricks? Marvel made its bones on the novelty of seeing different characters interact within a single universe; now over a decade after The Avengers (2012), the new novelty is seeing characters interact from multiple universes. But then the Doctor Strange sequel would’ve been better received, no? Or was the main beef that it just didn’t have everyone’s predicted cameos?
Or is it just saturation? Was it Disney+’s fault for pulling too much focus away from the movies? But that doesn’t explain why the DC and Sony movies have been so dismissed. (I know they’ve rarely been box office juggernauts, but seriously, did anyone even see the Super-Pets thing?) It’s not even right to say they’ve been “ignored;” plenty of people paid attention to the financial woes of Fury of the Gods and especially Morbius.
I open the floor — when did the audience relationship with CBMs really hit that nexus point and pivot to something that the studios still don’t seem to be aware of? Or has nothing changed? The movies just suck and viewership reflects that?
Sound off in the comments below!