The Future of the Superhero Movie

April 29, 2015
A thought by James Berardinelli


I was around for the DC/Marvel comic wars of the 1970s and 1980s. The two companies duked it out for the hearts and minds of their core audience - teenage boys and men in their 20s. DC had Superman and Batman - two characters made popular through TV series and (later) movies. Marvel had Spider-Man and The Hulk, another pair that entered the national consciousness via the boob tube. A détente of sorts was reached in the mid-70s that led to a few historic crossovers. The first of these, a "giant" Superman vs. Spider-Man comic (that sold for an unprecedented $2 at the time - I still have a copy to prove it), argued that DC and Marvel could work together. In 1979, I spoke to artist Gene Colan (he lived across the street from my grandparents at the time) who, over the course of his career, worked for both DC and Marvel. He said that the "rivalry" was mostly an affectation. The writers and artists were agnostic and, although Stan Lee and Carmine Infantino might believe in it, it was principally a publicity tool. Gene was a solitary man but he indulged an 11-year old and let me sit with him for a couple of hours as he penciled pages of "Howard the Duck" and "The Tomb of Dracula" (two of his "signature" books). "The Tomb of Dracula" panels, incidentally, came from the final issue of a series that had run for more than six years.

Today, Marvel vs. DC is being played out on the big screen. The dollars involved are of several orders of magnitude higher than in the 1970s. There are indications that the rivalry, at least at the mid-levels, is more heated. However, the parent companies, Disney and Warner Brothers, are interested in the bottom line and therein lies the potential for another period of détente, although that's probably about a decade away.

The Avengers was a game changer in that it essentially made stand-alone superhero movies obsolete (something easily predicted). Since then, most "one hero" movies have underperformed.  Iron Man 3 was the exception, although its domestic gross fell short of The Avengers by $200M. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (barely cleared $200M domestic), Thor: The Dark World (barely cleared $200M domestic), The Wolverine (didn't reach $150M domestic), and Man of Steel (didn't reach $300M domestic) all disappointed versus expectations. The trend was clear. The second Captain America brought along a bunch of superhero sidekicks and the Superman sequel has been reworked to rope in Batman and pave the way for the long-gestating Justice League film. Meanwhile, the Spider-Man debacle forced Sony to call a truce with Marvel in what is likely to be a sign of things to come.

As Warner Brothers struggles to get Justice League off the ground, Marvel has increased its dominance in the superhero box office battle. But, in a curiously timed move, they have employed a doomsday strategy. In order to stoke fan expectations to a fever pitch, they have announced a one-two-three punch: Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: The Infinity War (Parts 1 & 2). There are, however, unintended consequences to announcing big plans like these.

First, the surprisingly weak Avengers: Age of Ultron seems like an also-ran out of the gate, a stop-gap to keep the characters relevant until the real excitement begins. That doesn't mean Age of Ultron won't be a huge box office success - it will dominate 2015's summer season - but the level of excitement isn't what one would expect from the sequel to the biggest superhero adventure to date. (Some of that could have something to do with the tepid word-of-mouth.) Seeing Age of Ultron has become something to do while waiting for The Infinity War.

Then there's the question of what happens after 2019. From a certain perspective, The Infinity War makes sense. Superhero movies are all about raising the stakes. Single hero movies gave way to teams.  Now teams must give way to something else - in this case, the final battle against the ultimate villain. But then what? After The Infinity War, going back to "smaller" stories will be a hard sell. Viewers always want more, but what more can there possibly be after telling the biggest story imaginable? It would be like doing a character-based book in the wake of an epic fantasy.

Sony's capitulation with Marvel and the crossover team-ups of the 1970s offer a hint of what's likely to come. There will be other stepping stones along the way. If Fox's Fantastic Four reboot fails, they'll probably throw in the towel and allow that franchise to come home to Marvel. X-Men is a trickier proposition because it's successful. Warner Brothers will probably be able to get a movie or two out of Justice League before that franchise runs out of steam. Looking ahead to the early-to-mid-2020s, there's a sense that superhero movies may be played out.

History repeats itself. In the 1930s, monster movies were all the rage. Universal dominated the marketplace with titles like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, etc. Sequels followed, then team-ups, then a slow slide into oblivion. Is that the superhero progression? Post-Infinity War, post-Justice League, will there be a desperation to keep the genre from going the way of the once-popular Western?

By 2025, I expect to see Marvel, Warner Brothers, and Fox collaborating on mega-movies that will bring together combinations of Superman, Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Justice League - anything goes. It won't prevent the inevitable superhero fatigue but it should postpone it. And, by that time, maybe the concept of passive motion picture viewing will have become quaint and antiquated. Perhaps the superhero genre will be saved by the death of the traditional tent pole movie. Predicting changes in an evolving industry is always a crapshoot.

One thing I know is that the superhero genre is not stagnant. It's moving toward a big climax. But, as everyone knows, the climax is inevitably followed by a denouement and that may be one adversary even the world's greatest champions can't overcome.