That question has been asked regarding the state of the superhero movie for a year or two now, ever since every studio with rights to a franchise started to load up their film slate with cape movie after cape movie following the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. An image (shown below) made by ComicsAlliance shows every superhero film coming out over the next few years, and it is just a little bit absurd. This image was made in 2014, and a few things are out of date, but it’s generally still reliable. Also keep in mind, we’re only discussing Marvel and DC related films here (past and present, so I won’t figure in movies like Hellboy or the upcoming Valiant franchise).
In 2016, there will be six superhero films, and in 2017 alone, there are NINE movies coming out (the Marvel/Sony joint Spider-Man film replaces one of the seemingly dead in the water Sony ones). Between 2011 and 2015, there were 3-4 coming out per year. Sure, a lot of high-profile characters remain in the spotlight, with films like Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman among the bunch; but we also have a litany of films coming out that the general movie-going public will have no connection to, such as Gambit, Doctor Strange, and Black Panther. In this instance, we’ll focus on those large, well-known franchises and the fledgling franchises separately.
First, let’s talk about the smaller franchises. A lot of people were hot to jump on Ant-Man this summer when it failed to perform as spectacularly as Guardians of the Galaxy, the previous year’s attempt at introducing a relatively unknown comic book franchise to the general public. Did Marvel and Disney want Ant-Man to succeed as well as Guardians did? There isn’t a question with a more obvious answer in this discussion. Of course they did. However, just because Ant-Man did not reach that height, it should not be labeled a failure. Guardians set a shockingly high bar, and anyone who followed the film during the summer of 2014 knows how surprised everyone was at its performance – from fans to studio-heads. Many people were deeming it a flop, months before its release, yet it performed $774 million against a $196 million budget. To date, Ant-Man has made $400 million against a $130 million budget. It has surpassed the first Captain America film, and is on pace to pass the first Thor as well, yet no one called those failures when they were coming out.
The issue lies with that precedent that Guardians set. It showed that a franchise that an audience has no prior knowledge of can rake in cash hand over fist. However, a film should not be deemed a failure, or the beginning of the end of the superhero genre just because it didn’t meet the standards of an outlier. And that’s exactly what Guardians was – an outlier when it comes to obscure franchises. A quick note as well, Guardians had a lot more kid-friendly crossover than Ant-Man did. A huge reason Guardians did so well is that it was bright and colorful and had a talking raccoon and a talking tree. Kids gravitate toward sort of goofy concepts like that, so you had a threefold demographic: comic fans, people and children who see every superhero movie, and then the kids who were seeing it because it looked funny and less serious than the usual Captain America/Iron Man/Batman fare. It had an almost cartoon element that brought in a different audience of children than usual. The word of mouth also helped it considerably, as one might expect, but the effect of characters like Rocket and Groot should not be overlooked. By its nature, Ant-Man does not lend itself to that kind of character, and falls more in line with the standard Avengers world. Which is fine. It still made money, and a considerable amount more than other films not deemed “failures” would make. Marvel making every movie like Guardians would be a recipe for failure, and while they do get accused – rightfully so – of using a formulaic approach to their films, there is enough of a differentiation in genre and story to stay fresh (sci-fi, espionage thriller, heist, etc).
Shifting focus to the larger films, the target of comic film critics this summer was Avengers: Age of Ultron (AoU). “Grossed less, cost more,” is the general consensus of these people, when comparing it to the first film. And they’re not wrong. AoU cost $40 million more than the first film, and at the time of this article, has made a little over $100 million less. It also still made $1.4 billion dollars, so…you know. Sarcasm aside, I do understand this rationale for “the bubble is bursting” comment in this instance more than in the Ant-Man example. Avengers should be the go-to superhero franchise after its record breaking opening in 2012. The goal would obviously be to break that record with each new film.
Here’s the thing though, and this may seem like I’m backtracking against the point of this article: superhero films are and were a fad, to an extent. What you have to hope for is that a lot of that initial audience stuck around through the initial peak. And it looks like they did if you consider the peak to be the summer of 2012, when Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were in theatres together. Three years later, and the franchise only grossed $100 million less than the original; $140 million taking into account the difference in budget as well. That bodes well for the future, because an actual “scare” would involve a much steeper drop than that, especially when dealing with 12 digit figures. Are the actors making more money off these films now? Absolutely, causing more to be chopped off Disney’s profit margin; but with $1.4-billion, you can bet Disney is still making a respectable bank off films like Age of Ultron.
Ultimately, these films have to settle in to a comfortable plateau, and I think it is far more likely that they will do just that, as opposed to fizzle out and die as a whole. It is naïve to think that each film will consistently gross more than previous installments. If you’re a studio, what you realistically hope for is that the franchise grows to a massive level of popularity, shrinks down a bit rather than tanking during the next installment, and then settles in comfortably there. It’ll be difficult to tell if that’s what’s happening until next year when Civil War is released, but I’d say based on the ongoing popularity of comic movies and discussion surrounding them, it’s a more likely scenario than the one where the metaphorical bubble erupts into a mess of colorful spandex and snarky quips.
Superhero films have become a genre unto themselves, blending with established and accepted film genres beyond simply “action-adventure.” Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a successfully executed spy thriller, while Guardians of the Galaxy took the sci-fi genre to a level previous comic book films had not reached. “Flops” like Fantastic Four this summer prove that the audience isn’t entirely mindless and they will avoid something like the plague if it gets bad word of mouth or reputation. You know, just like every other genre of film…for the most part, anyways. The only group that FF’s failure could be an omen to is Warner Bros. and their DC line of films. Man of Steel was incredibly dark for a superhero film, and Batman v. Superman is following suit. I’m not saying that this angle definitely won’t pay off for them, but it did get a lot of criticism for that direction, as did the failed Fantastic Four film*. Planning out films for characters such as Aquaman and Cyborg before they even make their debuts — and frankly before the cinematic universe has even grown beyond the one Superman film — does strike me as a bit presumptuous and brazen; however, if they do a good job with the characters in Batman v. Superman, and the follow-up Justice League film, the gamble could pay off nicely. It’s about managing to make the films stand out from one another and seem unique, while also creating the expansive, shared universe that got everyone invested in the first place. It’s an unbelievably tough line to walk, but I think that if Marvel and DC (and Fox with their X-Men franchise films) can keep on the path they’re currently on, this “bubble” is not going to burst anytime soon.
* Although Fantastic Four had a plethora of other problems to deal with as well