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Hanging up the Cape: The Death of Superhero Movies

by Danny Krastek

In 2018, if you had told me that in a short five years, films from the superhero genre would not only unseat “Avatar” as the highest-grossing movie of all time but would also receive a bunch of nominations at the Oscars only to end up completely falling apart and becoming a running joke a few years later, I honestly would not have believed you.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to the once-mighty genre known as comic book adaptations.

By the late 2010s, superhero movies from both Marvel and DC were not only breaking box office records but were receiving acclaim from critics. Movies like “Black Panther” and “Joker” even garnered Best Picture nominations.

Now, only a few years later, we’re at a point where both studios keep making flop after flop, disappointment after disappointment, both with fans and critics alike.

Granted, many of those commercial disappointments were unavoidable, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and theater closures.

But for movies like “Morbius” and “Black Adam,” which were released well after theaters reopened, there really is no excuse. There’s no reason that a superhero movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, one of the most lucrative actors of the 21st century, flopped so hard.

Even the once mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the most successful franchise in history, isn’t immune to this.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” was supposed to usher in a new era for the franchise, and it couldn’t even crack half a billion dollars. And with “Shazam 2” tanking in theaters right now, I can’t help but wonder, are we in the endgame now?

That’s not to say there haven’t been good superhero movies in the last few years. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Snyder Cut myself, but it clearly meant a lot to a ton of fans.

“Spiderman: No Way Home” was a cultural phenomenon, with hype surrounding it that I have rarely seen replicated in any year before or since.

For the most part, however, most upcoming MCU and DC projects don’t seem to have a whole lot of buzz around them.

Sure, we all want to see “Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3.” “The Flash” has gotten a decent amount of attention, even if it’s mostly for the wrong reasons. *Cough cough, Ezra Miller, cough cough* “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is probably going to do well of course.

But besides those examples, what’s one other upcoming superhero movie that’s generating any real momentum? Are any of you really itching to watch “Thunderbolts?” Does anyone really care about “Blue Beetle?”

In 2021 alone, Marvel released four new movies and five shows, which I shouldn’t have to tell you, is a lot. Over 30 hours of content, to be exact.

While DC hasn’t released quite as much material, mostly due to their own internal difficulties which is a whole other can of worms, they definitely have proven to be a convoluted and confusing franchise to get invested in.

Are audiences getting fatigued due to this endless mountain of, let’s face it, underwhelming content? Or are they simply growing tired of this genre naturally, after a decade and a half of over-saturation?

If the latter is the case, what’s going to replace it as the dominant movie trend?

Maybe the answers still lie within the most well-received superhero movies of the last few years. “The Batman” and “Joker” were isolated in their own sections of their universes, disconnected from any other comic book movie. Both were not only box office winners but were well-liked by fans and critics alike.

In general, movies with more personality seem to resonate more with audiences.

For example, the superhero flicks helmed by beloved directors like Christopher Nolan of “The Dark Knight” trilogy and Sam Raimi with his iconic “Spiderman” trilogy continue to grow in esteem even decades after their release, whereas you’d be hard-pressed to find diehard fans of “Shang Chi” or “Black Adam,” movies that I’d bet a wide majority couldn’t tell me anyone involved in writing or directing.

So there’s the answer, I guess. Audiences are increasingly abandoning these faceless, assembly-line blockbusters and instead spending their time with films with more personality.

The cultural, critical and commercial success of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” last year definitely proves that audiences are willing to give their love to out-of-the-box movies with a lot of personality and are becoming less enthusiastic about defending mindless action schlock like DC and Marvel keep pumping out.

And for those of you who are still clinging to the life raft, don’t worry, superhero movies aren’t dead yet.

I’m sure movies like “The Kang Dynasty” will still be big, but not as big as “Endgame” or “Infinity War.”

Superhero movies have hit the ceiling. There’s nowhere for them to go but down.

Comic book adaptations have been a defining part of film culture for nearly fifteen years, but I think it’s time we hang up their capes for them.

They have become their own worst enemy, their own kryptonite. They’ve run out of places to go, and movies that would have become huge hits only a few years ago are withering on the vine almost instantly. The pendulum is swinging back toward more creative, interesting and intelligent films. It’s only a matter of time at this point.

One day we’ll all look back at this era fondly, and we will remember the giants of Marvel and DC at their best, not in the stagnant, decaying form we find them in now.

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