Superhero movies have been the lifeblood of the film business for more than a decade, with billion-dollar franchises like “The Avengers,” “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” winning over younger audiences at a time when convincing people to visit a movie theater has never been more difficult.
But with superhero mills like Disney’s Marvel Entertainment mining more niche-oriented characters (an unironic “Ant-Man” movie is slated to hit theaters next month), is the genre at risk of going stale? That’s a real concern among Hollywood studio executives, according to analysts at MoffettNathanson, who recently spent time on the West Coast for the firm’s biannual meetings with industry leaders to discuss the state of the entertainment business.
“[T]here was constant discussion throughout our meetings about whether we are reaching a saturation point for too many superhero movies,” Michael Nathanson, the firm’s media analyst, wrote in a research note Wednesday. “The comparison was made to other popular genres in movie history, including Westerns, and how those have fallen from any sure bets over time.”
Genres Go Stale
Executives are right to worry. The Western genre carried the movie business from its infancy in the 1910s through the Golden Age of the 1950s, but by the 1970s it had been displaced by the contemporary storylines and realism of the independent film movement. Westerns today are mostly associated with big-budget misfires, like Disney’s catastrophic “The Lone Ranger,” or uninspired comedies, like Seth Macfarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
Superhero movies, conversely, have only grown to take themselves more and more seriously, with studios eager to canonize increasingly complex backstories and subplots in an effort to satisfy rabid fan bases that embrace the subject matter not as mere entertainment, but as mythology.
The problem is the studios cranking out these crowd-pleasers may not be prepared for when the bubble finally bursts. The major players -- including Marvel Entertainment and Warner Bros.’ DC Entertainment -- already have their superhero movie slates mapped out through the end of the decade, and even into the next one. Looking ahead, we see a tentpole schedule awash in comic book-related sequels, spinoffs and reboots, with a ever-narrower windows. Consider that Warner Bros. plans to reboot “The Green Lantern” in 2020, a mere nine years after the original. That same year the studio is also planning a big-screen version of “Cyborg,” a character from the Justice League -- never mind that we may actually have real cyborgs by then.
Although the possibility of audiences souring on superheroes is a real one -- as is the chance that the studios, with their long-term forecasts, won’t be able to adapt quickly enough to changing tastes -- Nathanson said the cream of the genre should continue to rise to the top, at least for the foreseeable future. “We believe the top-quality superhero films will continue to outperform although the movie going audience is a lot smarter and quicker (thanks to social media) to identify the ones that are not authentic or lack a good quality story,” he wrote.
Super Hero Origin Story
The modern-day superhero movie craze can be traced back to 1978 with Warner Bros.’ “Superman: The Movie,” starring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. At the time a two-and-a-half-hour epic based on a comic book was thought to be a huge risk, but the film went on to be the second highest-grossing movie of the year behind “Grease.”
But after almost 40 years of heroic avengers facing off against arch villains in overwrought clashes between good and evil, many movie fans are clearly starting to yawn. Last month, a Reddit thread in which a user admitted to being bored by superhero movies sparked a spirited debate over the cookie-cutter story arcs and cartoonish computer-generated fight scenes that now populate the genre.
“It would definitely be refreshing to see a superhero movie that didn’t end in a giant bloated CGI battle,” one commenter wrote.
A superhero movie without CGI? That would be the most amazing feat of all.