CFC: Superhero fatigue and the Illusion of Change

From Mav: If you’re the kinda person who reads pop culture think pieces on the internet (which, I assume you must be if you’re reading this) you’ve probably come across some that talk about the impending death of the MCU. In fact, if Tatiana Siegel of Variety is to be believed, even Marvel is a little worried about this. A quick little google searching will show that critics have been been writing about superhero fatigue killing the market since like 2011… three years into the MCU’s run! That was before the first Avengers movie came out. It was before Dark Knight Rises came out. Hell, that was more than two Spider-men ago! We’ve basically been complaining about superhero fatigue as long as we’ve been in the TV superhero era. I found one from 2008… BEFORE Iron Man! Seriously, EVEN I WROTE ONE WAY BACK IN 2014! Because… well, among other things I’m a pop culture critic. I have a snazzy sheet of paper that says so and everything! And complaining about stuff is part of the fun!

But another part of being a critic — especially an academic one —is challenging our own opinions. See, a lot of times people take an opinion they have once and then decide that it is a matter of public fact and then they’ll defend it til death like it’s some matter of honor or something. But real cultural criticism… real academia… is about being part of a conversation. It’s what our show is actually about. It’s about taking the full body of the conversation — including our part in it — into account and thinking about where it leads us. One of the best ways to do this is to take your base opinion and then start asking yourself “ok, but what if I’m wrong?” And, so… looking at my article from 2014 and a bunch of other articles then and even lately… I’m willing to say…

I was wrong!

So I want to set some bounds here first. I’m a nerd, so… I did the math! Clear superhero movies… that is to say IP adaptations of comic book crime fighters accounts for more than 17% of the 2023 U.S. domestic box office at the time of this writing (it will be higher by the end of the year, one would assume because even though The Marvels is making some money, and even if Aquaman 2 tanks, it’s going to make some as well. Those numbers go higher if you count … “superhero-ish” action movies (Indiana Jones, Fast & Furious, Mission Impossible, John Wick, Transformers, GI Joe, etc.) but for purity, I left them out (but I did count non-DC/Marvel clear superheroes… most notably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, My Hero Academia, Dragonball and Power Rangers).

For comparison: 2022 was 29%. There was 27% in 2021. While 2020 was just over 7%. Obviously 2020 and 2021 were… special because of the pandemic. But in 2019… 20% and 7% of the box office that year was just Avengers: Endgame. The big year is actually probably 2018, which had Black Panther, Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man 2, and Venom all come out… and that was still just under 27% of the box office. So less than last year. Once we’re in 2017, it dips to 20%. AND THEN… in 2016, it was 15%. 2015 was 6% (but that was with only three actual superhero movies… one of which was Fant4stic🙄). 2014 had 13%. And to go back to exactly 10 years ago, 2013 was 10%. And just to get back to where I started this article, 2012 was 12%(with 3 movies) and 2011 was 7% (with 5 movies). So we are making MORE superhero movies but they’re largely doing… about what they’ve always done… just a slight bit worst than the last couple pre-pandemic years which were artificially bolstered by having made LITERALLY THREE OF THE 10 BIGGEST MOVIES OF ALL TIME! And then another one on that list has come out since the pandemic. So they’re down, but so is the whole market (especially when you consider inflation adjustment and budget creep). But this is sort of like complaining that Facebook or Apple is in trouble in a year where their revenue is down even though they’re still an order of magnitude more popular than their competitors.

YearTotal Box OfficeSuperhero Revenue %# of Superhero Movies
2020$2,113,846,8007%5 (pandemic year 1)
2021$4,482,808,45327%7 (pandemic year 2)
2023$8,135,879,98917% (so far)8 (plus one more to go)

So there’s that caveat on the financial side… Yes, it’s probably going to go down… but it sort of had to. First all, movie attendance is down across the board. But also… when you’re at the top, there’s really only one direction you can go. Can it sustain? Well, maybe? Probably it will continue to go up and down. That’s how genres work. People like to compare the superhero genre to the western genre, which ruled Hollywood cinema for nearly 40 years. BUT, even when the golden age of westerns finally died, they never really went away. The Power of the Dog had 11 Oscar nominations like… a year ago! I think it makes more sense to compare the superhero genre to the police procedural on TV, which has been a staple since the 1950s, with think pieces being written in the press about how it was soon to burn out, the entire time. And yet, the Law & Order franchise has been on the air continuously longer than some of my cohosts have been alive!

Because I think the question is wrong. Are we getting “superhero fatigue”? Ok… actually, yeah… or well, more like “kinda!” Or, at least some people are. “We” are not a monolith. But that should have never been the question. The question is more “ok, but so what? Is superhero fatigue even bad?” and the answer there is “no.” Because it has to be! It’s not that the superhero genre is dying. It’s more that it’s becoming a full-fledged film genre… and less of a fad.

And that brings me to what sparked me wanting to talk about this. And that is the film critic’s sort of misunderstanding how the superhero franchises are designed. In particular the MCU, but even the others that are struggling to grab their foothold (DC, and Sony/Spiderman). The big complaint that I see coming from critics is that there are “too many” of the films. And that people can’t keep up with watching all of them. The fixes that people push range from “take a couple years off so we miss them” to “it’s time to reboot the MCU franchise!”

See, the problem since the MCU is sort of a unique franchise FOR FILM people are trying to put it in a the closest box they can think of. People want there to be an ending because they’re used to films being about stories. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end. There are well structured conclusive arcs. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey that George Lucas is so obsessed with is indicative of this structure. But the Campbellian monomyth is not the only way build a narrative. The Superhero monomyth is a whole separate thing.

The MCU was meant to replicate superhero fantasy in comic books. The way they have been for years. And those stories don’t have beginnings, middles and ends. It’s all middle! I wrote a whole 337 page dissertation proving it! Hell, Umberto Eco figured this out this out more than fifty years ago in his essay “The Myth of Superman”. To every think piece writer on the internet… maybe you think you’re smarter than me. You’re not smarter than Umberto Eco!

When I say a unique franchise FOR FILM what I really meant was Hollywood cinema. Because outside of that…it really isn’t that unique. The entire point of the superhero franchise is to create a never ending serial. The story needs to feel like it’s progressing, but then… not! It needs to have regular climaxes but then never actually reach denouement. Ideally, it needs to have a new story arc starting before the last one has ended, so that everything just keeps rolling along. It needs to have what Stan Lee called “the illusion of change.”

This is what comic books are. It’s what daily comic strips are. It’s what soap operas are. It’s what long-running manga is. it’s what pulps and penny dreadfuls were. Kevin Feige has been teaching you to accept a never ending serial narrative as something you pay for.

And yes. That does make it hard to see the entire story. That’s just how this is. You don’t get to see the entire story. No one does. Hell, we had Douglas Wolk on the show a while back because he did the impossible task of reading every Marvel comic book ever, and that was so notable that he wrote a whole best selling book about it. Beyond that, we just all dip in and out of the story as we see fit. No one says “oh my god, how do I figure Spider-man? They’re 926 issues in? I guess I better start at the beginning or I will never be able to crack this?” You just jump in and go. And maybe you leave and come back ten years later… it’s fine!!!

And you don’t need to watch every movie. You watch the ones you like. I haven’t bought a Deadpool comic in like 20 years! And when he shows up in a book that I do read, If you feel like you can’t understand the Marvels because you didn’t watch all of WandaVision, and Ms. Marvel? Well, I think that says more about YOUR intelligence than the franchise. And if you’re worried that Nick Fury seems like an entirely different character in The Marvels than he does in Secret Invasion and there’s no way that continuity works together… I don’t even want to begin to tell you about comic book Wolverine!

Just because it is all connected, that doesn’t mean you have to pick up every part if you don’t want to. Remember how a few years ago everyone was complaining that all the movies were all he same? This is fixing that! There needs to be room for a gritty grownup superhero and a cute little kid movie! There needs to be room for one that is empowering to tween girls and another for boys who want to see boobs! There needs to be horror, and spy thrillers, and space operas, and action comedies. The fact that we’re getting to a point where not everyone likes everything, is actually a good thing!

As for the people clamoring for a reboot in hopes of simplifying everything?

No… for the love of God no!!! Down that road lies madness! Trust me, it would be… a Crisis!

Anyway, I thought this would be a short one. But those are some loose thoughts and we want to talk about it a bit more live on the show. So what do you think? Do you like the open possibilities of having a genre where you’re allowed to like some things and hate others or do you yearn for the days where you could keep up with it all? Is complaining about a popular thing losing its popularity even when it’s still on top just a thing we do and it’s only the illusion of change that makes us think we’re doing something new? Let us know in the comments!

1 Comment and 0 Webmentions for “CFC: Superhero fatigue and the Illusion of Change”

  1. Ok, a few things:

    This plays into what we talked about in the early days of the podcast in the “Infinity Franchises and Cinematic Universes” episode, and how the first Avengers movie was what I called a “compound sequel” of all the intros of individual heroes in Phase 1 (and did we even know it was Phase 1 at the time?).

    On a narrative structure level, having the films, which reach a far wider audience than the books but with more structural restrictions per episode, create episodic narrative to said audience that may be less used to it than the books’ longtime audience is as much a business problem as it is an aesthetic one.

    From a business perspective, it becomes a question about how many products and tie-ins Marvel/Disney (and any collaborating businesses) they can make profitable in the lifespan of this series. And also if creating new content can give continued profitability to legacy content.

    The aesthetics need to be there for the business, and the business needs to be there to support the creation of the content.

    Also, I’m working on my (not) Batman proposal.

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