Pundits have predicted for nearly a decade that superhero films would reach a saturation point, and overstay their welcome, leading to audience exhaustion. That has yet to come to pass, with 2018 standing as the biggest, and best, year to date for superheroes at the box office, defying the doom-sayers, if perhaps not silencing them.
This year, a record $11.4 billion was earned at the domestic box office, largely fueled by such superhero films. Globally, the subgenre grossed $7.475 billion and counting, with Aquaman and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse adding money daily. Much of that impressive global accumulation owes to sheer volume: There was a whopping eight superhero films that received wide theatrical release in 2018: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Incredibles 2, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Venom, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Aquaman. That exceeds last year's previous record of six, with Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League.
In sharp contrast to 2017's superhero films, none of which crossed the billion-dollar mark, three of this year's releases passed that global box-office milestone. Marvel's Black Panther became the highest-earning solo superhero film of all time, grossing $1.347 billion, while Avengers: Infinity War became both the highest-earning superhero film overall and the first summer blockbuster to earn $2 billion at the global box office, with a lifetime total of $2.049 billion. Not to be outdone, Pixar's Incredibles 2 brought in $1.243 billion worldwide. The eight superhero films released this year averaged $934 million.
Superhero films weren't confined to the traditional summer blockbuster or holiday season, but were rather released year-round. Black Panther debuted in mid-February to universal acclaim and record-breaking success. Venom arrived in early October and went on to outperform every single Fox-produced X-Men release and both of Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man films. The more open calendar largely helped to prevent too much direct competition (although the release of Infinity War, Deadpool 2 and Solo: A Star Wars Story in such close proximity to one another certainly may have contributed to the latter's disappointing commercial performance).
Another major factor is the steadily lucrative foreign box office, especially China. Before this year, the biggest superhero release in that country had been 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron, which earned $240.1 million there. That previous record was exceeded on two occasions in 2018, by Infinity War, which earned $373.4 million to become the second highest-grossing Hollywood film in China, and Venom, which earned more than $263.6 million and received a rare extended theatrical run. And with Aquaman having already raked in more than $233 million to date in China, Age of Ultron's total in that market may be exceeded a third time by the year's end.
The other major factor, of course, is quality. All but two of this year's superhero films are certified fresh on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes; three of them earned scores of 90 percent or higher, signifying critical acclaim. Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse each has a score of 97 percent, while Incredibles 2 is close behind, at 94 percent. And, although not as highly praised, Deadpool 2 stands at 83 percent, Infinity War at 84 percent, and Ant-Man and The Wasp at 88 percent. In contrast, Venom and Aquaman weren't exactly embraced by critics, with scores of 28 percent and 64 percent, respectively. Yet, their box office performances have certainly compensated for those shortcomings.
With Hollywood awards season now in full swing, Into the Spider-Verse and Incredibles 2 are virtually guaranteed to earned Academy Awards nominations for Best Animated Feature Film following Golden Globe nods in the same category. And while Deadpool 2 was snubbed at the Golden Globes, despite its own award season campaign, Black Panther was nominated for the top honor: Best Picture - Drama.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster has emerged an awards season darling, a break from tradition, in which genre releases are recognized only for technical achievement, in sound, visual effects and make-up. By earning the Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture - Drama, Black Panther has made history.
This year may very well go down as the high-water mark, both critically and commercially, for superhero movies. The aforementioned eight features are poised to earn a combined $7.5 billion worldwide. With the exception of Deadpool 2, every sequel has outperformed its immediate predecessor by a significant margin. And as the industry moves into awards season, superhero films have challenged expectations, and history, to stand alongside other genres to receive the critical recognition they deserve.
And while 2019 won't exceed 2018 in terms of volume of superhero releases, it will nevertheless see seven such films arrive in theaters: Captain Marvel, Shazam!, Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix, Spider-Man: Far From Home, The New Mutants and Joker. Interestingly, by the time Black Panther was released in February, speculation that the subgenre had run its course was nowhere to be found for the remainder of the year. And as superhero films continue to dominate cinemas at the end of 2018, their long-term prospects show no signs of dimming anytime soon.