It was exciting Tuesday when Marvel Studios unveiled its Phase Three plans, with nine feature films, including Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman, and Captain Marvel, featuring the Carol Danvers version. However, amid the enthusiasm, there was some hand-wringing.
Are we about to be oversaturated with superheroes? Is the movie-going public going to get sick of capes and tights? Are superhero movies a fad that will go the way of the Western?
Between Marvel, Warner Bros., Fox and Sony, there are more than 30 superhero movies planned between next year and 2020. An average of five movies a year will be released, peaking in 2016 and 2016, with eight films each. No doubt more announcements will follow as we make our way through the decade.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Immediately after Tuesday’s press event, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige was asked if he was concerned about the increasing number of superhero films. He pointed out that it’s “a challenge we’ve faced for many, many years.”
And he’s right. It seems people have been fretting over this every year since at least 2008, when movies based on Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Top Cow comics were all released (not to mention Will Eisner’s The Spirit and the original Hancock). There were a couple of clunkers in that group, plus the spoof Superhero Movie, which you’d think would indicate the whole thing had jumped the shark. And yet, we’re still going strong. Even the combined powers of Elektra, Catwoman and Green Lantern couldn’t killed the superhero movie.
Of course just because they haven’t yet died out or fallen out of favor doesn’t mean they never will. Maybe they’re just the current fad. How long does a fad last, anyhow?
It turns out, this has been researched. (Of course it has.) In 2002, Margo Bergman at the University of Houston conducted a study on the patterns and life cycles of fads, focusing on the Rubik’s Cube. The 3D combination puzzle had fairly flat sales for about six years, and then spiked considerably in the early ’80s. However, by 1983 it had plummeted back to around where it was before in the ’70s. Most fads don;t last much longer than that, and some are much shorter. Pet Rocks lasted about six months in 1975, but by the following February were discontinued due to low sales. Cabbage Patch Kids hit their peak in the holiday shopping season of 1983. Demand was so high, multiple accounts of fights breaking out between parents were famously reported. The dolls are still made today, although sales are not what they were. There are lots of other fads throughout history but typically a five-year peak is considered on the outside of a fad’s duration.
Depending on how you count things, the age of the modern superhero movie started in 1998 with Blade or in 2000 with X-Men; you could even argue it began as recently as 2008, with the first Marvel Studios release, Iron Man. However you count it, the superhero movie has been around. Even the six years since the beginning of the Marvel Studios age is, by most measures, considered the limits of the duration of a classic fad. Yet the genre keeps moving along. I doubt Big Hero 6 or Avengers: Age of Ultron will tank, and mark the abrupt end of the superhero age.
The various peaks and valleys of superhero movies are more indicative of the life cycle of a trend. In 2009, BBC News published an article with a chart that illustrates how fashion trends peak, diminish and then return over decades, which seems to line up with the history of superhero films, which have experienced increasingly larger spikes over the decades. Superman‘s worldwide gross was $300 million in 1978; then, 11 years later, Batman brought in $411 million. Spider-Man earned $821 million in 2002, and from there the pace began to increase. In 2008, The Dark Knight hauled in $1 billion worldwide, with The Avengers further raising the bar in 2012 with $1.5 billion. With each peak, more superhero movies around them are bringing in better numbers as well. Of course, some of that is inflation, but when there were three movies that surpassed $1 billion in 2012 and 2013, and three more that have passed $700 million each this year alone, it’s pretty clear that those peaks are increasing exponentially.
So that’s all well and good, but surely there must come a time when we’re all going to get sick of the same kind of movie. It’s possible, but I think the perception of superhero movies is changing. It used to be that the novelty was enough to make a feature stand out, but that’s no longer the case. That means the movie has to actually be good (or try to be good) on its own merit. And I think that’s why we’re going to see more superhero movies with unique stylistic choices, as in the retro-’70s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and more with idiosyncratic personality, like Guardians of the Galaxy. I suspect, and hope, that Ant-Man, Deadpool and Suicide Squad will follow in those footsteps. Superhero comics can be downright weird in the best way, and I think we’re going to see that embraced more on the big screen. Stepping out and pushing what superhero movies can be is also why we’re finally seeing announcements that go beyond the white0male safety zone: Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Cyborg.
That shift will allow certain movies to attract their own audiences. So if eight superhero movies are coming out in a year, they may not all appeal to you, and that’s OK. People will see the ones that do just like every other movie released in a year. At this point, superhero movies are part of the Hollywood blockbuster crowd. No one really asks when the sp- thriller fad, the action fad or the sci-fi fad is going to end. Superheroes have always been part of the action/adventure and fantasy genres, and as technology has finally gotten close enough to the boundless imagination of our artists, we’re finally seeing Hollywood acknowledge their place in the pantheon of entertainment. They are heightened realities ideal for cathartic escapism, making them perfect for summer blockbusters. There will still be peaks and valleys, but the superhero movie isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Sit back and enjoy the show.
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