Have We Hit Peak Superhero?
Look at any review for a non-blockbuster superhero movie in the last five years and you'll see the same question repeated again and again: "Have we hit peak superhero?"
The answer, of course, is no. We're no closer to hitting peak superhero than we are peak ice cream.
So why are we constantly hearing this question? I think there are two main reasons: First, there's a contingent of movie critics that simply dislike the genre. You can hear it in the tone of their reviews. They'd rather sit through two hours of eyeball acupuncture than suffer another movie with superheroes punching things. Anytime one comes along that's a legitimate dud, they ask with no shortage of longing in their voice if the superhero's days are numbered.
The second reason you're likely to hear this question boils down to expectations. Between 2012 and 2013, the CBM genre had three billion-dollar movies in The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Iron Man 3. These were a cluster of anomalies, but insiders seemed to take their success to be the new measuring stick. A movie like Man of Steel comes along, which has a recognizable name but was the follow-up to an abysmal reboot, and it's immediately saddled with unreasonable box office expectations. When the final tally put it just north of $675 million--some $300 million shy of projections--people wondered if audiences were getting tired of the genre. The same thing happened with The Amazing Spider-Man. Making a profit wasn't good enough. You either made a billion or it was time to worry about signing a DNR order for superhero movies.
Then along comes something like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the question goes silent again--for a little while, anyway (I'm fully expecting to hear it in August if Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't hit $600 million--WHICH IT BETTER).
So is this question even a legitimate thing? Potentially, I mean. Since only the Sith deal in absolutes, I'll say that it is possible, but not probable.
Among the Peak Superhero crowd, there's a common analogy that says CBMs will eventually fade away just like the Westerns craze. That's not a fair comparison to make, though. There's a core set of components to most superhero movies: costumed heroes take on villains, usually with the help of superpowers. There's a core set of components to Westerns too, mostly involving dudes in cowboy hats doing things in the West.
The difference is that superhero movies are combinations of genres rather than a narrow genre like Westerns. They're thrillers, mysteries, adventure movies, heist flicks, romances, and about a dozen other categories at any given time. Man of Steel was a first contact movie. The Dark Knight was a Heat-like thriller. Iron Man 3 was a buddy cop movie. Because these types of films take their core components and mix them with other brands of cinema, you have a nearly endless set of potential combinations. Go back to the peak ice cream reference for a second. Ice cream has a typical set of ingredients. The reason we see umpteen billion ice cream shops in our society is that you have virtually no limits on the different flavors you can make.
(Full disclosure--I may have gorged on frozen yogurt before writing this post)
So everything's coming up roses in the superhero movie world, right?
Well, yes and no. While I don't think we're anywhere close to the death of superhero movies, I do think there's such a thing as over-saturation. The biggest offenders here are Fox Studios and Sony Pictures, since they have a very limited stable of characters to choose from.
Back when they were trying to avoid bankruptcy, Marvel sold the film rights to Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four to Sony and Fox, respectively. The X-Men are at Fox until Armageddon (thanks, lawyers!), but in order to keep the licenses away from Marvel, a new Spider-Man and Fantastic Four movie needs to be made every 6 or 7 years or the rights revert. This leads to a pattern of trilogy, followed by reboot, followed by another trilogy, which means we get the same characters presented over and over, sometimes in the exact same story. The Amazing Spider-Man was guilty of this and audience's responded by buying fewer tickets than its predecessors. In fact, each Spider-Man film has made less domestically than the previous film. I think that's due to over-saturation of the character.
The good news is that the big two in the industry--Marvel Studios and WB/DC--have plenty of characters to choose from in order to keep things fresh. After Thor 3 and Cap 3 come out, you're going to see new Marvel characters in Dr. Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Ms. Marvel (probably). On the DC side, they're just beginning their connected cinematic universe with 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which may not usher in the apocalypse of superhero movies but may signal the end of giving-a-shitness when it comes to naming things.
One last point: There's another way I think the industry can avoid the doom and gloom of peak superhero worries, but it's a slightly unpopular idea among the comic-reading crowd and usually gets me booed off the forums. I'll tackle that idea in a separate post. The short version is that you need new to take the place of old, but as everyone knows, CHANGE IS SCARY.
Lucky for us, it's going to be awhile before CBMs need a changing of the guard to stave off going the way of the Western.