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Exploring The Decline Of The Mainstream Superhero Flick

Many eras of cinema are marked by a certain genre or style of movie. The 2000s were chock full of classic chick flicks, the 80s were defined by horror films and John Huges’ coming-of-age classics, and the 2010s had superhero films, specifically Marvel films.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) reigned supreme, smashing box office records and regularly going head-to-head with the DC Cinematic Universe (DCU). We saw “Infinity War” and “Endgame” top charts, and the announcement of new cast members for these films was treated as breaking news.

This style of film seemed unbeatable, and movies that opened on the same weekend as a Marvel or DC flick didn’t stand a chance. We had superhero fever, and Marvel did everything in its power to maintain this legacy.

Iron man

As the decade changed, Marvel introduced more female-led backstories, diversified their cast, and focused on their Gen-Z market, with such titles as Black Widow, Thor: Love and Thunder, and most recently, the Sony collaboration, Madame Web.

The newest superhero flick, with its majority female cast and Gen-Z-styled humour, opened with earnings of less than $18 million and was beaten out by the Bob Marley Biopic for cinema-goers’ attention.

This is not the first superhero film to perform subpar at the box office, and it’s not the first Marvel film to rake in far less than its predecessors, suggesting that the golden days of superhero flicks are behind us.

Gone are the days when Marvel releases and red carpets were reported feverishly, the hysteria of midnight screenings, and the stars of the movies appearing on every talk show for weeks on end to promote films that really didn’t need promoting anyway.

Marvel was on a high in the 2010s, a universe tied together by a plot that culminated in the record-breaking ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame.’ The ‘Infinity Saga,’ as it was called, came to an end in 2019, with popular characters and storylines then disappearing from the new releases.

A new era followed suit, introducing new stars, characters, plotlines, and technology. While these characters were also gleaned from the infamous comic books, they didn’t garner as much instant love as their predecessors had.

Beyond the new cast, it could be argued that the lack of an overarching plot, a thread woven through all the films and characters, could be affecting Marvel’s success. The absence of a defined, multi-film arc could explain the sense of fragmentation fans have said they feel in the new movies.

But obviously, this does not account for other films of the genre, with DC also finding themselves in a similar situation and other independent or smaller sci-fi/superhero-style films falling short at the box office. And maybe this is just evidence that the old formula, the action, special effects, and character dynamics we used to love, are no longer what the average cinema-goer is looking for.


“Everything Everywhere, All At Once,” an action-adventure film that borrows many sci-fi ideas and tropes, did marvellously with critics and audiences, yet others flop, seemingly falling short when it comes to the heart and emotion of a film, falling back on surface level one-liners and relying heavily on the visuals to carry, what can be a weak plot.

But as Film and Media Lecturer, Dan Ward points out, ‘I would say that the popularity of any cinematic genre is cyclical - inevitably, a boom period will lead to an eventual "cooling off" in mass appeal due to oversaturation or repetition,’ suggesting that this downtick in the demand for these types of films is inevitable and to be expected.

It seems that animated and genre-bending flicks that fall into or toe the line of the classic superhero film aren’t suffering the same fate.

The ‘Into the Spiderverse' series of films, an animated take on the world of Spiderman featuring a variety of new and veteran stars, is going from strength to strength.

The spin-off ‘Birds of Prey,’ which focused on the DC character Harley Quinn did surprisingly well with fans, dispelling any ideas that female-led films in this genre are to blame for bad box office numbers. Stepping outside of the box and reworking the classic superhero movie formula has proven to have positive repercussions.

Even the ever-popular Star Wars films found themselves receiving mixed reviews towards the end of the 2010s. However, the switch to stories with arguably more heart and emotion, and less focus on highly stylised action, has rescued the cinematic universe from itself.

This shift, along with the investment in series and more animated content, has played a key role in revitalising the franchise.

“The rise of streaming networks has exacerbated the proliferation of superhero productions, with MCU spin-offs expanding across platforms like Netflix & Disney+,” says Dan.

“Studios also seem to have struggled in recent years to strike a balance in bringing fresh ideas to their franchises without alienating more traditionalist sections of its existing fanbase.”

iron man painting

But these pushed boundaries and new sub-genres seem to be the way forward. Shows like ‘WandaVision,’ an MCU creation that focused more on plot than just action, received good reviews.

It’s evident that fans haven’t fallen out of love with the classic MCU and DC offerings; they’re just looking for something more – not more of the same.

“Perhaps the popularity of satirical shows like The Boys also reflects increasing audience cynicism towards the superhero zeitgeist,” suggests Ward, a lecturer at the University of Sunderland.

The audience has changed – films have to cater to the self-aware and politically correct Generation Z and have to keep up with the speed of content audiences can find online.

They have more boundaries and bigger records to attempt to break, and thus it’s possibly no wonder they don’t seem to be doing as well as the previous iteration of superhero flicks.

Maybe studios should have quit on the high, but if trends are anything to go by, there’s every possibility we will find ourselves clamouring for classic Sci-Fi, comic book-style offerings at the cinema in a decade’s time.

Or maybe indie darlings like ‘Everything, Everywhere, All At Once’ will take over the genre and finally push out the big-budget, special effects-heavy movies we had grown accustomed

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