Are Superhero Movies on the decline?

Kyle Stateler

"You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

These are the words of Gotham City’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent, in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 hit “The Dark Knight.” According to The Numbers, the movie, a sequel to Nolan’s “Batman Begins” from 2005, grossed $1,000,528,478 at the global box office, and is considered by some to still be the greatest comic book movie ever made a title which, until recently, had been consistently challenged with hit after hit through the last decade.

In the same year “The Dark Knight” came out, Marvel Studios released their first film, “Iron Man.” The movie starred Robert Downey Jr. as the titular character and, according to The Numbers, grossed $585,171,547. Marvel Studios would go on to produce films with their various comic book characters such as Thor, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, and many more. The biggest movies made by the studio are without a doubt The Avengers series, which combined the casts of their individual character films in a big team up event. While “Iron Man” may not have earned as much as Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” it served to springboard the most successful franchise in the history of cinema with more than ten films crossing a billion dollars at the box office. The last two "Avengers" films made over $2 billion each.

Superhero movies became the biggest genre of films in the world for over a decade, in no small part due to the successes of quality films like “The Dark Knight” and the catalogue of films produced by Marvel Studios. In recent years many fans have begun to slip away, leaving many to question if the superhero genre is going the same way as the Westerns of yore. But why are people losing interest in these movies?

What made Marvel Studios so unique was the fact that all their movies existed within the same continuity, the idea being that at any moment you could see Iron Man appear in a film with Captain America. Additionally, their cinematic universe had a unified vision with films building upon the previous ones to set up a looming villain: Thanos, and the Infinity Stones. The team-up to end all team-ups was “Avengers: Endgame” where the heroes defeat Thanos once and for all. But many argue that this story was the last of a winning streak.

Fans have begun to feel sour toward the superhero genre. After “Avengers: Endgame” many felt a decline in the quality of the work produced by Marvel Studios. They say that the universe of the Marvel characters has become directionless. Marvel fan Kaleb Stateler explained. “I think what the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) did perfectly, and also hurt itself so badly that we are now in a world where nobody really likes to watch superhero movies anymore, is that they kept teasing fans with this high of, what's the thing that we're going for? What is it that we're looking for? What's the shiny thing that we're looking for? And then they gave it to us in the most satisfying and perfect way that we could imagine. And then right after that, it was gone. There was nothing else that we were looking for. Because there's nothing there. Nothing has been connected by any means that actually points in any direction. It's just needless things just being made just because they'll earn money.”

There is a growing number who are finding comic book movies to be soulless. One of the largest concerns held by people in the industry is that these comic book movies are taking up too much space in theaters, considering the vast number of projects being produced each year. Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese wrote a piece on his thoughts on the genre for the New York Times titled “Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain,” in which he says, “Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever.”

“I think it has to do with the fact that they were produced on basically what would have amounted to an assembly line, there was no heart really left in them,” diagnosed Armen Nostrant, a film studies student at the Community College of Baltimore County. “They were a product; they weren't something made by an actual director trying to tell a story. It was more made by a corporation trying to make as much money as possible, which is all film in general, but usually, you'll have some kind of creativity in there. But it's just completely absent in a lot of these movies. That's why they're color graded the same, their jokes are the same. They're basically the same movie every single time. And it was a good formula at first, but you push a good thing too much and it just stops working and people get tired of it.”

Part of this mass production means that the quality of special effects work and other aspects of filmmaking are having to be rushed in order to meet deadlines. Less practical effects are being used in favor of quick computer-generated images. These include everything from explosions and laser beams to some vehicles and backgrounds (especially on alien worlds). In recent years an over-reliance on CGI effects has been felt by some. But the turnaround time is proving to leave a poor taste in the mouth of several fans.

“I think the biggest issue with modern day superhero films or modern-day epic blockbuster movies is their reliance on CGI to tell the most important aspects of a story,” said Tom Brubaker, another digital media and film studies student at the Community College of Baltimore County. “In the ‘89 Batman film it was an epic moment of him putting on an actual outfit and getting dressed up in these actual sets and an actual world versus any Marvel movie, where their suits go from the early 2008 actual practical effect scenes like in ‘Iron Man’ to this nano technology. We're not in suits until we press a little button on our chest and all of a sudden, the CGI suit pops out of nowhere and we're wearing it and essentially that actor, even though they're on set for it, they're literally not in the film because it's a CG character, and the actor may or may not have been on set, but it's not real. And I think the lack of practicality in the superhero films really makes the CGI stand out as how poor it is done.”

Despite lower box office performances and the opinions of their critics, the movies of the superhero genre still have their fans. In 2022, Warner Brothers announced the creation of a new studio devoted solely to production of films based on DC Comics, including characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. While movies about these characters have been made before, it had been done without a guiding hand to oversee the longevity of the success of the characters. Hopefully, Marvel Studios and the new DC Studios will be able to recognize the feedback from their audiences and make the necessary changes to keep the legacies of their properties alive.

"Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn't mean they're lost forever."

X-Men: Days of Future’s Past (2014)

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