Superhero fatigue: it’s not what you think it is
In 2008, now almost 10 years ago, Marvel Studios released Iron Man to the public. This movie was a smash hit, with a fantastic lead in Robert Downey Jr., and a refreshing take on the superhero genre with a hero largely absent from popular culture – apart from that one song which I don’t think had anything to do with Marvel’s Iron Man. People were saying “oh, cool, this will make some nice sequels and become a decent movie series.” No one could’ve predicted Marvel’s scheme, which is pure genius looking back at it. They wanted to create a film universe of superhero movies; one in which each film is at once a separate story and also a piece of a larger puzzle. It was bold to plan a whole series of movies before one even launched, as a single flop would destroy the whole ship. Then, when The Avengers dropped in 2012, it was one of the most amazing cinematic moments in history. All of these iconic heroes (and Hawkeye) on the silver screen together was incredible. I remember seeing that film and being amazed. It was seriously a magical film that created so much hope for the future.
The Avengers (and Hawkeye). Image from Cary's Comic Craze
It’s almost 2018 and now, with DC throwing their hat into the ring; Fox trying to keep their film licenses as long as they can; and Sony Pictures flailing around trying to make a hit happen before their studio goes under, there have been a lot of superhero films. It seems like every season of the year we have these superhero movies coming out like clockwork. They are even consistently good too, with no real flops from Marvel’s side of the fence. A Marvel movie is a safe bet if you're going out on a date or alone again on a Friday night and want to drown your sorrows in popcorn butter. But like that delicious butter on a large popcorn, are we perhaps getting too much of a good thing? Are audiences getting burned out on superhero films or is it just cynical critics who don’t want to watch Batman punch a guy for the eighth time this decade?
From my perspective, I am a little burned out. I tend to go see these movies within the first few weeks of opening with my brothers. I've been doing it this way since The Avengers. I have, however, noticed myself personally getting more and more tired of seeing these films. Marvel films, particularly the origin stories, tend to be very formulaic and suffer from the same problems as previous films without improvement. Bad villains, shallow plots, and using punchlines as a crutch tend to make these films grating over time, regardless of how visually interesting they are. Avengers: Age of Ultron, which I still saw twice because my brothers wanted to, was a huge disappointment in terms of the villain and just how mismanaged the motivations in the film were. More recently, Doctor Strange was one of the most visually interesting films I’ve seen in a long time, but the writing and story structure felt like it was created by a computer.
Image from Reddit
Then you have a film like Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, which broke ground by being a complete mess in the writing and visual department and mishandling some real talent. Kurt Russell, one of my favorite actors, was completely wasted in that film and the writing made it seem like it was intended for children. Characters that had a little bit of depth in the previous film were reduced to one-note joke characters – Drax being the worst off on this front. The visuals were also a huge step down from Doctor Strange with some of the CGI in the climactic final battle looking absolutely terrible. This movie was still better than Academy Award winning film Suicide Squad, but it came off as a shock considering Marvel at least has consistently written its the main heroes well.
I went into Spider-Man: Homecoming with very low expectations and was shocked to find Marvel actually improved a lot of problems in their previous films. The villain, particularly, was an absolutely amazing character played by the stellar Michael Keaton. He brought so much to the villain role besides “I am evil because reasons!” Plus, the twist they pull during the movie was something that genuinely caught me off-guard, which was surprising coming from the relatively formulaic Marvel films. And yet, this film didn’t exactly make me excited for Thor: Ragnarok. Not only because the idea of seeing another Thor film makes me want to hurl myself out a window screaming “I AM THE THUNDER GOD,” but also because I just can’t get excited for these superhero films anymore.
So why can’t I get excited? I think it’s the inevitability of these films. Seeing Marvel’s huge list of films rolled out at Comic-Con and other events makes me sick rather than excited. It’s like if Thanksgiving dinner happened three nights in a row; by night three you just look at all the food and dread having to eat it. DC’s futile attempts aren’t helping either. Their model has been to rush the Justice League film before establishing most of the characters, who will get their own films afterward (as long as Justice League does well). They have their own stupid charts and plans and, combined with Marvel, it’s starting to look like someone’s serving Thanksgiving turkey and Holiday ham on the same table. At the very least, Fox might have given up and we won’t get a slew of mediocre X-Men films like X-Men: Apocalypse. I personally hope another Wolverine origin story makes its way into Phase 4 of Marvel’s master plan – it worked so well the last time!
Image from Geek.com
But I’m just one hack fraud with a keyboard and an axe to grind; Disney-Marvel couldn’t care less about what I think. Most people couldn’t care less about what I think. So what about the general public? Are they experiencing this fatigue as well? Well, I took the current box office numbers for Thor: Ragnarok and compared them with the numbers of the other Thor films, recent Marvel films, and recent DC films. I didn’t take into account Marvel films that established new characters because those wouldn’t be comparable to Thor 3, so I instead took Iron Man 3 in the place of Doctor Strange. I also considered critic and user scores despite how little scores have to do with how much a film makes or how many Academy Awards it wins. Finally, I included an approximation of the total budget (with production budget multiplied by two to account for marketing), and the total profit the movie made worldwide. The results were as expected.
Data taken from Box Office Mojo
Thor: Ragnarok released to a very respectable $121 million, higher than both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman, though Wonder Woman had to compete with the staggeringly high Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 on the tail end of its theatrical run. Thor is, once again, eclipsed by the success of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Civil War, both of which had huge box office openings. The two other DC films, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Academy Award Winning Film Suicide Squad, also did much better than Thor: Ragnarok’s opening despite the critical bashing both DC two movies received.
Despite the interest in Thor increasing over time, the fact it didn’t do nearly as well as the other major subseries under Marvel’s umbrella or DC films non-Wonder Woman films is a little surprising. The second week drop-off, which has been a huge killer for many blockbusters these past couple years, was actually not so bad for Thor as opposed to the other films on the list. In fact, only Thor and Wonder Woman had lower percentage decreases. Does this mean that the superhero films are going to continue a downward trend in opening week gross?
Possibly, but it depends on the context of the film in question. Doctor Strange wasn’t included specifically because it grossed so much less than the other films on the list – around Thor: The Dark World’s numbers. I’d chalk Doctor Strange’s underwhelming numbers to the fact he’s an unfamiliar character. Spider-Man: Homecoming’s low numbers break that pattern, but I’d blame the awful Amazing Spider-Man films and Andrew Garfield for that. That same idea can be applied to Thor: Ragnarok because – let’s be real here – the Thor movies were the worst of the Marvel brand. I don’t even blame Thor for that; it’s mostly just that it's bland and no one cares about Thor’s dumb romance plot.
The Rotten Tomatoes scores for critics are not shocking. Marvel films' ratings are relatively consistent, with only Thor: The Dark World dropping below a 75. The highest scoring films on the list are ones that come out this year as well, with only Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 deservedly not being that high. If anything, critic scores have only improved over time if you’re looking at the other two Thor films. Of course, the two DC bombs on the end stand out from the rest of the list, but you know who doesn’t have an Academy Award? Marvel, that’s who, so take that Marvel fanboys.
Here, the user scores are actually helpful for judging changes in public opinion. For the most part, they’ve gone up, but tend to actually be LOWER than the critic scores for the highest rated films. They are surprisingly consistent and, for the most part, in line with movies of similar critical reception. Does this mean the public is getting tired of the Marvel movies? I don’t think so. The differences are so small that it’s hard to tell. I have actually overheard conversations about Thor: Ragnarok from the normal people around me and, let me tell you, things aren’t looking good. A number of people said the film was too “weird and comical.” This is obviously anecdotal evidence, but it’s still valuable to see a small section of public opinion about these films turning sour.
Now we arrive at the profit – what really matters to these movies. Obviously, budgets have increased over time, but that’s just the nature of the film industry. The major movies tend to have higher budgets than the smaller ones as well. Obviously, none of these films have made more than The Avengers did when it was released. These films also haven’t made nearly as much profit as Iron Man 3, which came out four years ago. Does that mean the films are failures? Not at all. Captain America: Civil War did fantastically along with Spider-Man: Homecoming. I do expect Thor: Ragnarok to at least make as much of a profit as Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 – if not more. The DC movies (other than Wonder Woman) made a modest but disappointing profit, but that’s to be expected for their critical reception.
With all these graphs, charts and numbers, what does it all mean? Has the public finally given into superhero fatigue or is it all a lie? Looking at it, I don’t think it’s superhero movies that have the problem. In fact, superhero movies are the exception considering how well they do. The problem isn't from with superheroes, but with Hollywood itself. Budgets get over-inflated beyond the limitations of the product and then flop. The Ghostbusters reboot was an average movie that flopped because Sony put too much money behind it. Then there’s the big loser of last year, Ben-Hur, which lost over 100 million dollars for Paramount. The Mummy was this year’s domestic disaster, only being saved the box office in China. Combine that will all the news from Hollywood right now, and it’s not superhero fatigue that audiences are feeling. It’s blockbuster fatigue, Hollywood fatigue, over-priced popcorn fatigue – whatever you want to call it. The problem lies in the industry, not just superhero films.
I sincerely hope Justice League does well. I’ve always been a fan of the Flash (the best DC superhero by far) and the cast does look pretty stellar. Zack Snyder having to step back due to tragic personal circumstances, though my heart goes out to him, may end up being a blessing for the film. While I have my gripes with professional hypocrite Joss Whedon, his directing ability is admittedly pretty good – as long as the studio stops him from doing creep shots of Gal Gadot. Plus, it’d be nice for Marvel to have competition so they don’t get complacent. We’ll know by next week whether Justice League does well or if superhero fatigue may finally be starting to take some victims.
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