Here is one of publishing’s worst kept secrets…
It is fairly standard practice for large newspapers, news magazines and now online publications to keep on file working drafts of the obituaries of living high-profile political figures, entertainers and celebrities. That way when a very famous person passes, an obituary can be quickly edited (as opposed to newly-generated) and published in response to the news in short order.
Similarly, it seems like entertainment publications have another kind of preemptive obituary on file that they’re just itching to publish, and that’s the obituary for superhero movies.
The press and even some fans already have a common term used to describe the theoretical symptoms that will eventually cause the passing of the superhero movie – “superhero fatigue” – a concept that like fairies, Bigfoots and centrist politicians, remains a wholly fictitious conceit never actually observed in real life.
The ‘fatigue’ premise is mostly speculative and goes like this: given the dominate box office profile the sub-genre has held for the last several years and the proliferation of superheroes to come over the next five years (at minimum), that independent of the quality of each film, moviegoers are going to eventually just get generally bored and stop going, at least in the same numbers they do now.
That’s not exactly going out on a limb – any even casual observer can see movie genres and trends wane, resurge, and wane again. The western, sci-fi, the R-rated comedy, etc., all have been in and out of style over the decades. Right now the romantic comedy is still trying to find its place in 2016 and among Millennials, with Judd Apatow almost single-handedly saving it from extinction (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Trainwreck are all successful hybrid romcoms). So the idea that the superhero film will someday wane in popularity is likely more of a matter when than if (if you keep predicting it, you’ll eventually be right), but my point today is evidence seems to suggest we’re nowhere near that point yet, despite the media champing at the bit to advance the narrative.
Make no mistake, the first time two consecutive superhero films underperform at the box office, or the first time Marvel Studios releases a critically-panned film (66%, or 2/3rds approval is remarkably their low water mark on RottenTomatoes), countless stories will be pulled from Cloud storage, their titles and dates updated, and we’ll all be told superhero fatigue has inevitably set in.
It just may be a while before either of those things happen.
Despite the critical drubbing Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice suffered at the hands of the press and some fans, the film has already surpassed $850m worldwide and will climb a little higher before it's said and done. Now that can absolutely be accurately called disappointing and underperforming, but if there isn’t a Hollywood saying about your disappointments making $850m… there should be.
If nothing else, its record March opening despite the critical atomic wedgie suggests superhero appetite is strong as ever, BvS just wasn't a satisfying meal for many.
And the good news for Warner Bros. is they and Zack Snyder have left themselves a lot of room to improve. At the height of the great BvS lament, theater exhibitors reportedly responded very positively to Warner’s showcase of August’s Suicide Squad at CinemaCon.
Then, of course, there is Deadpool – the little movie that could ... to the tune of $760m worldwide. Not only did it bring a fresh new spin to the genre, it did it with an R-rating and a reported less-then $60m budget. Deadpool may not be a genre game-changer, per se, but it did expand the game, and give 20th Century Fox a whole new X-Verse center of gravity for a franchise that is at the same time on the rise and preparing to say goodbye to its lynchpin Hugh Jackman-Wolverine.
If nothing else, it cleansed the studio of the odor of last summer’s ill-fated Fantastic Four.
Which brings us of course to Captain America: Civil War, the latest Marvel Studios entry following the slightly disappointing/$1.4 BILLION dollar Avengers: Age of Ultron (wrap your head around that juxtaposition) and that other little movie that could, Ant-Man. Although only a $500m enterprise (here we go again), Ant-Man exceeded critical and box office expectations and is widely regarded as a successful first entry of a lesser-known and somewhat oddball property. To wit, a sequel is on the calendar for 2017.
Early critical returns on Civil War are so glowing you need shades, and box office projections are creeping into Avengers territory. Despite it effectively being an Avengers 2.5, if one was to suggest a decade ago that any movie with “Captain America” as the main prefix would be guaranteed to make a minimum of a billion dollars at the box office, one would likely be soon subject of an intervention.
More relevant to today’s conversation, however, is how it’s reportedly succeeding. Now we haven’t seen the film ourselves yet, but even a small sampling of the reviews demonstrates a pattern. Whereas Age of Ultron was regarded by enough fans and critics as bloated with characters and storylines to make an impression, Civil War seemingly commits the same sin and then some. And whereas Age of Ultron had to serve the greater MCU narrative, Civil War does apparently the same.
It even goes so far as to introduce a rebooted Spider-Man again, just a couple of years after Sony’s Spider-verse plans blown up real good after Amazing Spider-Man 2. And Civil War was even at a greater disadvantage over Age of Ultron – it’s coming just 365 days after most of the cast were all together for the Avengers sequel, the one that felt a little ... dare we say - fatigued?
So what’s Civil War doing differently? If you believe the reviews, it isn’t doing anything different; its secret sauce is it’s just doing it better.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that really the sure-fire antidote for fatigue? Just be really good. And maybe just be a little fresh.
Comic book superheroes hold a unique and unprecedented place in fictional entertainment. There is no other category in entertainment in which concepts like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Captain America have been near-weekly centers of new stories, going on more than 75 years in DC’s case and 53+ in Marvel’s. So maybe as comic book readers we’re all conditioned to believe superheroes are impervious to trends. And again, while it’s possible the national and global mood may someday shift to ‘eh’ the way it once did with the Western and the way Steven Spielberg once suggested it would, that moment doesn’t appear to coming anytime soon.
Marvel’s winning streak will eventually come to an end (and boy oh boy are entertainment editors around the globe waiting for that to happen) and they’ll invariably be a couple to a few films in a row that don’t fully meet commercial expectations, but with no less than 20 named films scheduled through 2020 from Marvel, Warner Bros and Fox alone and another eight or so possible unnamed films on top of that, the plug isn’t being pulled anytime in the foreseeable future. All it would take is one well-regarded $1B hit to put things back on track. Given their track record, Marvel alone seems like an unlikely candidate for a long losing streak.
So entertainment journalists around the world, click open Microsoft Word and update your ‘superhero’ fatigue stories if you must. Just take care not to send to them to your editors at the first sign of trouble. After all, they’re superheroes – escaping seemingly inevitable predicaments is kind of what they do.