Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man

The Superhero Movie Pandemic: How Much is Too Much?

Creature features, film noir, and spaghetti westerns. What do all of these things have in common? These film genres, along with others, once dominated Hollywood box offices. But now, time and waning audience interest have all but killed these genres, which used to be pillars of the film industry.

And now, with superhero films being put out at an ever-quickening pace, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Is Hollywood killing the superhero movie genre through overpopulation?
  • Will audiences ever tire of superhero movies, and if so, how long does the genre have left?
  • What can filmmakers do to keep the genre fresh?

Now, in case you’re thinking that the superhero genre isn’t that overpopulated, let’s take a look at the evidence. Since the dawn of the modern superhero film, which I believe began in 2000 with the first X-Men film, the number of hero flicks is much higher than you might think. Over 40 films have been released based on Marvel Comics and their subsidiaries. At least 13 movies have been created with DC Comics and their subsidiaries as source material. And outside of the big two comic book names, a handful of other films, including Hellboy and its sequel, Green Hornet, and the Sin City series have been made, based on other comic book sources.

Ron Perlman as Hellboy

So, all in all, we’re looking at over 60 films based on superheroes or other comic book figures over the last 16 years. Now, granted, some of these films have been less than impressive (Ghost Rider, anyone?) but the fact remains that 60 or more films in 16 years, or four per year, is a staggering number.

Last September, legendary director Steven Spielberg made a sobering statement regarding the lifetime of superhero movies. He said, “We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. . . There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

If anyone else had made that statement, it would probably have fallen on deaf ears, but Spielberg is perhaps the most well-known film director of all time, and for him to make a prophecy like that certainly deserves our attention.

So, is Hollywood killing the superhero movie genre through overpopulation? I think it’s possible. We haven’t yet hit the implosion that Spielberg predicted, but with each and every superhero trailer that I see, my personal interest and excitement dissipates. Even the X-Men movie franchise, which has long been my favorite Marvel film franchise, doesn’t pique my interest the same way it used to. Now that’s not to say that I’m not excited for X-Men: Apocalypse or Wolverine 3, because I undoubtedly am. But I don’t have the same enthusiasm for those films as I did for First Class and The Wolverine, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.

Hugh Jackman in Wolverine

Disney’s MCU films have become particularly stale as of late, and the films tend to focus too much on big budget action instead of plot and character development. Myself and plenty of others have noted this. And if the MCU continues on its current path, I think that Spielberg’s implosion theory will prove to be prophetic. It won’t happen immediately, and large concourses of moviegoers will surely flock to theaters to take in each and every MCU film. But with the repetitive and unengaging plots of the MCU, at some point, people will realize that the films just aren’t as fun as they used to be.

But, to play devil’s advocate to myself, the opposite could also occur. I may be completely underestimating the world’s dedication to the genre. People love to see movies about familiar characters. Technology is also now, finally, at a point that superhero films can look and feel real, so it’s very possible that as long as comic book heroes keep gracing the silver screen, their popularity will never die.

But now let’s move away from the MCU to discuss potential saviors for the comic book movie world. Films based on DC properties typically don’t perform as well as their Marvel counterparts, due to a few reasons. The most obvious reason is the sheer number of movies that Marvel has over DC. 40 movies to 13 in the last 16 years isn’t necessarily something to brag about for DC. However, one only needs to look at the Dark Knight trilogy to see how great superhero movies can be. And I don’t mean the “Hey, that movie was great!” kind of great, I mean the “Wow, that film has the potential to be memorable for years and years to come, and it’ll be hard to make a superhero movie with better characters and a better storyline,” kind of great.

heath-ledger-the-joker

The DC universe has great characters with engaging backstories, and with the DCCU about to gather some real momentum, we have still yet to see what that franchise can deliver.

Another saving grace for comic book movie adaptations could come in the form of just that: Comic book movie adaptations. Not just superhero movies, but comic book movies that don’t feature superheroes. A few of these do exist, and some of them stand out as great films. Movies like V for Vendetta and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World are both based on comic book or graphic novel material, and both have become cult classics. There are plenty more non-superhero comics that could be adapted into films. The success of other adaptations like The Walking Dead has certainly opened up the public’s minds to seeing non-superhero comic book stories as viable film and TV options. There may be a fairly untapped market there just waiting to be explored.

But if studios are adamant in creating superhero films, there are still plenty of possibilities there as well. Bear with me, because some might seem a little out there, but as more and more of the main Marvel and DC storylines are turned into movies, some of the more obscure story arcs could be brought to light. Marvel’s 1602 series, written by master of all things weird, Neil Gaiman, focuses on our favorite heroes in an alternate history where superheroes have arrived in the 17th century instead of the 20th and 21st. Let’s face it, this storyline would be worth it just to see this version of Spider-Man:

Spider-Man 1602

On the DC side of things, how about a film adaptation of Superman: Red Son to keep things fresh? In this alternate take on the Man of Steel’s origin story, instead of growing up in Kansas, Superman was raised in the Soviet Union. In this timeline, Superman is described as “The Champion of the common worker who fights a never-ending battle for Stalin, socialism, and the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact.” That’s pretty epic.

DC Comics Red Son

So, let’s ask ourselves, once again, is oversaturation is killing superhero movies? Potentially. At this point, if my own feelings and declining reviews for superhero movies are any indication, some people are getting tired of the genre. Spielberg certainly thinks this is the case, and that a downfall is inevitable. But despite this, hero films seem to be more popular now than they have ever been, and the genre has a full head of steam, so who knows how far it will get?

But even if our love for superheroes starts to decline, that doesn’t mean that comic book movies have to go the way of the Western. There are so many other comics and graphic novels that could make great films. All it would take is an open mind and some creativity to adapt them into enjoyable movies.

So, when will enough be enough? When will we get bored of the superhero formula? It seems that only time will tell. I, for one, hope that the industry finds a way to keep things fresh so we can continue to see these cinematic universes play out for years to come.
 
 
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