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The Rise and Fall of Superhero Movies: A Statistical Analysis.
Why and how superhero movies are no longer so super.
Intro: The Blue Beetle Blues
The 2010s were the heydey of superhero movies. Hollywood studios could place low-risk, ultra-upside bets, and audiences flocked to theaters. At one point, fans even demanded an extended version of Zack Snyder's universally-panned Justice League—and Warner Brothers complied, dropping a cool $70M to give the people what they wanted. Could you imagine a Hollywood studio spending $70M to create four-hour versions of Battleship: The Movie, Cats, or The Lone Ranger? The Justice League Snyder Cut may have been the peak of "Peak Superhero," with fans desiring neverending comic book content, agnostic of quality (and runtime).
Flash forward to 2023, and superhero films are no longer so super. This past weekend Warner Brothers' Blue Beetle grossed just $25M in domestic box office, the lowest opening weekend for a (non-pandemic) superhero release. And if you read that last sentence and thought, "What's a Blue Beetle?" You have proved my point that much more.
So today, we'll explore the rise and fall of superhero films. We'll investigate what drives their box office performance and whether Marvel and DC can recover their high-flying ways.
The Rise and Fall of Superhero Films
In the 1950s and 60s, superhero movies and TV shows were considered flamboyant, low-quality productions targeting juvenile audiences. In case you wanted proof of the sheer silliness of these shows, here is a photo of Batman and Robin from ABC's Batman series:
The actors are clearly standing upright amidst a skyline painted sideways. It's pretty terrible but also hilariously awesome—the definition of campy.
Then in 1978, Warner Brothers released its first Superman movie. The film was widely praised for its state-of-the-art special effects, Christopher Reeve's iconic leading performance, and John Williams' legendary score.
Superman's financial and critical success legitimized superhero films as a high-ceiling blockbuster genre, demonstrating the enormous commercial potential of comic books as intellectual property.
The early 2000s saw exponential growth in the volume of superhero productions, primarily driven by breakthroughs in computer-generated imaging. As computer graphics and visual effects software evolved, filmmakers were afforded the tools to convincingly render fantastical powers, epic battles, and otherworldly settings typical of superhero lore.
Superhero movie production peaked between 2016 and 2019, with an average of six films released annually during that period.
From 2000 to 2019, the superhero genre also saw a boom in financial performance as average box office grosses soared. Comic book films grew and grew, each performing better than the last—until they didn't.
At first glance, one could blame this regression in average revenue on a post-pandemic decline in global box office, but there's more at play.
Six films have crossed $1B in worldwide ticket sales since 2020: Barbie, Super Mario Bros., Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World Dominion, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Avatar: The Way of Water. This list is notable for two reasons:
That movies can still gross over $1B.
That only one of these entries is of the superhero genre.
If Marvel and DC can't blame all their struggles on a deflating global box office, who (or what) is to blame?
The Rise of Superhero Fatigue and Critical Failures
Marvel released the first installment of its Black Panther series in 2018. Somehow, miraculously, an adaptation of a lesser-known Marvel character grossed over $1.3B worldwide and was nominated for Best Picture. A year later, Marvel's Avengers: Endgame would become the second highest-grossing film of all time. This period was the true peak of "Peak Superhero" (while Zack Snyder's Justice League may have been the equivalent of a "Superhero Tulip Mania")—which begs the question of what changed in Endgame's aftermath.
For one thing, post-Endgame superhero movies have declined in quality, at least in the eyes of critics. Looking at average critic score, we see Marvel and DC films gradually grow in quality from 2008 to 2019, with Marvel reaching a plateau in 2018 and 2019 (the years of Black Panther and Endgame). Following 2019, both studios experienced a relative decline in critical acclaim, with DC seeing a sharp dropoff.
When we look at the past two years of superhero films, we see mixed critical and commercial performance from Marvel and some truly lousy movies from DC, highlighted by Black Adam, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, and The Flash.
And sure, you may be thinking that critic evaluations do not reflect mainstream tastes, but that's only true to a point. There are "good" and "bad" movies within the superhero genre, and there is a meaningful difference in audience turnout contingent on quality.
Graphing box office gross and film critic scores for all superhero films, we can chart a trend line between the two variables. For every 1-point increase in average critic score, we see a ~$5M increase in domestic box office.
Whether this insight is revelatory or painfully obvious, it's clear that Marvel's dip in acclaim and DC's significant quality declines likely factor into each studio's faltering box office performance.
That said, shifts in critical praise may reflect the diminishing novelty of comic book movies as much as they do degradations in storytelling. Believe it or not, consumer tastes can change. Disco was once dominant; TV shows used to run 26 episodes a season; people used to wear Jazzercise outfits unironically. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is only 15 years old—what if its ascent offers an unrealistic trajectory for its future?
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The Decline of Superhero Hype
In 2012, a Marvel executive came to my college and lectured our class on world-building. He walked us through Marvel's burgeoning cinematic universe, its various storytelling "phases," how characters would come in an out of each other's movies, and how these disparate storylines would culminate in grand crossover films like The Avengers. He spoke with absolute certainty as if introducing a new cinematic paradigm like color film, 3D, or Timothée Chalamet.
I was skeptical. "Whatever, dude," I thought as I walked out of class—another Hollywood exec selling a half-baked product.
Well, I was wrong and this person was right. Marvel would go on to revolutionize the superhero genre, slowly cultivating hype over eleven years, with each new film drawing moviegoers into its cinematic universe and growing anticipation for its highly-publicized crossover episodes.
Looking at Google Trends data, we see Marvel search traffic gradually build from 2008 to 2019. In 2018, we see an acceleration of interest following the release of Black Panther and a significant uptick in traffic for Avengers: Endgame in 2019.
But how do you follow a movie as spectacular as Endgame? You really can't. Marvel search interest declined considerably following Avengers’ release, with recent levels hovering in the range of 2018 traffic, pre-Black Panther.
Such declines are problematic for Disney (Marvel's parent company), a public corporation that must continuously grow revenue until the end of time (or its stock price will go down!).
Disney can't afford another slow-building ten-year saga; Disney needs your money right now. And thus, Marvel's strategic direction is up in the air as it continues to lose brand equity by churning out films that critics deem "stale."
Final Thoughts: Endgame Was Not The End
I saw a midnight screening of Avengers: Endgame when it first premiered, and it was awesome. It was everything you could ask for in a moviegoing experience—the audience cheered, gasped, and applauded.
"What a fitting end to Marvel's Cinematic Universe," I thought as I walked out of the theater. Naively, I assumed the studio did not intend to top this film. Well, I was (once again) very wrong. Instead, Marvel would significantly increase media production, launching superhero TV shows on Disney+ in addition to a full slate of tentpole films.
Every so often, a paradigmatic shift occurs in the superhero genre that thrills consumers with novelty. The campy Batman TV shows of the 1960s allowed us to see our favorite superhero in living color. The Superman movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s brought prestige and cutting-edge effects to the genre. Most recently, Marvel serialized its cinematic universe, capturing the excitement of physical comic books through their slow world-building narratives.
But the wonder generated by storytelling innovations has a half-life. The Batman and Superman programs of the 1960s and 1970s are anachronistic creations that no longer delight viewers. There may be a next chapter of Marvel and DC's cinematic universes, but it's clear that their current formula is delighting viewers less and less.
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