It’s amazing how far we’ve come since Bryan Singer’s X-Men hit theaters in 2000. Viewed by many as ground zero for the comic book movie era – though Blade might have something to say about that – its success ushered in a new wave of blockbusters that included Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series (launching in 2002) and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (which started in 2005). There may have been some bumps along the way (Daredevil and Catwoman), but the groundwork was laid for superhero movies to become the thing in Hollywood.
Today, it seems silly that the original X-Men film wasn’t a guaranteed hit at the box office. Four of the biggest studios in the industry (Disney, Fox, Sony and Warner Bros.) have their hands in this lucrative pot of gold, and in some cases are using films to emulate the comic pages. The concept of a shared movie universe that incorporated multiple crossovers was quite ambitious when Marvel Studios released Iron Man in 2008, but like X-Men, it only set the stage for things to come.
WB’s recent announcement that there are ten DC adaptations scheduled from March 2016 (Batman v Superman) to June 2020 means that there will be over 40 films based on Marvel and DC properties over the next six years. And while Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are responsible for a large portion of gross revenue, this development won’t stop the studios from dipping into the sci-fi, fantasy, and action genres during this time as well. With so many “event” projects vying for audiences’ attention, Hollywood could be on the cusp of collapsing under itself.
But is it?
From fans commenting on websites to professional film journalists, many have the same thing on their mind: with so many superhero movies scheduled for release (not to mention, nearly 15 previous years of the genre being in the limelight), are we about to witness an audience burnout with regard to comic book movies?
One look at the box office numbers for Guardians of the Galaxy may cause some to scoff at that notion, but from a certain point of view, it’s a valid concern.
Hollywood works in cycles, with a different type of film being the number one option for moviegoers over specific time periods. Right now, many consider this to be the “golden age” of superhero movies, much like the 1950s represented the glory days of the western.
The idea of the marketplace tiring of superheroes sooner rather than later is one that is brought up frequently, but fans of those films rightfully point out that comic book adaptations are no different from romantic-comedies or action flicks – meaning that several entries in multiple genres pop up over the course of a calendar year.
2014 saw four high-profile superhero films (after four the year before). In the grand scheme of things, is that really that many?
Granted, we’ve never seen Marvel and DC films arrive in such high volumes (2017 will see nine such projects open in theaters), but with four major studios currently involved in this gold mine, inflated numbers are to be expected.
While it’s unlikely that everyone playing this game achieves the same level of success (hi, Amazing Spider-Man 2), the notion that moviegoers are suddenly going to lose interest overnight simply isn’t true.
A Mixture of Genres
The term “comic book” is a very vague generalization that can be applied to films as varied as Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman to Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition. One advantage filmmakers can utilize when working on one of these adaptations is incorporating multiple genres to give each movie its own distinct feel.
We’ve already seen this during the “first wave” of mainstream comic book movies. Blade was an action-horror film. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was a charming coming-of-age tale. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight operated as a crime-drama similar to the works of Michael Mann.
This is the template that Marvel and DC films have often used to great success – and we still see it today. The political thrillers of the 1970s heavily inspired Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Days of Future Past was a Back to the Future-style sci-fi/time traveling adventure. Next year, Ant-Man will blend in elements of a heist movie. In short: Comic book movie genre mixing is a concept we’ll see for many years to come.
By telling stories people are familiar with through a different lens, audiences are able to see how the so-called “American myths” can relate to them while being captivated by super-powered action sequences at the same time. It’s the ultimate way to live out your childhood dreams of being a hero and (hopefully) be entertained by a movie.
It’s crazy if you think that the grittiness of Batman Begins and the pulpy space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy come from the same genre – but they don’t, really. “Superhero” is a classification more than anything. The success of each new comic book film is determined by how well it handles the non-superhero elements – and the ones that are the best at this in the future will stand out and be remembered.
Too Many Options, Too Little Time?
Since superhero movies aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, where does that leave the rest of their tentpole brethren?
Obviously, not every big sci-fi, fantasy, and action film from now until 2020 has been scheduled, but we do know of several anticipated projects like Star Trek 3, Planet of the Apes 3, Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, Star Wars: Episode VII, and three Avatar sequels that will be hitting theaters, trying to compete with the comic book machine.
This summer has been one of the worst at the domestic box office in years – and with ticket prices escalating, even the most dedicated film buff has had to employ some caution in choosing what he or she spends their hard-earned money on. With so many “event” films vying for everyone’s attention, which ones will ultimately make it?
With the “shared universe” model becoming the norm for comic book movie studios like Disney and WB, combined with the idea of serving up a genre salad with each outing, it would appear as if the non-superhero films have an uphill climb.
Why would audiences settle for a standalone adventure with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise when you can get that same space adventure fix with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (a small piece in a larger puzzle)? Again, the answer isn’t that simple.
In the past 10 years, only three superhero movies have topped the domestic box office charts (Spider-Man 3 in 2007, The Dark Knight in 2008 and The Avengers in 2012). The other domestic top-grossing movies have been a hodgepodge of genres ranging from sci-fi (Revenge of the Sith) to fantasy (Pirates of the Caribbean) to animation (Toy Story 3).
Just last year, the yearly top ten saw the the young-adult adaptation The Hunger Games: Catching Fire gross more than Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and The Wolverine– so clearly there’s still room for other types of programming. That’s why studios are still green lighting these projects amidst all the superhero business; superhero flicks may be the thing, but they’re certainly not the only thing.
The increased rate of big-budget productions may make Steven Spielberg and George Lucas look like prophets when predicting the future of the movie biz, but there might even be room for mid-budget works as well.
As we’ve already pointed out, audiences have made a habit out of turning the year’s awards contenders into profitable endeavors – something that continued in 2013 with a handful of nominees grossing over $100 million. As long as the Best Picture candidates are bringing in that kind of money, they will continue to receive wide theatrical releases.
Seeing the list of all the confirmed superhero dates (while thinking of the countless other genres) is enough to make one’s head spin. It’s easy and understandable to think that the influx of tentpole pictures will have some drastic effects on the Hollywood system – but as long as the studios play their cards right, business will likely go on as usual.
There may not be enough movie money to go around to make every single Marvel and DC film a runaway success, but take a look at the domestic chart for any given year and you’ll see a wide variety of films among the highest-grossing. It’s not so farfetched to think this will be the case for the next six years. Audiences are always interested in genre films of any kind and projects that generate awards buzz. That’s not changing.
In the end, this boils down to market correction. With so many similar-minded films going after the same demographic, the law of averages is going to play into this and everything will take care of itself in the long run. As it’s always been, audiences will dictate the marketplace with their money, choosing which films they reward and which ones they’re not interested in.
This is how the movie business has worked for decades, and with people interested in many types of films, the box office charts will remain as diverse as ever. There’s nothing to worry about.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.