Arts and Entertainment

Superhero Movies: Emotions or Explosions?

Not even Bartholomew Henry Allen could outrun this.

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By Chuer Zhong

So far, 2023 has been a hectic year for the entertainment industry on all fronts. From the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes to the global popularity of the “Barbenheimer” double-header in theaters this summer, the industry has been flipped on its head. Amidst this chaos, there has been a noticeable decline in interest in the genre that has been dominating the entertainment industry for the last decade: superheroes. Excluding 2020-2021 due to quarantine, 2022 and 2023 mark the first years since 2015 in which superhero films were not represented in the top three highest-grossing movies worldwide. What separates 2023 from 2022 is the absence of movies with sci-fi/action tags attached to them—films that share many qualities with classic superhero movies. Barbie, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and Oppenheimer have dominated the worldwide box office so far this year, with the first two grossing over $1 billion and the latter grossing $913 million. 

Numbers like these are unprecedented for these genres. Oppenheimer, for instance, is a rated-R biopic about a theoretical physicist—the next-highest grossing biopic about an academic was A Beautiful Mind (2001), which racked up $316 million. The Super Mario Bros. Movie concluded its theatrical run with over $1 billion, which is mind-boggling considering the widespread criticism of casting decisions (Chris Pratt plays Mario and Charlie Day is Luigi). Barbie is currently the highest-grossing movie this year, but its success isn’t as surprising as the other two’s thanks to the widely recognized IP attached to the name and the film’s appeal to women and feminists worldwide. What all these movies signal to producers and executives is that the average moviegoer is no longer as infatuated with action, sci-fi, and superheroes as they once were. The question arises: is the superhero genre truly dying out?

Big-screen superhero projects released this year include Shazam: Fury of the Gods (FOTG), Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantamania (AMATWQ), Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 (GOTG3), Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Flash, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, and Blue Beetle. Among these projects, most of the live-action films were labeled as lackluster by both the media and audience (Shazam: FOTG, AMATWQ, and The Flash). The rest of the projects were acclaimed by viewers and highly profitable, except for Blue Beetle, which was affected by the ongoing strikes and Warner Bros.’ lack of promotion for the project. However, the difference between these two groups is that the commercial successes thrive on their individuality, while the unsuccessful movies offer the same old, same old that audiences have been accustomed to for the last decade. 

GOTG3 prides itself on its visuals, soundtrack, humor, and raw emotion, elements that have been missing from the superhero genre. Writer-director James Gunn demonstrates his ability to create a gimmicky world adjacent to a heartfelt story, setting it apart from other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Across the Spider-Verse and Mutant Mayhem are both praised for their unique animation, but each has its own individual accomplishments. Mutant Mayhem received acclaim for capturing the essence of modern teenagers, while Across the Spider-Verse successfully weaves a coming-of-age story within the chaos of the multiverse. Blue Beetle is the first superhero movie with a Latin-American lead (Xolo Maridueña) and offers a refreshing departure from the overbearingly high stakes seen throughout the latest installments of the genre. 

The unsuccessful group of movies, on the other hand, are painfully mediocre. When compared to the hundreds of superhero films that came before them, these movies offer nothing new to entice viewers. In fact, these movies are sometimes even worse than their franchise predecessors. The sequel to Shazam has worse visuals, an unstable story, and forgettable characters when compared to the first film. Likewise, The Flash experienced production hell, with the movie releasing five years late after myriad delays. 

AMATWQ, however, wasn’t subpar, which is the most concerning factor when assessing the state of the genre. While it meets the basic standards for a serviceable movie, it underperformed due to general audience disinterest in formulaic superhero movies. This is evidenced by a survey conducted by Business Insider in 2022; flatlining quality in humor, bland VFX, uninspired action sequences, and cameo-glorified scripts are all symptoms that have plagued the genre. This observation is further supported by the obvious difference in box-office numbers when compared to the successful movies: The Flash lost Warner Bros.’ $200 million, AMATWQ is the lowest-grossing MCU movie in a non-pandemic setting since 2011, and the sequel to Shazam is estimated to have lost over $150 million. Executives and producers seem to have collectively thought, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But the reality of the shift in audience interest will come back to haunt them when box office numbers drop and viewership plummets across streaming platforms.

The future slate of superhero films is also unsettling, largely due to the sheer quantity of movies in production. This contributes to the growing fatigue experienced by viewers. From January 2021 to October 2023, there will have been a total of 22 MCU projects released, far surpassing the previous record of nine releases in a three-year period. Quantifying the amount of projects is not more enjoyable for viewers, but rather overwhelming. Disney+ shows like What If…? (2021) and Moon Knight (2022) were largely forgotten, not because they lack originality, but because they are overshadowed by an abundance of concurrent movie releases. A surplus of projects in such a short time frame can cause viewers to become disillusioned with the product, making them feel rushed or inadequate because of a lack of studio focus.

Superhero stories have existed for nearly a century, dating back to the days of comic book creatives Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. What made the books feel new on every release was the soul and creativity infused into each panel and dialogue bubble. Superheroes are a reflection of the world we inhabit, and the team behind each story accepts that the characters within are vessels for human emotion. As jaw-dropping as the CGI may look on the big screen, an audience member will always find the feelings they experienced while watching a superhero movie—or any other movie for that matter—most memorable. Until executives at major studios understand the detrimental effects of cash-grab, banal pieces of entertainment, the superhero genre will continue to falter.