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The Peak Superhero Future Is Here

As cinematic universes began forming more than a decade ago, the prospect of year-round comic book content was merely a possibility. The dual premieres of ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’ and ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ signal that that endgame has arrived, and this is only the beginning.

Marvel/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

There’s a weird bit of symmetry happening this week between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe—and not just because both franchises are releasing highly anticipated projects. On the DC side of things, Zack Snyder fans will be rewarded for years of chaotic online campaigning with the filmmaker’s four-hour director’s cut of Justice League: a bombastic opus that, picking up from the climax of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, begins with the fallout of the Man of Steel sacrificing himself to stop Doomsday. Meanwhile, the MCU’s second Disney+ series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, concerns its title characters reckoning with the legacy of a recently departed Captain America and (somewhat literally) carrying on the shield. (If you’ll recall: Steve Rogers decided to go back in time in Avengers: Endgame to spend his days with the love of his life, Peggy Carter, blessing us with the sight of Chris Evans in old-person makeup.)

But in the world of superheroes, nobody is ever really gone. I shouldn’t need to drop a spoiler warning that Henry Cavill’s Superman is revived in both versions of Justice League—though, thankfully, the Snyder Cut omits the actor’s horrifying CGI’d upper lip. And despite the original Captain America choosing to live in the past, there are already reports that Evans will reprise the role in future Marvel projects. Frankly, the only reason we probably won’t see Cavill don the blue spandex and red cape again is because Warner Bros. is rebooting Superman with the help of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between never-ending character revivals, an overwhelming deluge of programming, and the forthcoming embrace of the multiverse, it feels like we’ve reached an inflection point in the world of on-screen superheroes—or at the very least, a new peak that will test audiences’ endurance for these kinds of stories.

The early returns, however, suggest that the thirst for all things superheroes is still unquenchable. While Snyder’s Justice League has been billed as a one-time deal and the end of his collaboration with Warners, there are already calls on Twitter from his legion of fans to #RestoreTheSnyderVerse—a rallying cry that gained steam around a week before the movie’s release date. Snyder has been adamant that this version of Justice League doubles as his swan song to the DCEU, no matter how much internet campaigning is done on his behalf. And while that subset of DC fandom is more fixated on the auteur’s distinct vision, culminating in a single momentous—or just, uh, super long—event on a streaming service, the MCU has set itself up to dominate the superhero discourse for the rest of 2021.

Marvel got the ball rolling in January with WandaVision, which, with its homages to sitcoms of decades past, was billed as a “weird” superhero project by MCU standards. And while the finale was an underwhelming spectacle of generic fight scenes, WandaVision was still able to add interesting new wrinkles to the Marvel formula without, apparently, sacrificing its core audience. (If data analytics firms are to be believed.) Even anecdotally, it’s hard to deny that WandaVision has been the most talked-about series of the year so far—and that’s for a show that’s about as experimental as Marvel will get. That audiences were so enthusiastic for a quirky show about a New Jersey–based telepathic witch with a love for Buicks and her deceased robot boyfriend suggests that many will be as passionate, if not more, when Marvel returns to its bread and butter—which it will with the release of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Friday. As the series that was meant to kick off Marvel’s TV efforts on Disney+ before the pandemic forced rescheduling, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is much more MCU-core than its small-screen predecessor, starring two of the franchise’s longtime sidekicks and featuring the sort of action and smirking humor the franchise has become known for. Even if the show isn’t heavy on cameos or Easter eggs, it should satisfy the types of Marvel fans clamoring for a more conventional storytelling approach.

It remains to be seen where the rest of Marvel’s Disney+ slate will land on the WandaVisionFalcon and the Winter Soldier spectrum, but what’s certain is that the MCU will be keeping busy in the world of streaming. Following The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will be the stand-alone series Loki, set to debut in June, while Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel are currently in production with an eye toward debuting later in the year. (There’s also the animated anthology series What If…?, which literally just imagines alternate Marvel timelines if major events happened differently; congrats to whoever asked for this.) All told, while a four-hour Zack Snyder movie might feel a tad excessive in the moment, Marvel is going full-court press, cramming in hours and hours of superhero programming throughout the year, expanding its output into streaming and doubling down on a strategy that continues to pay dividends.

That will certainly extend to the rest of Marvel’s 2021 slate on the big screen, which, barring more pandemic-related delays, will see Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home all reach theaters. Perhaps the most intriguing big-screen debut will be Eternals, especially if director Chloé Zhao goes into the movie’s November release fresh off winning Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars for Nomadland. It’s hard to imagine any filmmaker—even a potential Oscar winner—successfully straying too far from the MCU formula, but Zhao lobbying to primarily shoot Eternals on location instead of on green screens definitely piques interest.

The MCU originally aimed to take a break of nearly 12 months between Spider-Man: Far From Home and the original release date of Black Widow—a hiatus that, because of the pandemic, stretched closer to a year and a half before WandaVision premiered. But going forward, the MCU will be as dominant and ubiquitous (and homogenous) as ever. As for DC, even though Warners probably wasn’t too thrilled about forking over $70 million to get the Snyder Cut completed, the studio will certainly appreciate the buzz it garners and the potential subscribers it lures to HBO Max. Superheroes are still the surest bet in Hollywood, and until saturation turns into oversaturation, the new releases that Marvel and DC throw our way will continue to dominate the discourse. On a totally unrelated note: I’m going to become the Joker.