clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Are Cracks Beginning to Emerge in the Superhero Era?

After 20 years and billions in box office earnings, early signs suggest that the tides are turning against superheroes as the most dominant force in pop culture

Ringer illustration

When Black Adam arrived in theaters this fall, audiences were primed to expect the “hierarchy of power” within the DC Extended Universe to change. The bold declaration made sense on paper: As the live-action superhero debut of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, one of the most commercially viable action stars on the planet, Black Adam ticked the usual boxes of a box office hit. Instead, the movie has barely caused a ripple, grossing a little under $400 million before it lands on HBO Max on Friday. While that might be an admirable haul for most films, it’s underwhelming for a blockbuster of this scale. Black Adam reportedly needed to earn $600 million just to break even; in other words, it needs a miracle of heroic proportions to get out of the red. (Johnson is already in crisis management mode by claiming that Black Adam is marginally profitable, which, even if true, is hardly a good look.) If the DCEU was ever going to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps its own hierarchy needed a makeover.

To be fair to Warner Bros., it nabbed one of the MCU’s most prolific filmmakers, James Gunn, to colead its new entertainment division dedicated to all things DC across movies, television, and animation. As the studio’s closest equivalent to Kevin Feige, Gunn has hinted at a Marvel-like road map for DC over the next decade and is prepared to make bold moves to execute that vision. The third Wonder Woman movie from Patty Jenkins has already been axed, while Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom could potentially mark the final outing for Jason Momoa’s underwater hero. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, from Warner Bros. capitulating to die-hard Zack Snyder fans campaigning for a director’s cut of Justice League to the ongoing drama surrounding The Flash star Ezra Miller and the controversial decision to cancel the nearly completed Batgirl movie, the studio is banking on Gunn to offer the kind of stability that’s long eluded it. But while Gunn is a worthy candidate to right the ship for DC, his arrival coincides with early signs that the tides are turning against superheroes as the most dominant force in pop culture.

From a financial standpoint, there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that audiences are feeling superhero fatigue in 2022. Black Adam may have disappointed at the box office, but DC still had a major win this year with The Batman, which netted more than $770 million; the MCU, meanwhile, released three movies that are among the 10 highest-grossing movies of 2022—Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. (As of this writing, Wakanda Forever has topped the domestic box office for five straight weekends.) But these impressive numbers belie a more mixed reception from critics and audiences, who could be souring on these franchises.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more critics are turning on the superhero-industrial complex—dissenting voices for these films are as old as the MCU itself. It’s more telling that moviegoers have slowly joined the chorus, as evidenced by Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder earning the second-lowest CinemaScore grades of the MCU behind Eternals. Now, Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder each getting a B+ sounds good on paper—I would’ve killed for those grades in my high school math courses—but CinemaScore metrics tend to be very top heavy. (As CinemaScore founder Ed Mintz once explained, “A’s generally are good, B’s generally are shaky, and C’s are terrible.”) For context, the theatrical release of Justice League unofficially credited to Joss Whedon also received a B+, and we know how well that went over with fans.

If CinemaScore seems too restrictive to reach a consensus—the market research firm surveys only opening-night audiences—other polls have supported the theory that superhero fatigue is beginning to set in. The consumer insights company Morning Consult did its own survey on superhero movies and found that interest continues to wane: Even 31 percent of self-described Marvel fans admitted they are “getting a little tired” of how much content they’re expected to consume. It certainly doesn’t help that MCU completists must also contend with the growing slate of Disney+ series that feed into the events of the movies, and vice versa. (Before Kang the Conqueror makes his big-screen debut next year in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, a scenery-chewing variant of the villain appeared in the Loki finale.)

In the past, Marvel has compensated for the occasional speed bump (e.g., Thor: The Dark World) with the promise of a satisfying payoff down the road: There was always an endgame in mind, pun somewhat intended. But the MCU’s Phase 4, composed of seven movies and eight shows that officially concluded with Wakanda Forever, has made astonishingly little progress toward the franchise’s next big crossover event. Instead, Marvel keeps expanding its roster of heroes—get ready for Blade, the X-Men, and Deadpool to join the fray in the coming years—while its signature interconnectedness becomes harder and harder to maintain.

This broader sense of stagnancy wouldn’t be such an issue if Marvel movies felt idiosyncratic and self-contained—a characteristic that has, for better or worse, defined many DC projects since Warner Bros. cut ties with Snyder as its creative architect. (A friendly reminder that, from ocean to ocean, Aquaman is an absolute blast.) But if the middling reception for recent entries like Eternals, Multiverse of Madness, and Love and Thunder has taught us anything, it’s that these movies lose some of their novelty when filmmakers have to color within the lines of the MCU despite the bigger picture remaining cloudy. The alternative hasn’t been any better of late, either: Wakanda Forever spent part of its lengthy run time laying the foundations for the upcoming Ironheart Disney+ series; that approach did not do the character of Riri Williams or the movie any favors.

Of course, Disney has little incentive to make any significant changes when Marvel films continue to rake in ridiculous amounts of money. But after Love and Thunder had one of the largest second-weekend drops of any MCU movie, on par with recent titles like Multiverse of Madness and Black Widow, which took a similar nosedive, it’s clear that Marvel has entered a genuine rough patch by its lofty standards. What’s more, the MCU could be facing its sternest test in the near future when some of its most notable heroes finally call it quits. It’s unlikely that Chris Hemsworth will have many new outings as the god of thunder after more than a decade of service, while Guardians of the Galaxy will probably be winding down after its third film arrives next year. (If the cast didn’t want to make Guardians 3 after Gunn was temporarily fired, you have to figure they won’t stick around now that he’s moved on to DC.)

Whether the MCU can sustain audience interest for its newest generation of heroes remains to be seen; the same goes for the DCEU attempting another franchise reset under Gunn’s stewardship. (Nobody tell the Rock, but the Black Adam sequel could also be on the DC chopping block.) But even if superhero movies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the bloom is off the rose after a decade-plus of box office supremacy. We may not look back at 2022 as the year when superheroes completely fell out of favor, but at the same time, it’s beginning to look like the hierarchy of blockbusters is ready for a change of its own.