Debated Films: Superhero Movie Discourse

This is not a review. The intention of “Debated Films” is to shed light on different perspectives over contentious movies to determine if they deserve praise or criticism. These will be previously released films, so be aware there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen these films, you may want to before reading this piece.

The superhero genre has been the dominant force at the global box office for over two decades now, and yet the term ‘superhero fatigue’ has been thrown around for about as long. Are audiences tired of costumes and masks? Will superheroes fade in popularity? Does superhero fatigue even exist? The franchise which has driven the discussion forward the most, is of course the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Right before their next film is released, there’s a consistent deluge of reviews, think pieces and hot takes claiming that ‘this will finally be the moment Marvel overstays its welcome’, only then for the film to typically rake in a fortune at the box office, receive mostly positive reviews, and thus continue Marvel’s absolute dominance. That being said, there are many who believe Marvel’s success is coming to an end, given the apparently less than enthusiastic response to the films released in the last few years. While that argument feels accurate at a glance, let’s examine for a moment how true that perspective is. 

Karen Gillan, Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista as Nebula, Starlord and Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023).

To give some personal context, I am a lifelong comic book reader and, in particular, a Marvel fan. However, I pride myself on avoiding to look through rose-coloured glasses when making my judgements. I’ll happily admit that most comic books are complete nonsense, I’m not at all bothered if the films stray from the source material, and can admit when a Marvel film doesn’t reach a quality outcome. You only need to look at my reviews for Black Widow (2021), Eternals (2021), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) and Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania (2023) for proof of that. My relationship with superhero films is to enjoy (or judge) them as films first, and nerdy artefacts second. So with that out of the way, you’re probably wondering why I’m even taking the time to defend Marvel and superhero films in general.

The simple fact is that nothing about the current state of the genre tells me that it’s dying. There’s plenty of factors ‘critics’ point to which apparently proves fatigue is setting in, but when you look at their presented evidence, it doesn’t show proof of death, but rather proof of the genre’s continued endurance. The most obvious (and data driven) factor is box office, with many pointing to Marvel’s lower than usual numbers of late. This is clearly false, as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) all made anywhere between $750 million to $950 million (numbers consistent with Marvel’s stellar record).

Hailee Steinfeld as Spider-Gwen in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).

The thornier discussion is around Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) and Eternals all making less than $500 million worldwide. These lower numbers have been used as undeniable proof that Marvel is no longer king of the box office. This completely ignores that all three movies were released when COVID-19 was in full swing, resulting in every film (no matter the studio or genre) struggling to earn what they normally would have. Black Widow was even concurrently released on Disney+, thus affecting its box office numbers further. When we compare Marvel’s films released during the pandemic against other films released at the same time, Marvel is still the champion as far as cold hard cash is concerned. Even other films such as Cruella (2021), Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), Free Guy (2021), or Encanto (2021) failed to come close to Marvel’s earnings. When the world came to an end, the studio, and by extension the genre, was still king of the world.

Even Marvel’s recent critical reception isn’t as dire as the naysayers would have you believe, as practically all the films have received the usual run of decent to highly positive notices. Some may point to Eternals or Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania‘s mixed scores on the Tomatometer, yet both still boast positive audience ratings on that very same site. Between the healthy box office sitting between $400 – $500 million and the audience enthusiasm, any other studio would kill for the kind of success Eternals and Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania have enjoyed. Marvel has been so hot for so long that what’s considered a failure for them would be a major win for anyone else. Therefore, in the grand scheme of filmmaking, it’s still a win for the studio, as well as another notch on the genre’s belt.

Joel Kinnaman, John Cena, Margot Robbie, Peter Capaldi, and Idris Elba as Rick Flag, Peacemaker, Harley Quinn, Thinker, and Bloodsport in The Suicide Squad (2021).

Of course, Marvel isn’t the only game in town, as Warner Brothers has released a steady stream of DC comics films over the last few years. Surely the lacklustre performance of these entries proves the genre is dying? Once again, the low box office in this studio’s case appears to be a product of normal viewing trends, as opposed to some nebulous superhero fatigue. Birds of Prey (2020) and The Suicide Squad (2021) not only hit screens during the aforementioned pandemic, but were also offshoots of a previously released, negatively received film. It stands to reason that most viewers are reluctant to see a followup film if the first was a disappointment, regardless of genre. Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) was also released at the height of the pandemic, yet despite its poor reception, it hit record breaking viewership numbers on HBO Max. Finally, in the case of Black Adam (2022), this was a character most viewers had never heard of, and it had a major box office rival with the more positively received Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to compete against.

This leaves us with Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023), which seems like it would be the one to herald the genre’s death with its measly $133 million. However, the original film was only a modest hit, and it has been far too long since its release for viewers to remember it, meaning (once again) the low box office isn’t all that surprising. Even when a film is well reviewed as Shazam (2019) was, the history of cinema has repeatedly taught us that you need to strike while the iron is hot if you don’t have an immediately recognisable hero at the centre.

Robert Pattinson and Jeffrey Wright as Batman and James Gordon in The Batman (2022).

All this being said, even those claiming the genre is dead can’t ignore the runaway success of films like Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), or The Batman (2022). With strong reviews, positive audience responses, and high box office numbers, it’s impossible to say that any fatigue affected these films. Why is this? If there really was superhero fatigue, wouldn’t Batman or Spider-Man also suffer losses? It’s easy to write it off and say that characters as beloved as those two are immune to failure, but that is clearly not the case as both have hit low points in critical reception and box office before. Therefore, those two films succeeded for the same, fairly innocuous, reasons every big movie succeeds: effective marketing, uncompetitive release dates, and a recently strong track record for all involved.

Those standard factors are often ignored by the naysayers, so what’s their common excuse as to why Spider-Man No Way Home and The Batman avoided the dreaded superhero fatigue? Regrettably, many claim it’s because both films avoided being ‘woke’, instead focusing on simply ‘telling a good story’. Many decry that the genre (and on a broader level, Hollywood itself) has suddenly become overly concerned with ‘pushing social or political agendas’ instead of just making entertaining movies. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if you’re saying ‘wokeness’ is ruining superhero films and films as a whole, you haven’t been paying attention to the last 80 plus years of cinema.

Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel in Ms. Marvel (2022).

Since Hollywood first started, filmmakers have always layered their stories with social and political subtext. Whether consciously or unconsciously, storytellers infuse their art with the discourse of the day. Popular films like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Casablanca (1942), 12 Angry Men (1957), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Star Wars (1977), Aliens (1986), The Matrix (1999), Wall-E (2008) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) were all just as much about their political subtext as they were about their main narrative. In practically every case, the subtext pushed by these (and many more) popular films skewed towards progressivism. We don’t see these films as radical now, but at the time of their release, the subtext wasn’t lost on any viewer. Some embrace it, some resist it, but with enough time the progressive ideas layered in films goes unnoticed. This is because they are eventually seen as normal, or they eventually represent an expected standard of moral righteousness. The current term is that if a film goes ‘woke’ it goes ‘broke’, yet Hollywood has been ‘going woke’ for as long as there has been a Hollywood, and somehow no one is broke – funny that.

So, how does this discussion around ‘wokeness’ relate to the current state of superhero films? Essentially, the genre’s harshest (and most delusional) critics claim that the genre, and Marvel in particular, is on the decline because they are now starting to push ‘woke’ ideas and agendas throughout their films. The main proof these critics present is the inclusion of characters outside of the traditionally white, male roster. With new additions such as an African-American Captain America, or a female Thor, it’s easy for these people to complain about their beloved heroes being replaced.

Letitia Wright as Black Panther in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).

However, this argument simply doesn’t even make sense. Firstly, from a comic book fan perspective, all of these newly included versions are all from the beloved source material, which many of these ‘fans’ treat as holy scripture. Secondly, we need to stop being so fatalistic toward pop culture. It’s not as if we’ll never see the original Captain America or the original Thor ever again. Superhero stories go through changes all the time, only to eventually change back, and then change again. These are malleable characters with malleable worlds, so why not allow for some splashes of colour? Thirdly, there has never been a time where Marvel wasn’t layering their films with progressive ideas. Even dating back to the original Iron Man, the franchise has been swimming in these kinds of themes. Don’t believe me? Let’s go through them.

Iron Man is about a man who learns that big business and weapons manufacturing are bad, instead deciding to favour de-militarism as he takes accountability for his previously corporate worldview. Thor is about a prince who starts off believing in his noble right, only to eventually tear down his own Monarchy in the hope that it will result in a brighter future for the people. Ant-Man is about giving convicts a second chance. Doctor Strange is about letting go of your own needs and acknowledging that other people are just as important as you. Guardians of the Galaxy shows that you don’t automatically deserve respect just for existing, as respect is something to be earned through positive actions. The Captain America and Avengers films pit security against and freedom, and comes down hard on the freedom side. Marvel has been as ‘woke’ as you can possibly get for their entire existence, so why are people complaining about this only now when there’s a bit of diversity added in the mix?

Michael Shannon and Sasha Calle as General Zod and Supergirl in The Flash (2023).

No matter how you slice it, there’s no empirical data proving that Marvel and superhero films are going anywhere. You personally may be tired of them, you may not like all of the films, or you may not like the fact there’s more than just white people in them now, but none of these facts have even remotely affected how beloved this franchise is, nor has it dulled the genre’s cultural importance. There will probably be a day when audiences unquestionably tire of superheroes, but that isn’t today. People love this genre, they love these characters, and they can make for great cinema when done well. Regardless, if the genre does ever come to an end, it’ll be for rational, or sensible reasons. Not the toxic and misinformed reasons many are peddling.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Poster.

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Robert Fantozzi

Passionate filmmaker. Proud Italian-South African. Total Nerd.

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