It is probably unwise to acknowledge the words of a supervillain, but Syndrome, the fanboy-turned-foe who proved The Incredibles’ undoing in Pixar’s own take on the genre, may have been onto something. Well, more precisely, in his chiding remark to Mr. Incredible, that “when everyone’s super…no one will be,” there lies a prophetic outlook on the current landscape of blockbuster cinema. With the sheer frequency of superhero flicks released annually, correlating to the emergence of interconnected big-screen universes both Marvel and DC, you would think that the intrinsic appeal of the comic-book film had worn thin on audiences by now. The buzz phrase ‘superhero fatigue’ has been bandied about for some time.
And yet, over and over again, this expression has shown to be unsubstantiated. Superhero films continue to draw audiences in droves, even lesser-known IPs like Captain Marvel and Aquaman achieving billion-dollar box office. It is easy to lament the failure of original works big and small in the face of this commercial dominance, without first considering the inflated ticket prices that, along with the advent of streaming, have made trips to the movies a more occasional experience than was previous. Cinemagoers want bang for their buck now more than ever, for the big screen experience to be a Big Screen Experience, and it is hard to argue with the superhero film’s ability to produce on this front. Cinema chains alike will see these as a godsend, often guaranteed to get bums in seats.
From a creative standpoint, by quantity alone some have branded the genre as exhausted and spent. Something fresh and exciting like last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, or 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, or earlier work Chronicle, show that much can still be done in this mould. Meanwhile, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the contrarian’s favourite plaything, has come under fire as chief proponent of the clichés, but so far the studio has not made an outright bad film – and produced several fantastic ones. With Avengers: Infinity War genuine thrills were served up on an epic scale, as were a villain and climax worthy of comparison to The Empire Strikes Back. Though it may be tempting to disregard the popular there is greater reason than thrills alone for why Marvel Studios make bank, usually avoiding the critics’ scythe that hasn’t been so kind on their DC counterparts.
There’s certainly a discussion to be had about cultural homogenisation that would include these films, their success a link in the chain explaining Hollywood’s growing reliance on established franchises. However, it cannot be ignored the boldness of this experiment in long-form storytelling, the scope of which we have never seen before, one which by its shape has been able to develop a richly detailed universe and foster an enduring bond between audience and character. B-grade comic-book heroes Iron Man and Captain America have been transformed into on-screen icons for an entire generation.
Avengers: Endgame sees Marvel Studios and the superhero genre at large potentially standing on a precipice. The end of the era, with Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans’ contracts supposedly up, it is to be seen whether audiences will view this as a jumping-off point for the superhero mania. The ubiquity of the phenomenon isn’t solely tied to this one franchise. DC, after a number of high-profile stumbles, seem to be finding their footing by putting the focus on solo stories rather than continuing to ape the Marvel model. But RDJ arguably kickstarted this boom, as the reformed star of Iron Man back in 2008. Is it totally unreasonable to suggest his departure could signal its downfall, akin to the Hollywood Western effectively dying alongside John Wayne? It’s speculative, but you do wonder how much residual goodwill has spread from the best of the MCU to anything promising superpowered antics. If the next roster of heroes convinces on the same level, this could become less of a fad, more an institution – though that may be the case already. As long as the world and its inhabitants continue to be fun, many will carry on enjoying these films. What their persistent success means for the future of studio filmmaking…that’s a whole other question entirely.
Watch the trailer for Avengers: Endgame below, released in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures on the 24th April 2019.