There's a lot of talk about comic book movie fatigue these days. When will it happen? Will it happen? Has it already happened? Moviegoers have never been treated to as many comic book and superhero movies as we are today. This year we are getting/have already gotten Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, another Spider-Man reboot, a Lego Batman Movie, Valerian, Thor, Wonder Woman, Kingsman, Atomic Blonde and the first Justice League movie. That’s quite a lot of movies — 10 in fact. With so much happening, I think it’s fair to ask the question on everyone's mind: When will audiences grow tired of these movies?. Steven Spielberg chimed in on this topic and compared the superhero subgenre to Westerns and predicted the subgenre “will go the way of the Western."
Despite what Mr. Spielberg may think, I believe the comic book movie subgenre is here to stay. That’s not to say they will always be the most popular movies in Hollywood, as Hollywood is known to move in cycles. Spielberg even noted this in the same interview:
"I'm only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us."
This is true, and there is plenty of history in Hollywood to support this claim. In the 1980s, the most popular horror subgenre was the slasher flick. Now? Paranormal is the most popular in horror with The Conjuring-type movies making a big impact at the box office. Slashers are still around but they aren't as prominent.
The ultimate point is that Hollywood comes and goes in cycles. One day comic book movies might fade a bit, but they won’t go away for good. However, I don't believe the Western is the correct comparison. Why? Comic book movies are not a singular genre.
Why Did The Western Die?
Why did the Western genre die out as the most popular genre of film? The Western died because no matter how many variations you create with a formula, at the end of the day the films don't vary much from an aesthetic perspective. The Western has a very specific look, and films don't deviate much from it simply because they can't. The movies took place in the wild west, typically centered around a hero with a cowboy hat, who rode a horse and shot a gun really well. I love Westerns but in a true Western there isn't a lot of aesthetic wiggle room.
Hollywood produced a large number of projects when the Western was popular. For example, in the years 1951–1954 there were literally hundreds made. It’s no wonder why the Western faded away. Aesthetically, they were not different enough from one another, and the sheer amount oversaturated the market. That isn't to say Westerns haven't changed from a thematic or stylistic standpoint, but they all still bore some visual relation to one another.
The superhero movie has avoided this problem so far.
The Quick Evolution Of The Superhero Movie
Looking at the history of the superhero film, the subgenre has changed and evolved over the years. Right now, the type of superhero films being made are universe driven. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, the X-Men Universe are where the most popular superhero movies are made. Even Sony decided to team up with Marvel Studios to bring Spider-Man into a Marvel Universe because that's where audience's interests lie.
This is different than the early 2000s where all superhero movies had an individual focus. These movies were not as concerned with setup and establishing a universe where the studio could spin off other movies, everything was taken one film at a time.
If you’re a film critic like Roger Moore, who once wrote about Marvel fans, “you’re being played, toyed with, lured, pre-sold," maybe you’d like to see the current state of superhero movies decline. Perhaps one day it will change. One day, the universe building will either go away or evolve, or we’ll see more auteur-driven superhero films like Logan.
Either way, I don't foresee the subgenre staying stagnate given its clear stylistic evolution since the early 2000s. The Western waited too long to change. By the time the films were shifting in the 1960s into Acid and Spaghetti Westerns the general populace had been burnt out by the classical John Ford-style western.
Let’s be clear though: Superhero movies are not a genre. Rather, it is a subgenre of other genres such as science fiction and fantasy. However, they are not limited to just that. The key word is variety. This is the big advantage superhero films have over Westerns.
The Variety Superhero Films Encourage
Let’s look at the superhero movies being produced this year. There are seven superhero movies being released, which was a far cry for dozens upon dozens of Western movies that were released every year in the 1950s. The longevity of the subgenre will depend on variety. The superhero subgenre may fall under the category of sci-fi and fantasy, but they have the great potential for a lot of cross-genre pollination.
This year has proven that — The Lego Batman Movie is a comedy/satire, Logan is a serious sci-fi/Western drama, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is a space opera that is stylistic driven (and I would be tempted to not even call it a superhero movie), Wonder Woman is a WWI-grounded period piece, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a teen comedy, Thor: Ragnork appears to be an '80s psychedelic sci-fi/fantasy, and Justice League is a Zack Snyder movie (from an aesthetic and stylistic perspective at least).
Every single one of those films is visually different from one another and stem from different genre types. Even if there are thematic crossovers (which is true of almost any genre or subgenre), the claim that every single superhero movie is the same is false — variety once again wins out.
There is also something to be said about the emergence of cinematic universes which could also extend the life blood of the superhero film. Eventually, something else could come along that could reinvent the subgenre; in 1978 it was Richard Donner’s Superman, in 1989 it was Tim Burton’s Batman, in 2000 it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men, in 2008 both Jon Favreau and Christopher Nolan reinvented it again with Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Another progression will come along. Perhaps Deadpool and Logan are those next films that could push the subgenre further.
Comic Book Movies And Superheroes Are Here To Stay
The great thing about superheroes is there are so many different stories to draw from that filmmakers won’t run out of material. Also, having 6–7 movies a year really isn’t that many movies in the grand scheme of things.
As long as different studios keep putting out their own style of films and mix in some more auteur-driven movies, the superhero subgenre won’t go anywhere. Comic book movies aren't going anywhere because comic books are simply books. Book adaptations aren't going anywhere, comic book movies aren't going anywhere.
For this film fan (film fan of all types — blockbusters, art house, big and small), I could not look more forward to the future in Hollywood where these films are made.
What do you think about superhero movie fatigue?
(Sources: Hollywood Reporter)