If you look at superhero movies this year, you can see that the genre is here to stay. It’s firmly placed in pop culture with Hollywood movie studio seeing no signs of slowing down. This year, we have one more superhero movie coming out with Guardians of the Galaxy, but we’ve already seen three come to theaters around the world with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. These movies are also highly successful and profitable and will spawn many more sequels to come. If you also look at the state of the superhero genre in the late 90s and early 2000s, it makes you wonder why there is so many more today when many studio executives and Hollywood pundits thought the genre would soon die.
I was reading /Film when I came across my colleague Germain Lussier’s blog post on comic creator Rob Liefeld’s (X-Force, Deadpool) recent tweets on a past meeting with Paramount Studios then-president John Goldwyn about adapting Image Comic’s Youngblood to the big screen in 2003. Although Goldwyn passed on the project, the executive told Liefeld that the genre “was a fad.” Read Liefeld’s tweets below:
So why has the genre pressed on for so long now? Why are audiences still interested in superhero movies? I think the answer is surprisingly simple, the genre changed and matured with modern tastes. Since the release of the original X-Men in the year 2000, movie studios wanted to follow Fox’s success with their own superhero movies. Sony released Spider-Man in 2002, Fox followed up X-Men with Daredevil and X2: X-Men United in 2003, and Universal released Ang Lee’s Hulk later in 2003. While the genre’s box office numbers weren’t as high, the genre pressed on with the Fantastic Four movies and X-Men: The Last Stand in the middle portion of the decade.
While the quality of the genre dropped with these releases, audience interest might have followed suit, but something very important happened in 2008. From the studio point-of-view, the genre was plateauing, as no superhero movie before 2008 hit the $500 million mark. However, two very important superhero movies were released in 2008, Iron Man and The Dark Knight. These two movies changed everything for the modern superhero movie.
Iron Man was the first movie from Marvel Studios, so a lot of attention was put on the company to see whether or not they could develop, make, and release a hit movie. Marvel had some big expectations with the original Iron Man, not just sequels, an introduction to a larger cinematic universe. Everything was riding on the success of Iron Man and the Armored Avenger didn’t disappoint. Iron Man grossed $585.1 million worldwide and put Marvel Studios on the map in the hearts and mind of billions of people around the world. Marvel later released The Incredible Hulk, which also expanded the universe, but didn’t perform as well as Iron Man. It took only $263.4 million worldwide. Nevertheless, Marvel Studios was the toast of Hollywood with Iron Man as the young studio’s mascot.
Later during the summer of 2008, DC and Warner Bros release The Dark Knight. The sequel film was the bigger superhero movie in 2008, taking in a solid billion dollars worldwide. While it was also the highest grossing comic book movie at the time, it achieved something more important to Hollywood than money, legitimate prestige. The Dark Knight received near universal critical praise with a 94% on RottenTomatoes.com and eight Academy Award nominations, including a win for the late Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor for his memorable portrayal of The Joker. It was the first superhero movie that Hollywood, cinephiles, and general audiences took seriously as an adult-themed film in the genre.
Because of movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight, the superhero genre matured, as these movies elevated audience expectations and genre filmmaking. I can easily see why John Goldwyn would make these comments during the mid-2000s because from his point-of-view and the market, superhero movies were a fad. Also at this point, recognizable characters like the X-Men, The Hulk, Batman, Superman, and The Fantastic Four were already in the market and the belief that “B-List” characters such as Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Shazam couldn’t be sold or as profitable as the former.
The larger question is: will audiences tire from the superhero genre? I think maybe 10 years from now, Hollywood will not be making as many, but there will always be something new from Marvel, Sony, and Fox. However, other movie studios like Universal and Paramount have to get in on the action if the genre will continue to be as strong.