What Happens When the Superhero Film Bubble Bursts?


Ask anyone how many films they've seen at their local movie theater this year so far and you'll most likely find that the number is lower than you might think. Due to the rising dominance of streaming through sites like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, most moviegoers are finding fewer reasons to attend film screenings in the theater, opting to wait three to six months for the title to come out on a digital platform in order to take advantage of watching whichever films they desire from the comfort of their own home. Whether it's the inherent conveniences of the streaming format or whether it's the increasing prices of box office tickets, average film fans have taken less and less time to go to the theater and watch movies, and it shows, particularly for studio executives receiving diminishing returns on box office ticket yields.

There is one genre that holds a prime exception to this diminishment, though: that of the superhero film.

If you ask the question in this article's opening sentence, there are great odds that the individual watched films like Deadpool, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Captain America: Civil War during their first run in the theater, either on opening weekend or within a couple weeks of release. Perhaps the individual watched some other solid films, like Zootopia or The Jungle Book, obvious safe bets due to naturally inheriting the public-trusted, Disney quality seal of approval, but this trend in large box office grosses for superhero films has existed for quite a few years now. 

The question, then, is this: Why do superhero movies keep making so much dang money? Why is the rate of ticket sales throughout the year diminishing, yet spiking and breaking records upon the newest Marvel film release?

Let's think about this. 

First of all: the issue of film quality is one that is mostly subjective, but one that I'll try to address with care and sincerity for the purposes of this article. The size of a film's budget or the studio behind a film's production does not always guarantee or assure a quality production; there are great blockbusters and bad ones. The same goes for independent, five-dollars-and-a-Snickers-bar budgeted films. Yet the fact remains: people at large associate the superhero film genre with quality, whether it be through Marvel's brand name built up since the release of the first Iron Man film in 2008, or through ambitious, grand scale releases such as The Dark Knight or The Avengers.

Put simply, people go see superhero films on opening weekend because it's safe. Reception for most superhero films in recent years have been good, if not great, and the public conscious trusts this genre as a safe investment, and a worthy consumable product.

In the wake of the release of Batman v. Superman, critics blasted the film with bad reviews and noted the many flaws inherent in the product. But still the public went out in droves to see it. As a longtime Batman fan, I understood why the critics weren't able to stop the film from a high box office gross: this was the first time that Batman and Superman both appeared in the same film, together and interacting with each other. That premise alone guaranteed at least a decent gross, if not a grand one. 

I'm not surprised at the reviews having not effect on the gross of the film. I am, however, surprised at the public's reaction to the film itself, and about what average consumers thought about it: Marvel, the rival superhero company to Batman and Superman, was proclaimed the true progenitor of quality superhero films—the elite vanguard of the genre—while DC Comics was called incompetent and unable to provide the same level of cinematic quality. Rather than discuss Batman v. Superman's flaws as a film, the public chose to simply condemn DC for trying, and reinforce their belief and fanaticism for Marvel film products. 

What could be the reason for this? Well, critically, the film was panned for trying to introduce too many characters: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash all appeared in the film at some point, as DC Comics put a big, confident footprint in establishing a cinematic universe to rival Marvel's. Rather than try to be the best film it could be on its own, most critics thought the film tried too hard to begin a massive behemoth franchise in order to get a piece of the MCU/Disney box office pie: multiple safe bet films with high grosses and excellent returns on investment.

Average consumers couldn't stomach this wide of an opening to a franchise, yet these same consumers praised Marvel for doing the same exact thing over a near-decade long period.  

These same consumers put their unquestioning faith in a cinematic universe that's seemingly too big to fail, yet they shut out attempts at competition. Now, Batman v. Superman was a flawed attempt at establishing a franchise, but it was a big budgeted blockbuster spectacle that largely included the same ingredients that Marvel and Disney infused in their counterpart. Many critics have asked what exactly made the film such a misfire, but the bigger question is: how could a film so bad attain such a high gross AND have its public consciousness reception be redirected away from the filmmaking process, and towards brand loyalty?

The answer is simple: The superhero bubble in the film market is close to bursting

This is not to say that the time of quality superhero films is coming to an end. Captain America: Civil War and Deadpool both received critical acclaim, and in this humble critic's opinion, both represent some of the best work this particular genre has offered yet. Rather, this bubble that exists in the market keeps growing, and eventually, films like Batman v. Superman will no longer be able to draw in public trust enough to merit hundreds of millions in box office grosses. This will not be due to flaws in actual filmmaking, but due to three key issues in the industry: 

1) Oversaturation of the genre
2) The inherent episodic, serialized nature of every cinematic universe sequel (The newest Captain America film was acclaimed, but one common criticism both critically and publicly was that the viewer must have prior knowledge of most MCU films to fully comprehend the character developments and plot threads of the installment, and with the newest Avengers film close on the horizon, this problem in adhering to continuity will only grow into a bigger bull to fight.)
3) The continued safe, workmanlike construction of these films by Marvel, Fox, Warner Bros. or what have you.

Eventually, when all of the superhero films blend together into incoherence, as will eventually happen, this trend will end and a new trend in filmmaking will be born. The '80s had cheesy, 300-pound-body-builder action films, the '90s had detective thrillers and crime dramas, and thus, the superhero genre will give way to a new trend in filmmaking. 

What form will that trend take? It will have to be something that replicates some of the inherent filmmaking qualities that the current superhero film genre has placed in the public consciousness. It will have to be a safe bet on spectacle and entertainment. It'll have to have franchise potential, and above all, it'll have to be brandable. Unfortunately, as was shown in the case of Batman v. Superman, brand loyalty will take precedent over actual film criticism and craftsmanship. 

Hollywood is already at hard work attempting to force this new trend with a growing genre: that of the video game film genre. While video game films, like superhero films, have existed for several decades, none have particularly received praise or public acceptance. Just this year, we have nearly half a dozen video game film releases: Ratchet and Clank and The Angry Birds Movie have already been released, the former with poor and the latter with mediocre reception, while Warcraft and Assassin's Creed have both received hefty marketing pushes, with both of these films given relatively high budgets and the studios taking bigger risks than other blockbuster pushes. Perhaps the latter two films will be successful, and if so, perhaps the superhero bubble will begin to burst, or at least begin to fizzle out.

If video game films do not become the newest trend, then odds are Hollywood will redirect their focus to another direction. Universal Studios have started a gradual attempt to establish a kind of Monster Movie Universe, starting with the film Dracula Untold in 2014, and continuing with a reboot of The Mummy in 2017, among other reboots of popular monster movie icons such as Van Helsing and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Speculation that Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are attempting something similar arose when the upcoming King Kong reboot—titled Kong: Skull Island—moved development from Universal to Legendary, the latter of which released a Godzilla reboot a couple years back, potentially hinting at a shared universe between the two giant creatures. 

As I stated before, actual filmmaking quality aside, common audiences will look for safe returns on their ticket purchases and will associate quality entertainment solely through branding and recognition, and either of these two studio attempts at forced trending may or may not prove fruitful. The state of box office ticket sales, rather than improve or decline further, will most likely simply transition from superheroes onto the new trend. There will be exceptions, of course, from outlying long-running franchises, whether it be Star Wars, Jurassic Park or the like, but at large, the status quo will not change overall, it will merely shift course.

I've written all of this to establish one idea: the superhero bubble will, sooner or later, burst, and people will continue avoiding going to the theater until they are guaranteed branded filmmaking, whatever franchisable form it takes.