It remains a view shared by many people: comic films are a bubble, and a burst is coming.
“I think I’m done with the whole superhero thing.”
Saturation. Exhaustion. Burnout. The words differ, but the sentiment I’ve heard echoed numerous times since last month’s San Diego Comic Con remains unwaveringly simple: Hollywood’s capes-and-tights fixation is starting to catch up to audiences.
This weekend at D23 Expo, Marvel Studios unveiled more of their so-called Phase Three plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including a discussion of the upcoming Doctor Strange and several new minutes of (exclusive to attendees) footage of next year’s Captain America: Civil War. The latter seems to be shaping up to be the biggest Marvel film yet, potentially eclipsing the scale of this summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In an industry predicated on bigger meaning better, it is difficult to imagine where the studio can possibly take this universe; there does not seem to be much room left for expansion. The number of important characters in a Marvel film has quickly grown to the point where no character’s arc feels like it has been given adequate time to develop, and this is a difficult problem to remedy when taken in consideration aside another major complaint I’ve frequently seen levied against the second Avengers flick: namely, that it is too long.
Furthermore, Age of Ultron was a film that jumped directly into its action without bothering too much with an introduction, making it the rare franchise film that presumes its audience is already acquainted with the franchise. Yet true familiarity with MCU canon constituted seeing eight or nine of Marvel’s ten prior films (Guardians of the Galaxy remains isolated thus far, and Thor: The Dark World’s events were largely incidental to Ultron’s plot). The closest any other franchise has come to expecting this much of its audiences was Harry Potter, and those films capped out at eight.
By 2019’s Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2, that “required reading” list will boast 20 titles.
Marvel Studios could easily boast having singlehandedly saturated the superhero movie market, but they aren’t the only kids on that playground. Other Marvel properties helmed by Sony and Fox (Amazing Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Deadpool) have also graced the marquees and coming attractions. And the ubiquity of Marvel in the cinemas has awakened a sleeping giant in the form of a DC no longer content to just produce a handful of Christopher Nolan films and call it a day.
The sequel to 2013’s gritty Superman flick Man of Steel quickly mutated into a much bigger movie, and next year’s bombastically titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is now set to kickstart an extended cinematic empire to rival Marvel’s: at last count, there were eleven films in production or development.
Meanwhile, on televisions and laptops, we have Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Powers, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders for Marvel and Arrow, Gotham, Flash, iZombie, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Lucifer, Preacher, and Titans for DC. It’s a lot to keep up with for the few who are trying, and even the most well-intentioned can quickly lose heart at trying to figure out what “counts” and what doesn’t. Casual fans are lucky enough to differentiate DC from Marvel; having to separate Arrow from Supergirl or to remember that the X-Men are Marvel, but not Marvel Marvel, is probably asking too much.
Part of me shrugs at what I perceive to be a veritable bounty. This is clearly the golden age of comic-based entertainment, however you feel about the state of actual comics. I have yet to dislike a single Marvel Studios film. I’m excited by the coming DC movies, even if I feel they are darker and grittier than they probably ought to be. I’ve yet to find a Marvel or DC show unwatchable, though the range of quality is definitely wider there. For me, if they build it, I will come.
But I am increasingly rare amongst filmgoers. Those who haven’t given up are starting to see the writing on the wall. “I’m just going to stick with the Marvel movies. I don’t have time to add all the DC stuff,” says one person. “I think Age of Ultron was it for me,” says another. “Nothing but superheroes. Doesn’t Hollywood have any new ideas?” complains a third.
And what about people who haven’t gotten into the craze yet, the elusive “new audiences” that Marvel and DC undoubtedly hope to capture with their barrage of movies? Age of Ultron is hardly the kind of film you release if you’re concerned about catering to fledgling filmgoers, and each new Phase raises the must be this tall to ride bar a little further out of reach.
On the flip side, how many times have we witnessed Thomas and Martha Wayne getting gunned down in an alley? The price of accessible movies is endless reboots and origin stories, constant reintroduction of characters in lieu of new development and action. When Spider-Man swings into the MCU for Civil War, he can either get bitten and discover his powers all over again (alienating established audiences) or act like we all know who he is already (alienating new audiences). This is a problem that has plagued comics for a long time, which is why we see events like Flashpoint and Secret Wars and their subsequent reboots: attempts to make decades of story accessible to brand new people without (hopefully) losing the people who have been there over those decades.
Of course, some audiences are going to disappear regardless of what the studios do. For better or worse, some audiences view the output of Marvel and DC in terms of genre rather than character or story. These viewers have a quota for “superhero movies” of any stripe, and once they’ve seen too many they’re ready to move onto something else. I could argue — and perhaps some time I will — that this is an incredibly myopic way to view the MCU and DCEU, but it remains a view shared by many people: comic films are a bubble, and a burst is coming.
My concern, and the concern I think must be shared by the people behind the coming deluge, is how to retain the audiences who are willing to stick around but are finding it increasingly difficult to do so. The alternative is that today’s mainstream becomes tomorrow’s niche: a dangerous proposition as the casts and costs continue, like Icarus, to soar.