Superhero fatigue: Have audiences tired of the caped crusaders?

Superhero movies used be guaranteed money-spinners – but is the genre going the way of the dinosaur?

Hits, top row: Iron Man, Avengers Endgame, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Misses, second row: Justice League, Aquaman, Eternals, Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Chris Wasser

Cinema’s mightiest superheroes are beginning to lose their powers. Not one, but two comic-book franchises have staggered at the box office in recent weeks. Critical acclaim is dwindling – and more tellingly, profits are down.

The folks at DC have already begun to re-strategise, while there are numerous reports of stressful working conditions for visual effects artists at Marvel Studios. A fortnight ago, Victoria Alonso, Marvel’s president of physical production, post-production, VFX and animation, was dismissed from her post.

Is this the great comic-book movie downfall that some of us predicted? Is this what they call ‘superhero fatigue’? Maybe.

What, you may ask, is superhero fatigue?

It was, up until now, an imaginary notion – a baffling term, loosely attributed to the idea that audiences might eventually tire of muscular caped crusaders and maniacal super scoundrels on the big screen.

Wishful thinking, perhaps.

For 15 years, superhero movies have dominated the cinematic landscape. You won’t find a single critic who hasn’t wondered when, exactly, the bubble will burst.

Some have pointed towards the decline of the traditional Western in the late 1960s. Others, the evaporation of the wholesome romantic comedy in the 2000s. In other words, everything has its time, the party can’t last forever, and the superhero movie monopoly will eventually relent.

And yet, somehow, the inevitable stumble caught us off guard.

Arriving in cinemas in February, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania billed itself as the beginning of the ‘next phase’ for Marvel’s never-ending screen saga. On paper, the mix looked just right.

The film boasts a crowd-pleasing frontman in Paul Rudd, starry supporting players in Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer, and a promising, fantasy-based set-up. Plus, the first two Ant-Man instalments were fun – what could possibly go wrong?

Quantumania took $120.4m on its opening (bank-holiday) weekend in North America – a record-breaking debut for the series, and a third-best high for a February release.

A decent start, then – but trouble was brewing, and eventually, those negative reviews kicked in.

Could it be that, for the first time ever, superhero fatigue is a genuine concern?

Right now, Quantumania ties with 2021’s Eternals as the lowest-rated Marvel Studios entry on Rotten Tomatoes, with a critical approval of just 47pc.

These things shouldn’t matter – but it could be argued that harmful reviews and poor word of mouth impacted the film’s commercial performance.

Arguments aside, something did turn. Within seven days, Quantumania suffered a monumental 69pc drop at the North American box office, taking just $32m in its second weekend. How did that happen?

Last year, three Marvel pictures – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – collected an eye-watering $2.5bn between them.

Admittedly, they had their fair share of problems, and that wobbly second-weekend dilemma is becoming a bit of a habit for Marvel.

Still, each of these films crossed the $750m mark. It’s likely that Quantumania, which cost $200m to produce, will stall somewhere around $500m. That’s $120m less than what the previous Ant-Man film grossed. Ouch.

Within weeks, another tumble. This time, for the team at DC Studios.

Released on St Patrick’s weekend, Shazam! Fury of the Gods struggled to take off. Reviews were dismal, and the opening weekend figures were worse – $30.1m in US receipts, $65.5m worldwide.

Bad news for a major superhero film with an expensive cast (Helen Mirren plays the baddie) and huge overheads (the production budget falls somewhere around $120m).

The messy aftermath kicked in quickly. Director David F Sandberg said he was “definitely done with superheroes for now”. Shazam himself, Zachary Levi, pointed the finger at mismanaged marketing. Co-star Rachel Zegler has urged her Twitter followers to ignore the haters (read: critics) and to give the film a chance.

Not the sort of jovial chatter one expects around the opening of a crucial studio tentpole.

Alas, it’s difficult to get behind an operation that has shown relatively few signs of intelligent life

Could it be that, for the first time ever, superhero fatigue is a genuine concern?

The DC burnout has been on the cards for ages. The root of the problem here is poor planning. Since 2013’s Man of Steel, the so-called DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has been in an awful rush to compete with a considerably slicker and inarguably superior Marvel model.

The result is a murky, messy enterprise of interconnected tales, replete with commercial and critical misfires (see Justice League, The Suicide Squad), embarrassing false starts (Dwayne Johnson’s turgid Black Adam feature), and countless reports of behind-the-scenes carnage.

Who can forget the time the studio famously cancelled the Batgirl film – after they’d already spent $90m filming the bloody thing?

Sloppy storytelling is another issue, and the DCEU is plagued with incompetent performances, incoherent plotting and one too many tonal inconsistencies. New management has promised audiences a fresh start in 2025, kicking off with yet another Superman reboot. Alas, it’s difficult to get behind an operation that has shown relatively few signs of intelligent life.

Meanwhile, in Marvel towers, we have an altogether trickier issue. The original Marvel Cinematic Universe saga saw the mighty Avengers go up against Thanos – an extra-terrestrial dictator hellbent on destroying half the universe.

You might recall how 2019’s Avengers: Endgame fully embraced a manipulative marketing campaign which, among other things, promised an epic conclusion to a decade-long story. As a result, everyone bought a ticket, and Endgame is currently the second-highest grossing film of all time.

But it wasn’t really an ending, and that’s a big problem.

What do you do after you’ve used up your flashiest heroes and your most menacing villain? Beats me – and it appears the folks at Marvel are just as confused. Most of the films that followed Endgame lack the charm, cohesion and direction of their carefully calibrated predecessors.

The stakes are considerably lower, and our favourite superheroes – Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow – have all been retired.

The leftovers are lost at sea – and, after 31 pictures and eight TV shows, the Marvel brand has lost its shine and has begun to talk itself into a corner.

Do you think the audience will sour on movies being adapted from books?

The studio’s head honcho, Kevin Feige, was recently asked for his own take on superhero fatigue.

Speaking on The Movie Business Podcast in January, Feige explained his thinking.

“From probably my second year at Marvel, people were asking, ‘Well, how long is this going to last? Is this fad of comic-book movies going to end?’

"I didn’t really understand the question. Because to me, it was akin to saying, after Gone with the Wind: ‘Well, how many more movies can be made off of novels? Do you think the audience will sour on movies being adapted from books?’”

Hardly the cleverest response, and Feige later told Entertainment Weekly that audiences can expect fewer shows to arrive on Disney+ over the coming years.

Following the release of Quantumania, Bob Iger, CEO of Disney (of which Marvel Studios is a subsidiary), weighed in on the future.

“There’s nothing in any way inherently ‘off’ in terms of the Marvel brand,” Iger explained, “I think we just have to look at what characters and stories we’re mining – and you look at the trajectory of Marvel over the next five years, you’ll see a lot of newness.”

But will we, really? Another Guardians of the Galaxy feature is imminent. Captain Marvel returns later this year. Deadpool is entering the mix.

Sounds like more of the same to us.

Make no mistake: the comic-book movie business is in trouble – and I don’t think that there’s a superhero strong enough to save it.

Superheroes at the box-office: the best and the worst

Iron Man (2008)

The birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the beginning of the superhero craze as we know it. Both director and studio took a chance on former Hollywood bad boy, Robert Downey, Jr. The rest, as they say, is history.

Final box-office tally: $585.8m

Marvel Avengers Assemble (2012)

Joss Whedon presents the premier superhero team-up flick. There was no guarantee that this thing would work. In the end, it became the first billion-dollar Marvel joint. A triumph.

Final box-office yally: $1.519bn

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

A final hurrah for the original Avengers squad. For a while there, Endgame was the highest-grossing film of all time – before a sneaky Avatar re-release pushed it back to second place.

Final box-office tally: $2.799bn

​Justice League (2017)

An extraordinary misfire, even for DC, this rotten, wretched blockbuster ranks among the most expensive ever made, with a production budget north of $300m. It ended up losing an estimated $60m for Warner. Ben Affleck recently described Justice League as the worst experience of his career. We’ve seen the film, and we’re inclined to believe him.

Final box-office tally: $658m

Aquaman (2018)

Somehow, nobody’s favourite superhero made a big splash. Released before Christmas, Aquaman became the single biggest earner in the DCEU league – with frontman Jason Momoa laughing his way to the bank. Fair play to him. Dreadful film, all the same.

Final box-office tally: $1.150bn