Warner Bros. put a lot of money into recently released “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Estimated to have cost $250 million with an advertising budget of similarly multiple millions, the hope for the studio is that the film will jumpstart its plans for a DC superhero movie universe to compete with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Despite being eviscerated with poor reviews, the film still earned $170 million in the US over Easter weekend and over $400 million globally.
So it seems somewhat strange to be asking if superhero films are dying when they are still raking in millions of dollars, but the question lingers because of one fact: they are not making as much money.
Last year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was Disney’s hope for upping the success of their first Avengers film, but the total domestic cume for the sequel was nearly $200 million less than the original. Recent entries of “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” films, originally making huge profits, have also grossed significantly less than their predecessors. Superhero TV shows such as “Arrow” and “Supergirl” have seen their ratings slide. Grosses for all superheros are decreasing it seems, with the exception of just two films.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool” both vastly exceeded expectations based on their production budgets and counter-culture themes, but that may in fact be the reason for their success. Both of them poke fun at superhero film tropes. They twist traditional ideas of heroes and valor and in so doing have tainted more “serious” fare such as the Avengers and Justice League. People have a hard time taking them as seriously anymore.
An interesting comparison may be that of the Western. Once one of Hollywood’s premier genres, the Western dominated the 1950s and 1960s. But then Mel Brooks released “Blazing Saddles”, the inherent racism of the genre percolated to the public’s mind, and the Western went dormant for years because audiences could not look at the films the same anymore. Such a fate may befall the superhero film. None other than Steven Spielberg himself has prophesied so.
The latest Batman and Superman venture is a self-indulgent, self-important slog, a staple of everything wrong with the superhero blockbuster film to date. It is too dark, too violent, too serious, too long, too reliant on special effects, and it serves primarily as a bridge to further films down the line, unable to stand on its own two feet as a single film, just a marketing vehicle meant to sell toys and ten other future films. It lacks the essential elements for compelling storytelling: dynamic characters, empathetic desires, precise themes and singular focus. And while it may have shattered every March box office record the past weekend, moviegoers gave the film a middling “B” score on exit reviews and a steep drop in performance next weekend could be expected.
Warner Bros. may have just missed the chance to cash in with its DC entourage of superheroes and the end of their box office reign may be approaching. Just as with the Western before it, superheroes have oversaturated the market and opened themselves up to real criticism, becoming studio’s go-to business in an age where box office records continue to be broken, but where audiences are actually shrinking. This will likely not prevent Warner Bros. from making their upcoming films (two Justice League movies, solo Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Batman, Suicide Squad films, etc.), but it may be only a matter of time before audiences, already full from years of “serious” comic book films, simply seek other types of entertainment because they can not take them at face value anymore.
There will always be a diehard clique of filmgoers dedicated to the comic book genre, but superheroes have enjoyed a wide range of support from all audiences up to this point. With the awfulness of “Batman vs. Superman”, they may start to take their business elsewhere.
Perhaps the superhero film rebounds with particularly strong entries later this year from films such as “Captain America: Civil War” and “X-Men: Apocalypse.” But the general trend can not be ignored. Superhero films are losing their audience. The novelty is wearing off. All it takes is another genre or subgenre to swoop in and become the next big thing to change the dynamics of the box office industry again.