Think back to five years ago in 2018, when the comic book movie genre was the equivalent of printing money. Avengers: Infinity War made $2.052 billion. Black Panther raked in $1.382 billion. Aquaman reeled in $1.149 billion. Deadpool 2 laughed its way to the bank with $785.8 million. Even Ant-Man and the Wasp scooped up $622.7 million.
As per Statista, six of the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2018 were in the comic book movie genre. Now, apart from perhaps Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, none of these cape films would likely find themselves on any list of the top comic book movies of all time; yet, the quality didn’t matter, as the audiences turned up in droves to watch these flicks. The year thereafter reaped similar rewards for the various releases, including a blockbuster and record-breaking run for Avengers: Endgame, but then 2020’s pesky pandemic happened, and everything changed. Even after audiences emerged from the haze of two years locked away from large crowds and gathering, the desire for comic book movies wasn’t as prevalent as it once was.
The doom and gloom of 2022
Let’s discount the box office hauls of 2020 for obvious reasons. However, 2022 marked the first time since 2017 that a comic book movie hadn’t crossed the $1 billion threshold at the box office. The top three films of 2022 didn’t revolve around any superheroes, as Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and Jurassic World: Dominion claimed the top slots – all crossing the $1 billion mark.
More concerning, none of the comic book movie releases captured the pop culture zeitgeist in an overwhelmingly positive way – Morbius is deliberately excluded since it is used as meme fodder – as the watercooler chatter surrounded other releases. Of course, people discussed and tuned in for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and The Batman, but was the excitement at the same level as it would have been four years earlier?
The reality is, the comic book movie genre is still a massive money-maker for studios, but not at the level it once was and the fatigue has set in. They make a lot of cheddar at the box office, but they are also expensive investments. As long as they made the cash, studios didn’t mind splashing the coin around town. Heck, at one point, 20th Century Fox even considered releasing a solo movie for Multiple Man and Sony pondered an Aunt May origin story. The studios were willing to take these risks because they knew people would show up since it was a superhero picture.
However, let’s take a look at something like Black Adam as a prime example. It might not be the greatest superhero film ever created, but it’s far from the worst. It’s a popcorn film with major star power and was meant to signal the return of Henry Cavill’s Superman. Yet, Black Adam only mustered a $393 million haul from a $260 million budget. For all intents and purposes, that’s a significant loss for the studio working on the general calculation that a film needs to make three times its production cost to generate profit. But is Black Adam a worse film than something like Suicide Squad or even any of the Ant-Man films? Not a chance. Yet, its failure is a worrying sign of a larger problem.
Did Endgame signal the end of the comic book movie genre?
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania released over a holiday weekend in the U.S. Despite this normally being a period when people will hit the cinemas more than usual, it only grossed $120.4 million in the U.S. and Canada in its opening weekend. It’s not chump change by any means, but this is meant to be the beginning of the next grand phase of the MCU and the introduction of the big bad, Kang. Those numbers feel rather ordinary (by comic book movie standards) for an extraordinary event and mark Quantumania as the worst debut in the Ant-Man franchise.
On the other side of the coin, the comic book movie genre is no longer the critical darling it once was. There was a recurring Internet joke that reviewers were getting paid by Disney to give MCU films good reviews, as it seemed they were invulnerable to Rotten scores on Rotten Tomatoes. However, that’s all but changed, as reviews have been far more critical of Marvel, DC, and everything in between across the board. Many of these reviews say the same thing: These films are starting to feel generic and offer nothing new.
The audience is voting with its wallet, too. While many people still show up to watch the films, there are a lot of people who have said they checked out after Avengers: Endgame. For them, that was the culmination and build-up after nearly a decade of storytelling and they found it to be a natural point to jump off. Their vested interest in the characters was lost, as they found a resolution or conclusive nature in the narrative.
While it’s unlikely the comic book movie genre will vanish into the ether in a heartbeat, its influence will start to wane as studios think of other (cheaper) genres that put butts in seats. But which is the one most likely to dethrone superheroes?
Top Gun: Maverick surprised everyone in 2022. No one expected it to do as well as it did, but people should never have bet against it either. Tom Cruise’s forays into the action genre have reaped immense rewards. Mission: Impossible continues to be a franchise that keeps on giving, while there must be talk of more Top Gun films after Maverick‘s success. Cruise knows what the world wants to watch, and he’ll probably be at the forefront of even more action spectacles in the near future.
Another franchise that appears to have no stop button is the Fast & Furious. These films are critic proof and bring in the audience to every single instalment. They’re absolutely ludicrous in nature, but the viewers love the blockbuster experience and don’t expect Citizen Kane when they walk into theatres.
Similarly, John Wick is another fan-favourite. People want to see Keanu Reeves’ assassin beat up goons with a mixture of martial arts and gunfighting, and they keep demanding more movies and spinoffs. Would anyone really be surprised when John Wick 5 is inevitably announced?
Right now, the action genre is hot. Yes, films like Top Gun: Maverick and Fast X can be expensive to produce, but studios will front the money if the first few entries in the franchise turn decent profits. There’s a demand for these movies, and Hollywood would do well to take notice. Don’t be surprised if other franchises like xXx and Rambo make returns in the immediate future, as everyone takes advantage of the boom to fill the gap left behind by the comic book movie genre diminishing in relevance.