Superhero Fatigue Is Real. The Cure? Make Better Movies Than The Flash

“Superhero fatigue” is a phrase that tends to make devoted movie lovers swoon with rapture. If you’re someone who cares about movies, who cares about cinema, the very prospect of superhero fatigue inspires you to think: Yes! There’s hope! People will get tired of this shit!

But let’s be honest — that’s probably wishful thinking. In the last 20 years, led by Marvel but by no means limited to Marvel, comic book movies have infiltrated our culture and our consciousness to the point that they’re now part of who we are. If you ask any number of people, especially dudes of a certain generation, to name their favorite film, they will look at you and say “Star Wars,” often with a smirk that’s really saying, “’Star Wars,’ of course!” These aren’t just “Star Wars” fans. They’re “Star Wars” fundamentalists, who built the seedbeds of their imaginations on the original trilogy.

We don’t think of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in quite that way, because there’s no one movie we can all agree upon that generated the pop-cultural earthquake that “Star Wars” did. Some remember the 1978 “Superman” that way, but even that film, at the time, seemed to emerge from the escapist-fantasy shadow of “Star Wars.” The very nature of comic-book moviegoing, with its serial sprawl (something that was built into the comics themselves and was there from the early-’80s days of the “Superman” sequels), is that it’s driven by a more-is-more multiplicity. And we’ve now reached a superhero moment of such omnipresent moreness (the films, the TV series, the brain-bending or maybe headache-inducing symbiosis of the two, depending on your vantage) that for people who’ve grown up in this era, comic-book spectacle almost literally defines what entertainment is. In that sense, the war is over. The juggernaut won.

Yet for the first time, I would say, since the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was 15 years ago last month (when “Iron Man” was released in the U.S.), superhero fatigue is palpable. You can read it in the numbers, notably the post-pandemic figues, when we don’t have to put an asterisk next to a film’s box office performance: “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” opening huge ($106 million) only to collapse and underperform to the tune of $214 million; the tanking of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” ($57 million); or this weekend’s strikingly ho-hum numbers for “The Flash” (the studio publicity, in floating a prediction of $70 million, was already scaling back expectations). You can feel it in Chris Hemsworth’s blithe willingness to trash last summer’s “Thor” sequel — not something movie stars are in the habit of doing, especially when the film in question was a hit. You can feel it in the reviews: the jadedness of critics when it comes to sitting through another warmed-over version of these tropes, that CGI, all that interconnected multiverse busy-ness, with less at stake each time.

And in a funny way, you feel it in the lack of pushback against the critics. Superhero movies have long been an arena in which popular tastes don’t necessarily sync up with the priorities of reviewers. Yet the bone-weary cynicism with which critics have greeted recent superhero films now appears to mirror, more than it doesn’t, the sensibility of the audience.

After being saturated in this stuff for so long, why wouldn’t we all have superhero fatigue? Every genre gets old, the way that even the most invincibly popular TV shows get old. That’s why movies are always changing. The big splashy Hollywood musical was a form that once seemed eternal… until it wasn’t. In the age of comic-book movies, it often seems like comic-book movies will be big forever. The truth is: They’ll be big… until they aren’t. Are we now at the tipping point of that moment?

It’s possible, but with a major caveat, a qualification that lovers of cinema should actually embrace. And that is: Good comic-book movies, though they don’t happen every day, will still bring out audiences and excite them. One need look no further than to the success of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” a movie innovative enough, as image poetry and as storytelling, to restore one’s faith in the human idiosyncrasy of the comic-book genre. The film’s box-office performance is a striking contrast to that of the movies I mentioned above. And while I’m no big fan of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” there’s no question that it’s a success. I would argue that the affection for the “Guardians” series is so intense that that concluding chapter will go down as one of the last of the old-school comic-book-film triumphs.

The future is sure to bring too many comic-book movies to count. Disney’s many-tentacled masterplan will see to that, and James Gunn, of course, is just revving up his vision for the new age of DC. Yet if a number of the films continue to underperform in a notable way, the logic of the marketplace will rule. That “The Flash” was hyped at Cinema Con as some sort of genre masterpiece, only to be met with a collective shrug from critics and audiences, indicates that even those in the business, numbly mistaking product for art, have entered their fatigue phase. I liked “The Flash” for a while (when it’s a “Back to the Future” Ezra Miller speedfest), but I felt the exhaustion kick in during the second half, as the film became buried in layers of bombastic pablum. That’s what everyone is tired of: when a comic-book movie looks and feels like every other damn comic-book movie. And the more of them that come out, the more that will happen.

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