It seems like the popular trend as of late for film critics is to admit to enjoying superhero movies with a degree of reservation. Yes, the movies are given four stars and “fresh” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, but there is always a general asterisk: of course, it was good, it was the same witty, flashy, punchy movie we’ve all seen 20 times. It has reached a point of implication in news media; the Brie Larson led superhero vehicle “Captain Marvel” recently just passed the $1 billion global box office mark, soundly passing “Wonder Woman” for the most successful female superhero flick. One would expect this to be major news in the realm of entertainment, but for the colossus that is Marvel Entertainment, this is just a drop in a very large bucket. Disney, which owns Marvel and seems to be taking over the world, needs to be careful not to grow complacent in the midst of its success. They may be making billions of dollars now, but popular culture has a habit of going sour on properties that risk oversaturation. Just ask Nickelback.
Before the arrival of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was another genre that seemed to dominate cinema with unrivaled popularity: westerns. From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, stoic, masculine outlaws and dusty frontier stand-offs were what was expected at the movie theater — that is, until people got sick of watching the same movie. The problem wasn’t that the western as a genre was bad; they just got predictable. The problem is detectable in the superhero genre as well; tropes like the destruction of cities that all look like New York, beams of blue light in the sky, and cute one-liners shot back and forth between lead heroes. Even the scores are completely predictable.
This isn’t to say that Marvel and other comic book property owners haven’t tried to mess with the formula at all. Westerns, after all, still found and continue to find success after the first overwhelming wave of popularity, but these “neo-westerns” do so by taking the tropes of the old westerns and turning them on their heads, seen in movies like “Django Unchained” and the 2010 version of “True Grit.” There are already efforts to do this within the superhero genre, with an R-rated raunchy spin on the formula with Ryan Reynolds’ “Deadpool,” a predominantly black cast and hero in “Black Panther,” and, most recently, a female lead in a ‘90s setting in “Captain Marvel.” Some of these changes prove to have a wide-ranging effect on the genre, such as “Deadpool” which opened up a space for more R-rated superhero films, but other changes, while perhaps meaningful in a social sense, risk coming off as token, such as with “Captain Marvel,” which hits many of the same notes as previous films under its superficial changes.
Robert Downey Jr. himself, arguably the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, called into question the staying power of the genre, noting in an interview with The Telegraph back in 2014, “Honestly, the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges. It’s a little bit old.”
Again, this is not an issue with the genre, but with the style that major studios have decided they have to adhere to. Ironically, the interconnectedness that first drew much of the popular intrigue in the Marvel films has also hamstrung the genre as a whole. Genre only persists when the status quo is challenged — when playwrights aren’t afraid to satirize Shakespeare and when films like “Deadpool” aren’t afraid to lampoon their own genre. “Avengers: Endgame” arrives in theaters April 26, and if the previous film was any indication, it will make well over a billion dollars in ticket sales. In his review of “Captain Marvel,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott told audiences to anticipate “[shuffling] out of the theater feeling both satisfied and empty.” What remains to be seen is if Marvel will be able to fill the emptiness at the heart of its films, or if they will simply disappear altogether.