Comic book movies are everywhere now. We’re no longer limited to just a yearly blockbuster film as the industry has more than tripled that number. In addition, we’ve seen our favorite heroes and villains branching out to television and streaming services like Netflix. But with so much saturation and the continual rise in popularity, it’s no longer a question of if but when in regards to the genre’s eventual decline.
As many say that history repeats itself, a strong correlation has been made between comic book movies and Westerns. Westerns have also had their periods of popularity and over saturation since the beginning of the film industry. From 1939 until the early 1950s, Westerns dominated movie entertainment. It was during the 1950s where they peaked, however, after significantly outnumbering other genres.
Just like the Western, comic book films are saturating the market right now. What once were confined stories for your average social recluse have now become big screen productions known by a majority. Starting with X-Men in 2000, which arguably spiked the superhero film movement, we now have not just sequels but entire cinematic universes. On average, there was typically a 1 to 2 year gap between a new comic book movie back in the day. Now, with an increased pace and multiple competing studios, there are around 5 to 6 comic book movies a year. This relative pacing is similar to what we saw with the classic Westerns and even notable film figures have cited the correlation.
In fact, Steven Spielberg himself expects the genre to have an eventual decline, saying the following recently:
“We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns.”
Additionally, we’ve begun to see a small but notable decline in terms of public perception. DC/Warner Bros., Fox and Sony have received a majority of the bad press. X-Men: Apocalypse, for example, was the first film in the X-Men franchise to receive a majority of negative reviews (X-Men: The Last Stand still had a lot of positive ones). For the DCEU, meanwhile, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was plagued with bad reviews despite having a $300 million budget and high expectations from fans. Sony had their own difficulties as well trying to save Spider-Man after the horrendous Spider-Man 3 and had to employ Marvel’s help to get them back on track.
But while Marvel and their MCU franchise seemed to be impenetrable, they too had a flop with a related Netflix series. Iron Fist was bombarded with negative reviews, with an overall consensus of it being considered “dull.” Fortunately, the Marvel Cinematic Universe still remains untainted by negative press, for the most part.
But what cause could have created this effect of negativity? Could it be that the excitement for comic book movies are slowly diminishing due to over-saturation? Could it be the arrogance of the genre’s ability to succeed? Or could this just be a cyclical decline just like the Western? Marvel’s own Kevin Feige does entertain the possibility of the genre meeting a similar Western decline, but cited the long span of Western movie supremacy as well.
“It could, but the Western lasted 40-50 years, and they still pop up occasionally,” Feige said. “It’s been, what, eight years since Iron Man 1 if we count that, which I do, as the beginning of our MCU? Maybe [the superhero genre] will only last another 42 years.”
If the genre is going to continue on for that long, the biggest question should surround the path of the future. The DCEU has just begun to establish new characters and both Fox and Sony have rebooted their popular franchises with a few new additions. But Marvel in particular is at an interesting point. Key characters like Captain America and Iron Man are coming to their end with both Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans on their way out. These two have been the face of Marvel films for years now and the transition into new lead characters is expected to be seamless, but still unexpected.
Despite the uncertainty, comic book movies have maintained their profitability regardless of any criticism. They’re well-funded and are cast with high profile talent as well. Being chosen to star in one has become a proverbial right of passage for an actor’s path to stardom. And even if they’re going fall victim to that eventual decline, history shows us that for now, we can expect our yearly cycle of films to remain consistent.