Do Big Studios Have to Worry About Superhero Movie Fatigue?
Recently during an interview, Disney COO Alan Horn expressed ambivalence to the idea that movie audiences will grow tired of Marvel films. On its face, this may not seem to make sense. There is a problem facing Marvel Studios, but it has nothing to do with audience fatigue. Before we get into it, however, the simplest form of this argument is that moviegoers will simply grow tired of superhero stories. This is preposterous, simply because almost every adventure movie is about some kind of superhero.
Comic book movies explain why people possess superhuman skills with specific origin moments. Other films simply express that one character is excellent. John Wick is the best gunfighter in the world. In Once Upon a Time In Hollywood Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is just the type of guy who can beat Bruce Lee (among others) in a fight. Even Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca is a kind of superhero, though a much more subtle one. Perhaps he’s like Professor X or John Constantine? He is a guy who strategizes his way out of jam rather than just busting some heads. Audiences like stories about exceptional people, and they don’t get more exceptional than superheroes.
Why People Believe That Superhero Movie Fatigue Will Set In
Image via Paramount Pictures
When people think of superhero movie fatigue, what they are really talking about is the western. These were the original superhero films, though instead of powers and costumes, they had a ten-gallon hat and a six-gun. At one point, westerns dominated the box office and consisted of about a quarter of the primetime schedule. The conventional wisdom is that people grew tired both of the setting and the morality melodrama of the characters. The western gave way to gritty cinema like that of Martin Scorsese. Yet, today, police procedurals make up a significant portion of the primetime schedule, even in the age of Prestige TV™. Audiences have not seemed to tire of police stories. While westerns may not dominate any more, the genre hasn’t gone away completely either.
Still, reasonable people look at the saturation of different superhero movie and television projects and naturally assume that fatigue will set in. People will want to watch a different kind of story. One thing that Francis Ford Coppola said in his harsh rebuke of comic book films was correct. People do not want to see the same movie over and over again.
In fact, therein lies the genius of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe accomplished. Superhero films, especially the first ones in a franchise, are very formulaic. We meet the hero in their flawed, primordial state. Something happens that makes them extraordinary. They learn about their power, the responsibility that comes with it, and then they save the day. That the Marvel films are connected allows them to eschew that formulaic approach. Other superhero franchises are learning from this, and that is why the movie fatigue that everyone talks about will likely not happen.
Is “Movie Fatigue” Even a Real Thing?
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Some might think that Alan Horn is shortsighted when he says he doesn’t worry about superhero movie fatigue setting in. His boss, Disney CEO Bob Iger, blamed a similar kind of fatigue for the failure of Solo: A Star Wars Story to live up to expectations. In fairness, no one really wanted to see a young Han Solo film. Rogue One is like that, too. No one thought they needed to see how the rebellion stole the plans for the Death Star. Yet, the storytellers surprised us. They gave fans new, compelling characters and just enough familiar things to captivate an audience. Solo was unable to replicate that success.
As he told The Hollywood Reporter in the fall of 2018:
“I made the timing decision, and as I look back, I think the mistake that I made — I take the blame — was a little too much, too fast. You can expect some slowdown, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to make films. J.J. is busy making IX. …We are just at the point where we’re going to start making decisions about what comes next after J.J.’s. But I think we’re going to be a little bit more careful about volume and timing. And the buck stops here on that.”
While Iger is right to blame himself and others involved in film scheduling, he is wrong to suggest that people were already fatigued with Star Wars. Since 2015, when the first new Star Wars film since 2008, The Force Awakens, premiered Marvel put out eleven films compared to Star Wars’ four. Solo’s failure (if you can call a movie that made $400 million a failure) was, arguably, two-fold. The first involved the making of the film and the narrative coming out of it. Making a Star War is secretive business. When news kept breaking about how troubled the production was, fans who followed every breadcrumb about the secretive Star Wars filming process prejudged the film on that alone. It didn’t matter that the end result was an enjoyable movie, the film’s legacy was set before it even released.
The second problem came from the fact that Disney did no favors to Lucasfilm by scheduling the release when they did. The film hit about six months after The Last Jedi, and even Star Wars fans weren’t ready for a fun romp after such a heavy story. That it was scheduled for late spring, between Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp, also hurt. Disney was in competition with itself. If Solo debuted at Christmas, the film likely would have earned more from hungry genre movie audiences and landed better because the sting of The Last Jedi would be less fresh. (Love it or hate it, audiences leave that movie feeling emotionally drained because of the heavy nature of its themes and character stories.) Whether it is a superhero movie or a Star Wars film, the fatigue factor has little to do with it.
Why Superhero Movie Fatigue is Not Marvel’s Biggest Problem
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To continue comparing Marvel and Star Wars, there is a problem the MCU could face in Phase 4. Despite its cultural omnipotence, Star Wars is not all that popular in China. One of the problems facing the franchise in that market is that audiences felt they were too far “behind” the story. They didn’t want to see Episode VII because they didn’t want to have to watch six movies just to catch up to the story.
With nearly two dozen films in its catalog, the Marvel Cinematic Universe might have trouble bringing in new fans. They may take a hit at the box office because audiences will just wait to watch the movies when they hit Disney+, if they watch them at all. Just like with working out, it won’t be fatigue that hurts the box office draw of the superhero movie but rather the daunting prospect of getting started “too late” in the game.
The advantage Marvel has over other franchises, however, is that their films can encompass many different genres. Ant-Man is a heist film. Captain America: Winter Soldier is a spy thriller. The Thor films are Shakespearean plays (the first wo are the tragedies whereas Ragnarok and Thor 4 will be the comedies). Superheroes are no different than other action movie characters because they are a flawed hero who is or becomes extraordinary and then must use their abilities to solve a problem. Audiences haven’t gotten tired of that kind of story in centuries. So, as long as Marvel keeps their focus where it needs to be, on the characters and the story, they will continue to delight movie audiences for as long as we still have movies.
What do you think? Is superhero movie fatigue a real threat? Tell us your thoughts, theories, and arguments in the comments below.
Image via Marvel Studios
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.