Welcome to the era of superhero fatigue

If you love comic book superheroes, you could look at the present over-abundance of high-budget, high-profile movies and TV series and consider yourself lucky to be alive in this era. Yet you could also be a fan of the medium and find the current trajectory of this media to be absolutely wearying and exhausting.

Speaking for myself, I transitioned from the former to the latter camp around five years ago. Superhero fatigue set in, and I’m just about done with these movies. At least the newer ones. At least for now.

It wasn’t always this way. Growing up in the ’80s, really all we had of any good quality was the Superman trilogy (no, there wasn’t a fourth film) and Batman ’89. The ’90s were a very mixed bag of latex, unfortunate casting choices, and early CGI. It may be my most favorite period for the genre, in retrospect. Highlights were Batman Returns, The Crow, TMNT, and Blade.

But it’s hard to deny that a serious upshifting of superhero movies took place in the first decade of the 2000s. X-Men, Spider-Man, and Iron Man all flattened us with the effects, quality, and improved storytelling. Comic book movies weren’t as much of a joke anymore, and we couldn’t wait for the next batch.

And I’d argue that the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was truly exciting. It was just six movies leading up to 2012’s excellent Avengers. But by then, DC was trying to get into the works with its own extremely uneven (and dark) series, and it started to feel like we were getting these kinds of movies at a faster clip. Things really accelerated starting in 2016 as the MCU went into Phase 3 and multiple movies and TV shows were coming at us every year.

See, I can pinpoint exactly when I stopped going to see every new Marvel movie. It was Ant-Man in 2015. After that, I found myself not really wanting to go. I told myself that I’d catch it on a rental or streaming. And even when we had Disney+, I didn’t make good on my promise to do that. I’ve caught a few here or there, but to this day I may be one of the last members of our civilization that has yet to see Avengers Endgame.

(To be fair, I did make a point to catch up on all of the X-Men series, which I’m glad I did.)

I thought it was just me, that I was in danger of losing my geek credentials because I no longer cared all that much for whatever Marvel, DC, and others were doing in the superhero genre. And when I thought about it, I genuinely felt bad, because I would’ve killed for some of these types of movies as a teen.

However, some of that guilt was lessened when I’ve read post after post in the past few years about how others have that same superhero fatigue. In fact, I’m starting to suspect that it’s a lot more widespread. So what gives?

The first and perhaps most significant problem is sheer oversaturation of the genre. The first two MCU phases were just six movies each coming at a rate of one to two a year. That’s it. You know how many projects the current MCU Phase 4 has on the docket?

Thirty-two. Thirty-two movies and television shows crammed into three years. I counted. It’s so much. It’s too much. None of it can be a huge tentpole experience because they’re sharing the same circus tent with 31 others. Fans’ attention is called to pay attention to a series or movie for about a week before moving on like the all-consuming locusts they now must be to stay on top of all of this.

It’s drinking through the firehose. Star Wars — at least on the TV front — is suffering from the same issue.

This dovetails into the next issue, which is a marked decline in quality. DC’s movies were mostly a trainwreck with a few bright exceptions. Marvel used to come out ahead on the fresh-to-stinkers ratio, but nowadays it’s tilted the other way. Too many bombs have been shoved in our faces with a 180-minute runtime and $100M worth of CGI fights.

And it all starts looking and sounding the same. I’m sorry, but it really does. There’s a certain “formula” for these characters and plots that is being recycled over and over again, and heroes at the center could be swapped out save for their costumes and powers. Everyone’s jokey and vaguely noble but a little bit edgy. Too many of these projects are injecting “messages” that are tiresome in their own way, turning what should be a fun romp into a ham-handed internet forum rant.

It’s starting to get rare that we do see any characters that really stand out as excellently written and freshly approached. It’s probably why Deadpool got so much love at the time. Or why Wolverine is so beloved. Or why there’s a vocal segment of comic book fans that have been clamoring for more Tim Burton-era Batman or X-Men ’97 antics. (And they’re getting their wish with the latter!)

The fatigue is real and the backlash is growing. I’m not shunning all of these projects, but I’ll tell you, it’s going to take something special, unusual, or particularly well-done to break through my force field of indifference. I don’t want to see the genre die, but I really do wish that it could throttle back before it buckles and collapses under the weight of its eagerness to milk the viewership for all their wallets are worth.

One comment

  1. It isn’t even superhero fatigue as much as franchise fatigue for me. And it’s not even that I’m fatigued. I could happily keep up with it all (and mostly still do), but I only wish the quality was higher.
    Most of the early (phase 1/2) MCU films were focus-grouped as heck, but there was still a sense that the main thrust of the film was laid out prior to filming. In recent years however the trend seems to be to change the film constantly after it has been filmed, using feedback from test screenings.
    This has been facilitated by an increased reliance on CGI for every single scene. Not just action set pieces, but dinner table scenes, car rides, romantic interactions etc. Everything can be changed in post-production based on test audience response, whether it’s the pacing of a car chase, or something as simple as a product placement, or the way a handgun looks.
    The end product is often tonally inconsistent and utterly bereft of any artistic expression.
    Obviously, all this CGI also gives the film an incredibly synthetic appearance, but more frustrating to me is just how bland the vast majority of blockbusters look these days.
    Nothing looks cinematic. Instead, everything shares the same visual language of the ‘prestige TV show’. Somehow making even the grandest spectacle appear small and flat.
    I think people are cottoning on to this though (subconsciously at least), and I think it’s one of the reasons why Maverick had such a great run last year. It may not have been anything revolutionary in the storytelling department, but it looked properly cinematic. It was proud to be a film, not just an entertainment product.
    Meanwhile, in TV land, Andor stood out from the pack by being a singular vision. One of the few franchise entries not to kowtow to merchandising and fan service.

    One final point. After folks like Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Edgar Wright hit it big by wearing their geek cred on their sleeves, a lot more studios started taking chances on fanboy directors.
    As a genre where cheapies can rake in big profits, horror films were the first genre which boomed off the back of this. Eli Roth and James Wan were the biggest breakouts from this pack, while others, such as Adam Green and the Soska Sisters became darlings of the festival circuit.
    Largely I always found the work of these filmmakers to be totally derivative and puerile – very really showing any semblance of the creativity and originality of the filmmakers they obsessed over.
    Plenty of good horror films still got made, but it was mostly from people who weren’t fanboys. Did they love genre cinema – yes! But they also had other interests. They were, vitally, curious people.
    Now, in the rush to create as much content as possible, the major studios have turned to the self-professed fanboys to keep their prized IPs humming. And I’m not talking strictly about directors here, but the wider crew as well (writers, showrunners, actors etc).
    Sadly, the simple act of being switched on to nerd culture does not an artist make. But they’re happy to be there, playing in the toybox of their youth, and so they’ll follow the formula, make the changes that the test screenings mandate, and throw in plenty of those all-important easter eggs.
    The product pops out the other end and makes the expected amount of money at the box office.

    As you say in your post however it certainly does seem that general audience interest is waning. Steadily declining box office receipts isn’t going to satisfy the studios or their shareholders so who knows how they will react.

    (Sorry for the long, rambling comment… your post may have triggered something which has been brewing inside me for a while)

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