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This past weekend saw the release of the sequel to one of the weirdest comic book properties out there, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The film has been met, so far, with critical and commercial success, boasting an 81% Certified Fresh score on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and a box office cumulative of more than $430 million internationally. Despite this success, the volume of big budget comic book adaptations over the past few years and the slight underperformance relative to expectations of the last few releases have led many pundits and fans to question when this “Golden Age” of comic book adaptations will come to an abrupt end. Further, with Marvel Studios approaching the end of its extended story surrounding the all-powerful villain Thanos and comments that Phase 4 could be a dramatic reinvention, many have predicted that the final Avengers film will mark the end of this renaissance.

Are these pundits and fans right to ask these questions? Will the market for these films end after 2019? That is the question that this editorial will take up. It will begin by discussing the history of superhero cinema and bubbles, the narrative pitfalls and questions studios will need to answer to avoid the burst, and what the current situation and potential end of the superhero renaissance could mean for other franchises.

A History of Superhero Cinema and Hollywood Bubbles

For many of us, there was never a world without superheroes as we know them today. In fact, if we look at history broadly, there has never been a time without mythological heroes akin to what we see in comic books and comic book movies. That said, the first American superhero film wasn’t released until 1920. Predating the initial publication of Superman and Batman by some eighteen years, the release of the silent film The Mask of Zorro would begin the history of American superhero cinema. Over the next 57 years, only eight more superhero films would reach audiences. Then saw the first “renaissance” of the genre from 1977-85. This included the enormously popular Christopher Reeve Superman adaptations. The genre would then fade until its resurgence in 1989, coinciding with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman.

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Over the next decade, U.S. film studios released a total of 44 live action superhero films. This was undoubtedly the first real Golden Age of superhero cinema. The turn of the millennium would change everything, however. Bryan Singer’s X-Men is widely heralded as the fire-starter for our modern age of comic book adaptations. That film, and five other smaller entries released that year, marked the end of the 90s era and the start of the second expansion. The year 2001 was a hard reset for the industry and was the last year we didn’t see a single superhero film released. From 2002-16, 83 live action superhero films were released. It is this immense expansion that many have called the “superhero bubble.”

To evaluate the merits of the terminology applied to this, there are two concepts in Hollywood filmmaking (and, indeed, in any economic analysis) that need to be understood: market cycles and bubbles. Before I get into discussing those in detail, I do want to caveat that my analysis here is, in some sense, cursory. There is a lot of data (principally financial) that I will not be looking at due to lack of information and to make this conversation clearer.

Market cycles represent natural processes of growth and recession in industries. The familiar concept of “what goes up must come down” is not lost in economic theory in the short term (though there is, of course, understandable focus put on long term growth trends). These short term cycles, however, are particularly significant in the history of Hollywood genre filmmaking. Often there are eras where something captures the public consciousness before fading and resurging some number of years down the road. A great example of this comes from looking at the history of science fiction cinema.

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Bubbles are systemically different. A “bubble” represents a period of aberration from the norm in a particular market. In terms of a trend chart, these can be seen as “bubbles” coming out from an otherwise linear trend line. Bubbles are visible in so many famous market images but, in terms of cinema, the most obvious bubble can be found with American westerns in the 1940s and 50s. In this period, the number of westerns produced grew dramatically, entirely out of step with the general cycle for that market.

westerns

Understanding these terms, we have to determine whether we think the state of superhero cinema is on the upside of a bubble, or is developing into a market pattern. As a general matter, this is incredibly difficult to assess and predict. There are, of course, indicators for bubbles and that’s how many people have made money in financial markets over the years. However, the immensely short time line we have with respect to superhero cinema makes it very difficult to use anything we know to predict the future. The current state of the industry is unprecedented. That said, the growth trend is not dramatically dissimilar to what we saw with science fiction that has seemingly fallen into a level market cycle in terms of total films made.

superheros v scifi

This lingering doubt over the question of whether a bubble exists in superhero cinema or not is important. If we are, indeed, in a bubble, there is some serious concern that it could fall off rapidly. However, if this is a cyclical position, we may see a dip in production, but the likelihood of returning to pre-90s production volumes doesn’t seem especially likely in the near future.

Superhero Storytelling: Dawn of the Burst

Although the present state of superhero cinema may well just be in a cyclical uptick, large producers of comic book films (namely Marvel Studios, DC (via Warner Brothers), and 20th Century Fox) all need to think about storytelling, lest that drive viewers away. The status of a cycle can be greatly impacted by changes to the quality of the product. Right now, these films are, mostly, being received positively by critics, fans, or both. Further, even those films that have struggled critically have had a measure of box office success. This is not incredibly surprising given the seeming growth cycle the industry is in, however, if more films start to miss, audiences will become less and less forgiving, potentially turning a growth cycle into a cycle of decline.

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In terms of artistry, all three major players have their critics. Marvel is often criticized for playing it too safe with their cinematic universe and failing to tell bold and interesting stories. DC has been greatly criticized of late for a plethora of things from lacking vision to lacking vision audiences enjoy to unsuccessfully attempting to jump on a speeding train too late. Fox has found itself in the weird place of garnering immense praise for certain unique entries to their universe, like Deadpool and Logan, whilst at the same time suffering grueling criticism for their four-corner franchise fare like X-Men: Apocalypse. There is not one, but many lessons to learn from this. More important, however, is that one solution may not work for all major players in the industry.

At the moment, the industry driver is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They have released more films than the other two ongoing universes combined and have a substantial pipeline of films planned for release between now and 2019. This has really driven the question about whether the end of Marvel’s Phase 3 and ongoing Thanos storyline will also mark the end of the market for these films. The premise of that seems valid. The biggest universe, and the one that has been most often accused of not taking risks and causing the dreaded “comic book fatigue,” ending after the major ongoing story seems legitimate. That said, Marvel has had a great understanding of their audience over the past nine years and has really shown an ability to find ways to re-energize them and get them back to the theater. With a substantial number of new characters being introduced in this latest phase, and demanded sequels to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Doctor Strange being announced for release post-Avengers 4, Marvel seems to be preparing to re-establish their audience to move forward for years to come. If that effort fails, however, trouble could be on the horizon.

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Fox and Warner Brothers have different questions to answer. Fox has, for some time, not had an evident plan. The success of Deadpool was a surprise to the studio in many ways, and now they are in a position to capitalize on that with the sequel and a possible X-Force film. The struggles with the X-Men films open up a lot of questions, however. Next year, they are planning to release a New Mutants film and X-Men: Dark Phoenix. If Fox is able to make this universe make sense, or explicitly divides it into subsections that make sense and have fans, they’ll be able to join the party. If those movies struggle, they will have some real issues to consider.

Warner Brothers is in yet another place. The DC films have made money and have definitely had their fans. The public response to them, though not nearly as strong as I think Warner Brothers would like, is still much better than the critical bludgeoning the first three films have taken. The reality is that they need a hit, however. With both Wonder Woman coming out in less than a month, and Justice League coming at the end of the year, DC has two big opportunities to make a statement in 2017. If they’re not able to do that, and they can’t get another film out before Aquaman in December 2018, they may have trouble holding on to their audience. If that comes to pass, and superhero fatigue really does set in, the DCEU could be in a lot of trouble. Now, I think (and hope) Wonder Woman and Justice League will be good or great. But, that’s just as speculative as thinking they might not be.

The reality of the situation is that if any (or all) of the major studios are not able to continue telling compelling stories, the lifespan of their universes may not be very long. If they can tell stories that audiences care about, the comic book movie industry can likely find a way to remain healthy for years to come.

The Others

Even though I’m of the view that we’re not sitting in a bubble that is about burst with comic books films, I could be wrong. Smarter people than me have been wrong about far easier questions than the one at hand here. Let’s say, for sake of discussion, I am wrong and the bubble bursts: what will that mean for other geek franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Alien, Fast and the Furious, etc.? That question is nearly impossible to answer. The correlative effects of these different competing works are far from clear. Can we see things like Star Wars influencing the creation of more properties? Of course we can. Do we have some reason rooted in data to think that stumbling comic book movies could spell doom for a galaxy far far away? We really don’t.

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The current era of big franchise filmmaking is one that will likely naturally subside at some point. However, the creatives engines of Hollywood (and the creators who predominantly grew up with these franchises) aren’t going anywhere for now. Death of comic book movies could hurt this machinery, but given the recent entrenchment of geek culture into popular culture, I wouldn’t bet on this happening anytime soon.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the comic book movie industry is an interesting case study for how pundits sometimes take a shorter view of history than they probably ought to. It is far from certain, in either direction, whether the industry will continue at its current level, grow, or die following 2019. It is my view, however, that we will largely continue in the current pocket we’re operating in. These films have yet to truly overwhelm the industry and, until they do so or stop making money, I don’t see them going anywhere.

Now, I throw it to all of you. What do you think about the comic book movie “bubble?” Are we in one? Is it going to pop? What do the studios need to do to avoid the pop? Can franchise filmmaking survive? Sound off with all your thoughts and comments below, on our Facebook page, or find me on Twitter @rmckenna19
About the Author
Author: Ryan McKenna