All you needed to know about the hunger for superhero content came with 2018’s “Venom.”
Tom Hardy’s anti-hero romp got hammered by critics and is considered one of the weaker superhero films of the modern era.
It still earned more than $200 million at the U.S. box office, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, generating a sequel in the process. That wasn’t so long ago, but my, has the superhero game changed since then.
Superhero fatigue is creeping into the frame. Marvel movies still crush the box office, but not like they did just when Iron Man and co. stared down Thanos in 2018-2019. And the chaos behind the scenes at the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU, is playing out in real-time on social media.
Seemingly must-see sequels are earning much less than their predecessors. And, in the most glaring hint of superhero fatigue, Dwayne Johnson’s belated foray into the genre won’t even generate a sequel.
Audiences still clamor for lycra-clad heroes, but the content no longer justifies the hype. There’s a new super-film in theaters or TV every other month, making their arrival less special than ever.
Plus, some stories went woke, putting identity politics and finger-wagging above all else. Others leaned on directors who may have been given too much creative control for their own good.
Either way, studio suits are increasingly nervous about the current state of affairs, as well they should be.
Superhero films, even when wildly successful, have to make much more than their gargantuan budgets to come out even. So even a film that tops the $200 million mark might be deemed a failure for not recouping all the assorted costs (marketing fees alone can top $100 million).
Let’s start with the king of superhero films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The mega-franchise wove 20+ movies into an elaborate storyline culminating in two epic Avengers films – “Infinity War” and “Endgame.”
The duo swarmed the box office competition and wrapped the saga in a surprisingly tidy bow. But the show had to go on.
Phase IV of the MCU began with 2021’s “Black Widow,” caught in a web not of its own making. The global pandemic delayed the film, and by the time it reached theaters few expected it to earn anything like its predecessors.
The film itself proved mediocre, showcasing a character already killed in “Endgame” in a story that felt hum-drum at best. That MCU magic still kicked in, however, delivering $187 million at the U.S. box office.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” faired better, both critically and commercially. It’s the last MCU film to have that sense of awe from previous installments. Still, there was little sense of a developing story afoot, at least at first.
“Eternals,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” failed to match their predecessors either creatively or commercially.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” put some juice back into the MCU’s box office fortunes, but it still earned roughly $280 million less than its predecessor.
Phase IV finally wrapped courtesy of “Wakanda Forever,” but without a cohesive vision, the kind that anchored the previous MCU stories.
The only MCU film to rule, no questions asked, came from outside the official MCU production line (Sony, not Disney, Inc.). “Spider-Man: No Way Home” proved the pandemic no longer mattered to move fans, earning $814 million.
Disney’s MCU watered down the brand further with a crush of streaming originals of varying quality – “WandaVision” proved clever and bold, while “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” spent more time wallowing in victimhood than delivering first-class fun.
Diminishing returns are only part of the problem plaguing the DCEU these days. The franchise’s lineup of superstars is equal to the MCU, but we see far fewer films from its deep bench.
The eagerly awaited “Wonder Woman 1984” evoked memories of “Batman and Robin,” the lowest of the pre-MCU lows in the genre. “Birds of Prey” bombed by superhero standards, earning a paltry $84 million.
“The Suicide Squad,” the second attempt to bring the bad boys (and gals) into the picture underwhelmed, too, with pandemic fallout and its HBO Max simultaneous release impacting its terrible $55 million haul.
The saga’s next big thing, 2023’s “The Flash,” stars a young man, Ezra Miller, so troubled some predicted the studio to shelve the film entirely.
And Johnson’s “Black Adam” failed to replicate past super grosses. That meant a “Black Adam 2” won’t be happening.
The biggest DCEU film, on paper, isn’t aligned with this new universe – Robert Pattinson’s “The Batman” from earlier this year.
“Black Adam’s” post-credits Superman cameo teased the return of actor Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel. Weeks later, the man who under-performed with “The Suicide Squad,” writer/director James Gunn, got charged with overseeing a DCEU overhaul.
The new Gunn regime canceled “Wonder Woman 3,” “Black Adam 2” and Cavill’s super dreams, opting for a younger Man of Steel moving forward. Fans weren’t happy with that turn of events, and Gunn has been reduced to whining on Twitter about the flak he’s taking over the new DCEU path.
And this was before Warner Bros. Discovery nixed “Batgirl,” an HBO Max original film whispered to be too woke for its own good.
The Bat demise hints at a larger issue plaguing the super franchises. Woke dictates are hurting the bottom line, be it with “Love and Thunder” emasculating the title character to “Eternals’” endless tweaks to meet diversity quotas.
Out went straight white male Iron Man. In went young, black female Ironheart. Now, female directors must direct female-led movies like “Captain Marvel” and “Wonder Woman,” rather than seeking the very best director possible, regardless of gender.
“Love and Thunder” director Taika Waititi added a few woke elements into his film, too, while pushing the comical beats from his previous “Thor” epic, “Ragnarok,” to the breaking point. Did his “Ragnarok” success shield him from constructive criticism on set?
Perhaps on some level studios figured audiences would rally for superhero content in perpetuity. That’s only true to a point. Consumers want the good stuff, again, and many aren’t getting it.
If that continues, the superhero fatigue inching into the culture will become a full-throated snore.
Christian Toto is an award-winning journalist, movie critic and editor of HollywoodInToto.com. He previously served as associate editor with Breitbart News’ Big Hollywood. Follow him at @HollywoodInToto.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.