One of the most significant industry buzzwords this spring was “superhero fatigue,” after both “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Shazam!: Fury of the Gods” met with indifference from critics, fans and paying audiences. In fact, it spawned speculation that superhero films had finally run their course – at least until both “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” became both the biggest and most acclaimed blockbusters of early summer.
Of course, “The Flash” was an entirely different story this past weekend. However, its failure and backlash may have also been the death knell for the “superhero fatigue” talking point, at least for now. Instead of proving audiences are tired of superheroes, it backed up a much more promising possibility – that audiences will no longer flock to a comic book movie just because it is a comic book movie.
Once upon a time, the MCU, if not comic book movies, were generally deemed “critic-proof” and would make a killing no matter what critics or the loudest nitpickers said. Even the DCEU kind of proved this in its early struggles, as “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Suicide Squad,” and “Aquaman” made big bucks – if not as big as Warner Brothers may have hoped for in some cases – no matter how many fans and critics protested them.
Massive hits that defied their poor Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores were all too common in pre-pandemic days. Now in these dire times, studios will take any megahit they can get, whether those who see them like them or not. But as the box office still languishes, and as blockbusters make life harder for mid-budget and small movies regardless, audiences are at least proving more discerning about big films than they used to.
Many factors are blamed for this, such as the pandemic, streaming, the quality of both movies and theaters and much more. When it comes to superheroes, their current health is all too important to the health of Hollywood, no matter how dire or ominous that might sound to some. As such, when two comic book movies underachieved in the same spring, panic and speculation went through the roof for a few weeks.
It didn’t matter that “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Shazam!: Fury of the Gods” were sequels to superhero franchises that were never Avengers-level hits. It also didn’t matter that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” made almost $2 billion worldwide just over a year earlier or that the MCU had two movies that made $400+ million domestically in 2022 alone. Once this spring’s two relative flops came and went, the trendy talking point was that audiences were finally tired of the whole genre – and it isn’t like the creatively struggling MCU or the soon-to-be-revamped DCEU were providing that much hope for the next few years in general.
It was all too easy, if not relieving to some, to think audiences may have reached their limit with superheroes. But this summer, a far more optimistic theory is starting to take shape – audiences may have finally reached their limit with disappointing superheroes.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” was the first test case this summer, and one that was probably always going to open big in some way because it was the Guardians’ farewell – at least their farewell as we knew them under James Gunn. But unlike its 2023 superhero predecessors, it did have more positive than negative reviews, if not exactly the best reviews for the franchise.
More significantly, unlike its 2023 superhero predecessors – and unlike almost every MCU movie in the past few years – it did not have a major percentage drop off in its second weekend. In fact, those who loved it and cried over it spread word of mouth to the point where it only dropped 48 percent in both its second and third weekends. And now, after its seventh weekend, it is at nearly a $350 million domestic total that should make it the box office champion of the summer movie season.
However, the only movie that could unseat it is an entirely different superhero sequel…
“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is an animated sequel to a movie that was a modest word-of-mouth hit in 2018. However, its massive raves guaranteed a sequel that was always bound to make more money. But given just how high “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” set the bar with critics and fans, it was easy to fear the sequel would fall short and limit just how much bigger it would become than the original.
But when the raves and scores were somehow just as high as they were over five years ago, the box office got higher and higher along with it. And now, after three weekends, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is at approximately $280 million domestic – more than “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” made after three weekends – and may at least finish just short of being the highest-grossing movie of the summer, if it doesn’t get there.
After a spring filled with “superhero fatigue” headlines, it is almost a predictable punchline that the two biggest films of the summer by far look to be superhero movies. What’s more, they are by far the more critically and fan-acclaimed blockbusters of the early summer – leaving aside how the competition isn’t exactly strong there so far or how “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is pretty much the most acclaimed wide release of all 2023 by a wide margin.
Even if “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1,” “Barbie,” and “Oppenheimer” are all as great as everyone hopes this July, their early box office projections don’t seem likely to match the summer’s superhero hits yet. But at the very least, it’s hard to imagine any of them faring worse than the summer’s superhero bomb.
“The Flash” and its estimated $55+ million opening weekend will be blamed on a lot of things, from the Ezra Miller scandals to David Zaslav sticking by them anyway and Zaslav’s own inaccurate claims about the movie’s historic greatness. But one thing it can’t be blamed on is superhero fatigue – and in fact, it is the final proof of concept that what’s really happening is a case of bad and/or disappointing superhero fatigue.
“The Flash” did have fairly higher scores than “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Shazam!: Fury of the Gods” and was even marginally fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But with a mere 67% Tomatometer and 6.3 avg, plus a mere 56 on Metacritic – lower than both Netflix’s “Extraction 2” and Disney/Pixar’s own box office disappointment “Elemental” – “The Flash” was dead on arrival from a word of mouth perspective, just like this spring’s superhero flops before it.
With two summer smash hits that were also critical and fan favorites, and three disappointments that had mixed receptions at most, the pattern of superhero movies in 2023 is very clear. In these trying times, we now have hard proof that superheroes are no longer critic-proof if they ever were. But if audiences are now more selective in what they want from comic book movies, or at least in what will make them go to theaters to see them, it has to be seen as a really good thing and a reason for hope – even if there are still painful periods ahead.
Not much about the rest of Phase 5 and 6 of the MCU’s “Multiverse Saga” seems very promising, so it may still have to learn about audiences’ higher standards – or them just being fed up with the multiverse outside of Spider-Man movies – the hard way. And with two more final DCEU movies to dump off in “Blue Beetle” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” before Gunn launches a new DC universe, it may not be done making ugly box office headlines yet.
But these leftovers may still wind up being fascinating test cases for this new trend. If “Blue Beetle” actually gets high critic scores, or at least higher than “The Flash,” it could test just how much audiences will truly boost up well-liked superhero movies, even in mid-August. Yet if the release date and the lingering failure of “The Flash” tank “Blue Beetle,” even if critics and fans like it, the “superhero fatigue” headlines – or at least DC fatigue headlines – may yet live on a while longer.
Likewise, the MCU has one more test this fall with “The Marvels,” which faces long odds of matching the billion-dollar worldwide gross of pre-pandemic and pre “Avengers: Endgame” predecessor “Captain Marvel.” But if it gets an upgrade in critic and fan scores – at least from “fans” who aren’t still obsessed with taking down Brie Larson – it could further show that superhero audiences will still come through for quality movies. Yet if it isn’t a quality movie, its fate is much less certain, as it is for all hero movies, if not all blockbusters in general now.
This trend isn’t exactly foolproof, for hero movies or otherwise. Just last year, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” barely had better reviews and fan reception than “The Flash” has now, and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” hardly matched the universal raves of its predecessor. Yet, both made over $400 million domestically anyway. And as “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” keeps proving, there are still movies that don’t need fresh reviews to be mega hits – though “Elemental” also proved not all kids and family movies are critic-proof now either.
Maybe various levels of fatigue with blockbuster movies, the blockbuster system in general, and the pecking order of Hollywood, in general, are very real. But when it comes to “superhero fatigue,” the most this year has proved is that audiences are fatigued about the worst superhero movies and won’t settle for them as easily as they might have a few years ago – especially when better alternatives are out there.
In a way, this is the best possible trend for the genre and the most promising sign in years about what superhero audiences really want now – signs that might be emerging just in time. Yet that doesn’t mean the MCU and DCEU may be ready or able yet to learn from them right away.
Do you feel there’s superhero fatigue going on with audiences or is it fatigue for stories that aren’t offering anything new or of substance? What has been your favorite movie of the year so far? Which films are you looking forward to this summer? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. Thank you!
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984