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Analysis

What’s Causing Superhero Fatigue?

Don’t you love superhero stories? I know I do. They’ve been a part of my life since I was a child and I find the concept of superheroes fascinating.

My favorite heroes are the ones that inspire me to be a better person. They fill my heart with hope and wonder. They’re far from perfect; they’re flawed, they make mistakes, they have doubts and insecurities. But they still fight for those who can’t defend themselves and stand for what is right, even if they’re never acknowledged or rewarded for it. They try to be good people in a world where being good is not always easy and the right choice is not always obvious or straightforward.

A real superhero is defined by their choices and values, not their powers. But if you can send a positive message and inspire people while also displaying fantastic abilities in cool-looking fights, then why not? Don’t tell me you wouldn’t love to have superpowers too!

So only good things can happen when Hollywood decides that superheroes are the best and we should have tons of movies about them, right?

Superhero movies, assemble!

Superhero movies and TV shows are not exactly new, but they have been trending for nearly two decades now. It’s hard to know what convinced the movie industry that superheroes were a good deal. People usually point at the original X-Men trilogy (2000 – 2006) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002 – 2007), both two-thirds successful with audience and professional critics, but I’d say it goes as far back as Blade (1998). 

Nobody could have foreseen the behemoth that Marvel Studios would become without some of its most famous characters, but they changed the game again in the past decade. Now we not only had sequels, we had a shared universe. Superheroes with their own stories and mythos, who would occasionally meet to fight threats they could only defeat together. No doubt it was an ambitious project, but oh boy, was it worthy. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) became a true cash cow.

Hollywood was in love with superhero movies, and so were we. We just weren’t ready for…

The Attack of the Superhero Fatigue

To Warner Bros. and DC’s credit, the concept of “superhero fatigue” precedes their shared universe. By the time Man of Steel (2013) opened the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Marvel already had seven movies under their belt, Fox had a franchise of five X-Men movies, and Sony was exploring their second Peter Parker.

At some point along the way, superheroes were no longer fresh and innovative. In fact, people were growing tired of them, causing the so-called superhero fatigueThe main cause for this feeling seems to be the ever-growing amount of superhero movies. That was four years ago, so how many films are we talking about now?

  • Our little overachiever Marvel currently has 16 movies in their franchise, with one more to be released this year, three next year, and three more planned for 2019. Marvel’s television shows are also part of the MCU (though it’s a rather one-sided connection, if you ask me), so if you wanna count them we have three shows on ABC, soon-to-be-six on Netflix, one to come on Hulu, and two to come on Freeform.
  • The DCEU has four movies and one more to premiere this year, but they’re trying to make up for the lost time. There’s a bunch of stuff planned or being discussed, including at least Aquaman next year. DC has a solid television universe, but it’s not connected to the movies and you can count them as separate entities.
  • Before joining the MCU side of Force, Sony already had five Spider-Man movies, with only five years between two different incarnations of the hero. Third time’s the charm!
  • Fox already has ten X-Men movies, with three more to come next year. They also created three Fantastic Four films, whose main function was to prevent Marvel from getting their hands in the likes of Galactus or Doctor Doom. For television, you have Legion and the upcoming The Gifted, which are related to the X-Men movie universe, but also work perfectly fine as standalones.

Not all those projects were quality storytelling or well-received, but they gave enough financial return to appease the Gods of Capitalism, so more will follow. Is anyone actually keeping up with all that stuff? Probably. I’m doing pretty well myself, though I boarded the superhero hype train at its first station.

What happens to people who haven’t?

The Unstoppable Superhero Hype

There’s a lot of potential in a long-running superhero franchise. Superheroes have more than their fair share of weird or forgettable stories, but they also have great arcs that can only be told when the public is already familiar with the characters and their universe.

As an old fan of superhero movies, I love when we pass the origin movie phase and see the shared universe grow. I love how different movies are connected and keep referencing each other, even if only through easter eggs. For a newcomer, though? That must be a nightmare. How do you penetrate a six-and-ten movie universe and its eight, soon-to-be-twelve, related television shows? The more you wait, the larger the universe becomes. It’s daunting.

Maybe you don’t even want to join the superhero cult, you just want to have fun watching this one movie and not the other five that it will reference to some degree. To be fair, most superhero movies work as standalones, but nowadays none of them are entirely devoid of references to its shared universe. Some of them straight up don’t make sense without the predecessors.

Yet no creature is more unfortunate than the person who couldn’t care less and would rather avoid superhero movies altogether. Maybe only someone who wants to avoid Game of Thrones? No wonder superhero fatigue is a thing, those movies are everywhere and the marketing for them can be quite aggressive. And how do you geek without getting sucked into this fandom? You can’t escape fandom discourse or fanworks about it, some of your friends are probably into it, you’ll be missing several pop culture references, etc.

It almost feels like you don’t really have the choice of avoiding those movies. In this light, superhero fatigue becomes almost a form of resistance. Stop throwing superheroes at me, Hollywood! Don’t you have any ‘80s classic to desecrate?

But wait, there’s more!

Although I understand the reasons why people wouldn’t be interested in superhero movies or why they would be tired of them by now, those feelings don’t apply to me. Every few months I still gather my friends to watch the latest superhero flick and we still have tons of fun.

Except… I can tell I’m not as excited for upcoming movies as I used to be. I still have a great time when I watch them, but I no longer spend months or even years in anticipation. I’m eager for some of the upcoming projects, but as individual pieces and not as a franchise. I no longer fangirl as enthusiastically as I used to. What happened? Are those early signs of a superhero fatigue?

To be clear, I don’t think there’s a decrease in quality. In fact, some of my favorite superhero films were created over the past couple of years. Maybe it’s just the excess of new stories, and I suppose there’s truth in “too much of a good thing”, but that explanation was never entirely satisfactory to me.

I stumbled upon a better explanation a few days ago, when the internet exploded with the latest rumors about the DCEU. Some of those rumors could be only described as “frustrating”, but they made me realize what could be giving me superhero fatigue. 

So here’s my better explanation: superhero fatigue is less about quantity and more about the kind of story being told vs. what audiences want to see. The problem is not that we have a handful of new superhero movies every year, but that they feel very similar to each other, and not in a good way.

I know what I’m saying isn’t new, yet when discussing superhero fatigue we put a lot of emphasis on the amount of superhero movies, and I don’t think it matters that much. In fact, I dare to say that it wouldn’t matter at all if we could fix bigger problems. What bigger problems, you ask?

Tone, story, character

If the undeniable success of movies like Wonder Woman tell us anything is that audiences are starving for stories that break the usual pattern of superhero films.

Three patterns in particular that can be causing superhero fatigue:

Tone

Here at The Fandomentals, we’re not the biggest fans of grimdark. Not that grimdark stories or settings are inherently bad, of course; sometimes you need the bleakness to make your point, as with dystopian novels.

Sometimes, though, people mistake grimdark with maturity. It’s shocking, it makes people uncomfortable, it’s not suitable for children, so it must be mature, right? Well, not really. It’s also not more “realistic”, though I suppose that depends on how you approach reality.

It doesn’t stop Hollywood from believing that a grimdark and “serious” superhero story will appeal to an audience that usually wouldn’t come near this kind of movie. It may have worked for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005 – 2012), but less so for DCEU’s Man of Steel and its sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Apparently there’s such thing as grimdark fatigue as well.

Here’s the thing, grimdark for the sake of “edginess” is a privilege. Our own reality has become quite bleak over the years and most of us have to deal with some sort of oppression, hate, or prejudice. Pretending to live in a Crapsack World is no longer that fun or relevant. But stories? Stories are more relevant than ever. They’re a powerful tool to keep us going in times like these, to resist and refill our hearts with hope and positivity.

It’s no surprise that Wonder Woman (2017) was so successful; it broke DCEU’s grimdark-fest to give us a heroine that cared. Seeing that humanity was capable of terrible actions made Diana question her idealism, but never her hope. After Wonder Woman, I left the theater thinking how much I loved superheroes and everything they represented. After Batman v Superman, I wondered if the supermarket was still open because I needed to grab more pasta.

Story

Superhero movies are often repetitive in the basic narrative structure they choose, giving us the feeling that we’ve seen that story before.

Origin stories are important to establish a hero’s mythology, but we have a new one with almost every new character entering a shared universe. The most egregious case was Sony’s Spider-Man reboot, which gave us two origin stories only ten years apart. There’s only so many angles you can tackle uncle Ben’s death, and you don’t even necessarily need an entire movie for that. Thankfully, they learned their lesson this time and assumed we’d watched the other two movies.

Superhero fighting superhero is a cool concept on paper, but it doesn’t always work. The heroes need a good reason to turn against each other and it must respect each character’s motivations and personality. There’s nothing worse than having your favorite character acting like a jerk for no reason (looking at you BvS).

Getting the heroes back together also needs to make sense, and the usual shortcut for that is coming up with a bigger threat. The problem is that we’ve seen New York nearly-destroyed and the world nearly-ending a couple of times by now. We’re not that emotionally invested anymore. And you know what they say, when everything is big and impressive, nothing is.

Big, flashy action scenes are cool, but they don’t necessarily make us care. The antagonist must have a deeper meaning for the heroes, and preferably require more finesse than just “hit it until it stops moving.” A lot of superhero movies fail because their villains are not as interesting as their heroes. With all of Doctor Strange’s faults, I love how the movie at least came up with a different solution to defeat its antagonist.

Look, I understand that from an industry point of view, it makes sense to stick to a successful formula. Marvel found a tone and a style that people respond positively to and they keep doing that. It’s good to enter a Marvel movie session knowing I’m going to find a fun, entertaining story. It’s less good when I think that’s all I’m going to find, and the movie I’m about to see won’t be bring anything unexpected, won’t be provocative, won’t make me think. My favorite superhero movies were the ones that surprised me.

Characters

This is probably the core of superhero fatigue, since you can’t have a great range of stories when they’re always about the same people. Different identities bring in different perspectives and different ways to interact with the world.

Marvel has been largely criticized for its lack of diversity, especially on cinema. With Black Panther next year, we’ll finally have a movie that isn’t led by a white man or an ensemble mostly composed of white men. That will be the movie franchise’s 18th installment. Seriously, guys?

People have been demanding a Black Widow movie for almost a decade, but Captain Marvel (2019) will be the first female-led movie of the MCU. It will also be its 21st movie. Women of color? I hope you’re counting green as a color, because so far they’re barely sidekicks. 

It doesn’t stop there, nor should it. Where are the openly LGBT+ heroes? Or disabled heroes? Or neurodivergent heroes? Or Jewish heroes? Or Muslim heroes? Or Latinx heroes? Or Asian heroes? The list goes on, but very few people are given the opportunity to be superheroes. It’s even worse when you consider that some characters had their original identities erased, like the Maximoff twins (originally Romani and Jewish) or the Ancient One from Doctor Strange (originally an Asian man). Comics have their own problems with diversity, so their adaptations don’t need to make it worse.

I was going to say the television shows are doing better, but then I remembered someone actually approved Iron Fist

How many more white dudes must we endure before we can see ourselves on screen and behind it? Before we can see our friends, our family? Judging by how audiences received Wonder Woman, not only is there room for diversity in superhero movies, but we’re almost begging for it.

Why would Warner Bros. and DC answer that with a Batman movie, three different movies with the Joker, and Joss Whedon directing a female-led movie? Instead answer with Gotham City Sirens, and then Batwoman, Birds of Prey, and a Green Lanterns movie with Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz. Answer with more diverse directors, writers, cinematographers, producers, editors. Diversity and representation matter, and they should start behind the scenes.

Don’t just give us more of the same when we made it pretty clear we don’t want that.

How to fix superhero fatigue

The movie industry created superhero fatigue with its poor choices, but the good news is that the movie industry itself can fix it. I’m not sure it will, but it’s the only way I see to save superhero films from becoming repetitive, boring, and uninspired.

How to cure superhero fatigue? Keep giving us superhero movies, Hollywood, but give us better movies.

Give us smarter stories that require the heroes to be resourceful and clever. Give us high stakes and emotional investment. Give us stories that surprise us. Give us deaths that matter. Give us what we haven’t seen before, or at least not in the same way.

Give us our damn diverse stories, Hollywood! Give us characters of all backgrounds, of all origins, of all identities. Show that those identities matter, and that anyone can be a superhero. Give an opportunity to showcase new talents and new voices. Worship Diana of Themyscira and let her be your guide, but don’t stop there.

Give us our hopeful, positive stories. Give us sweet cinnamon rolls saving and making the world a better place. Give us stories that inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. 

Just…remind us why superheroes were worth falling in love with in the first place.


Images courtesy of Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox.

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Priscilla is a Brazilian writer, art student, psychologist, feminist and fangirl. Sometimes too passionate about stuff.

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