Nothing can dominate pop culture forever. No matter how good the plot, how passionate the fandom, or how high the box office, eventually, all stories run their course. Westerns were once considered a permanent moneymaker. Then it was musicals. Star Wars was thought to be invulnerable to the public: now over six films and television shows have been sent back to development.
When Star Wars began to dip in the public consciousness, the Marvel Cinematic Universe rose. While it’s hard to say when the first boom in superhero movies began, the release of Iron Man in 2008 is generally considered a watershed moment for the superhero genre, and the lift off point for the MCU. From Iron Man in 2008 to Ant–Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in 2023, the MCU has dominated the box office for the last 15 years. Their films have made over 22 billion dollars worldwide, making the MCU the highest grossing franchise of all time. They’ve even turned out culturally groundbreaking work like Black Panther, although that’s more of an anomaly.
Yet for the first time since Iron Man blew up the box office 15 years ago, superhero fatigue feels real. It’s in the numbers, even the post–pandemic ones where blockbusters got a pass for not making money. Ant–Man and the Wasp: Quantumania opened to huge numbers ($106 million), before collapsing to the final gross of $14 million. And this isn’t just a Marvel problem. Shazam! Fury of the Gods sank to $57 million upon opening, and last weekend saw strikingly poor numbers for DC Comics tentpole The Flash, which was predicted to open to a scaled–back $70 million, but dropped even lower to just about $50 million. You can see it in Chris Hemsworth’s casual distain for the last Thor movie he made—an unusual thing for a movie star to say about a movie that made a lot of money. Critics, too, seem resigned and exhausted by reviewing yet another CGI fest full of multiverse green screen and increasingly lowered stakes. All demographics—audiences, critics, and even the stars—seem tired of the same old tropes.
So where do superhero movies go from here? Some believed that with big faces and stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans gone, the key to the success of the next phase would lie with whatever up–and–coming marquee star could interest audiences.
For a moment, it seemed like this new movie star was the MCU’s newest villain: the charismatic Kang, played by Jonathan Majors, one of the only moving parts in the lifeless Quantumania. But that future seems incredibly uncertain now: Majors is facing assault charges in New York after a domestic incident, and the MCU is reportedly stepping and re–evaluating the character. A similar story played out with buzzy new DC star Ezra Miller, who plays the Flash. After being arrested in Hawaii for harassment and assault, the actor allegedly went on the run and now is currently serving a year of probation.
With the fate of bankable stars that superhero films might have been able to make seemingly in limbo, that leaves studios the MCU to control aggressively from the quality of their products. Bob Iger, the recently reinstated CEO of Disney, stated on a recent earnings call that the MCU would “aggressively curate” their new content. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige seems to be on this path, too. “I do think one of the powerful aspects of being at Marvel Studios is having these films and shows hit the zeitgeist. It is harder to hit the zeitgeist when there’s so much product out there,” he says in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
It’s possible that this could work, but Feige is missing one last factor. Audiences are still embracing comic book movies, just good comic book movies. Look no further than the success and zeitgeist–y Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse. It’s a film bursting with innovative creative potential, visual poetry, and exciting storytelling. Spider–Man: Across the Spider–Verse has outperformed the films mentioned above in leaps and bounds; there’s no question it connected with audiences. The same can be said for the The Batman (2022) and the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023). All of these things share a similar quality: they were well–liked movies. While it may seem obvious to suggest that good movies sell tickets, audiences weren’t always so picky about the quality of the comic book movies they consumed. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that recent zeitgeist–defining films like Everything Everywhere All At Once are shifting mass audience tastes towards the more personal and idiosyncratic. After all, the future is bringing us too many comic–book movies and television shows to count. When there’s such a glut of superhero products on the shelves, audiences can afford to be a bit more discerning about what they want to see.
"We can [make] any types of movies that share two things: the Marvel Studios logo above the title and a seed of an idea from our publishing history," Feige says in regards to the now acknowledged challenge of audience fatigue. But can those movies succeed? The MCU’s newest title, the television series Secret Invasion, has already received some of the worst reviews for an MCU project. Even James Gunn, the director in charge of revamping the DCU, acknowledged that superhero movies are in a strange place: “If it becomes just a bunch of nonsense on screen, it gets really boring.” Gunn is right. Audiences don’t want to see the seventeen Flash sequels that could come out in a few years. They know it’ll be the same bunch of nonsense that’s in every other movie.