Hello and welcome to the third installment of our Chartr Sunday edition! Today we’re diving into the ever-expanding universe of superhero movies and asking whether or not the hold that heroes have at the box office is beginning to loosen. Whether you’re a Marvel superfan or you’d struggle to pick Spider-Man out of a lineup, come with us as we explore the genre that’s gripped millions of moviegoers.
Superheroes saving lives on the silver screen can be traced back over 80 years — and much further than that depending on which cinephile you ask — with the first comic book movie adaptation Adventures of Captain Marvel coming out in 1941. However, it’s only in recent decades that the genre has soared in popularity, tightening its grip on Hollywood thanks to multiverses and movie slates of madness, with almost-monthly releases in some years.
According to box office data tracking site The Numbers, superhero movies became the first category ever to outweigh “contemporary fiction” (a catch-all bucket that picks up movies that don’t fit into other genres). Contemporary fiction accounted for 62% of US ticket sales at its 1997 peak, but it lost the top spot for the first time in 2021 after superheroes took a whopping 31% share of the moviegoer market, thanks in part to smash hits like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Black Widow.
To put that into perspective, the genre barely registered 20 years earlier, when it captured just 0.1% market share in 2001. Indeed, superhero movies didn't make up more than 10% of American box office receipts until 2008 — a year often pointed to as the start of the modern era of super movies.
Despite the genre’s meteoric rise, (relatively) poor recent box office showings for movies like Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, as well as continuing high-profile conversations around the form’s artistic merits, have led some to wonder whether “superhero fatigue” is starting to set in.
A survey from last summer found 41% of adults said they "don't like" superhero movies, up from 36% in 2021, and the genre currently accounts for 17% of US tickets sold in 2023, down 14% from its record-breaking 2021 peak.
Talk of fatigue does have some die-hard devotees and comic book moviemakers worried, though. Director and DC Studio co-CEO James Gunn, for example, admitted last month that the phenomenon is real, though he contests that it has more to do with growing tired of “the kind of stories that get to be told” and “watching things bash each other”. Gunn’s latest effort, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, is reportedly bucking the tiring trend in its first few weeks of release, and the theory will really be put to the test later this year after another raft of superhero movies hit the big screen.
Into the Marvelverse
Of course, it's hard to discuss the genre without talking about the studio that's been a constant in the superhero movie world: Marvel. Since the release of Ironman in 2008 and the studio's acquisition by Disney just 1 year later, Marvels' moviemaking has been prolific, getting faster and faster as the years have progressed. The studio originally set an ambitious goal of 2 movies each year, before upping that to 3 in 2017 after regularly reaching that quota.
There’s been a voracious appetite to meet the studio’s output too, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) quickly rising to become the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time. Indeed, Marvel’s releases to date (including Gunn’s Guardians 3) have hauled in a genuinely staggering $29.3 billion and, whilst that’s obviously not all profit, it makes Disney’s $4 billion acquisition back in 2009 look like a bonafide masterstroke.
Recently, the Marvel machine hasn’t been quite so efficient in churning out megahits… at least not by its own high standards. After Disney started producing and distributing Marvel movies in 2012, the studio has turned crossing the $1 billion worldwide box office threshold into its own superpower, with 10 films hitting that milestone. However, since 2021’s Spider-Man installment, none of the studio’s last 5 films has broken through.
For much of the last 3 years Marvel has effectively been shut out of China — which certainly hasn’t helped. Indeed, even now that China's lifted its apparent restrictions on movies from the biggest entity in the superhero game, things aren’t looking much brighter for Marvel in the region.
New Black Panther and Ant-Man installments were the first Marvel movies to break the ban this year, but both have struggled to fully capitalize on the massive market. State-run tabloid The Global Times bemoaned the disappointing box office showings, cited poor critical and audience scores, and claimed that Chinese audiences have grown tired of “such movies in which one man saves the world”.
China's movie industry, on the other hand, is starting to pick up steam. The data above shows every movie since 2010 that's broken the $400m barrier at the global box office, and how reliant each movie has been on the US market for its takings. Most films need the US and the global market to make it onto this chart, but in the last 7 years China has started to produce its own megahits. Movies like The Battle at Lake Changjin, Hi, Mom and Detective Chinatown 2 have all made hundreds of millions of dollars, despite getting no release in the US whatsoever, relying almost solely on domestic success in China.
While talk of "peak superhero" could be premature at this point, it's interesting to look back on history to note the once-mighty genres that have had the curtain pulled down on them. Westerns and war movies once dominated our culture, while musicals had their golden era in the 1930s and 1940s. Even at the turn of the century, few could have predicted that comedies and romantic comedies would all but disappear from the big screen in the coming decades, but they have — pushed straight to streaming as audiences wanted the "wow" factor from a cinema trip. Time will tell for superheroes.