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.