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Are audiences sick of superheroes?

By in Culture

Superhero films are everywhere nowadays. Some people have had enough.

Back in 2000 when X-Men first premiered, the only superhero films of note belonged to the Superman and Batman series. Yes, Blade had come out two years earlier and there were crappy alternative superhero films like Spawn, but for the most part, a superhero film was a rarity. People wanted to see them. Even though most of the Batman and Superman sequels sucked, audiences flocked to them because they seemed special.

Fast-forward to this past summer. From May to July, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger came out. Three months, four films. That’s quite a lot of comic book mythos to handle in three short months and audiences didn’t embrace all films equally.

Don't try to pull that cutesy bullshit, it's not helping.

Green Lantern premiered to terrible reviews and although it had a strong opening weekend due to the fanboy boost, it has made a disappointing $116 million against its $200 million budget. The film was a failure on all accounts. It wasn’t faithful to its source material and it furthered Hollywood’s promotion of special effects over storytelling.

Audiences didn’t care for Green Lantern and that, combined with its poor economic and critical performance, puts the potential for future DC films not based on Batman or Superman into doubt.

X:Men: First Class didn’t fare much better. Although the film received positive reviews, without the lure of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine the film has grossed the least of all five X-Men films: $146 million.

It is a good film on most accounts, mostly due to Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy’s strong performances as a young Magneto and a young Professor X, but it lacks the combination of polished filmmaking and compelling drama that made series-best X2 so special. It seems like audiences weren’t pining for a fifth X-Men movie starring up-and-coming, albeit great, actors.

Although audiences are getting tired of them, there’s no reason to give up hope and believe superhero films are becoming rubbish. They’re not.

The two Marvel Studios’ films, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, fared the best of this year’s crop of superhero movies. As the first big movie of the summer, Thor benefited from playing to audiences not yet overwhelmed by a superhero every other week. It brought in a gross of $181 million, the most of this year’s superhero films, despite its Norse-god hero being arguably the least familiar of Marvel’s big-screen heroes so far.

With its fantasy grandeur and unexpectedly rich humour (directed by Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh), Thor was a hit with both critics and audiences. However, while $181 million is nothing to sneeze at, audiences’ warm response to Thor is nowhere near the critical and box-office adulation that films like Spider-Man and Iron Man received.

There’s no better way to demonstrate audiences’ diminishing interest in superhero movies than by comparing the box-office grosses of this year’s films to previous superhero films like The Dark Knight, and the Spider-Man and Iron Man films. Each of those past films made over $300 million while none of this year’s films have crossed $200 million — even with the revenue boost that 3D gives.

The presence of 3D in summer blockbusters is a whole other conversation, but it bears noting that three of this year’s superhero films were released in 3D. While the extra-dimension seemed appropriate for the otherworldly visuals of Thor and Green Lantern, it was hardly necessary for 40s-set Captain America. It’s even possible that 3D, an increasingly despised medium, detracted from the overall gross of this year’s films by discouraging audiences to fork out the premium.

However, audiences who are fatigued with the oversaturation of superhero films in the multiplex need only look at one film to be reassured that the genre isn’t worn out. It is no coincidence that Captain America has yet to be discussed.

While having made only $169 million to date and receiving warm (although not ecstatic) reviews, Captain America is everything a superhero film should be. It perfectly captures the Boy Scout tone of its hero, mixing its idealism with a thrilling adventure story filled with well-choreographed action and meaningful performances.

It’s deliberately old-fashioned, playing something like a mix of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman. It’s Marvel Studios’ best film to date and only makes the prospect of next year’s superhero mash-up The Avengers more exciting.

Although it is the last superhero film of the summer to drop, audiences tired out by the number of superhero movies this summer would be unwise to pass up the joys of this Second World War superhero adventure. It counters the argument that superhero films are on a trend of becoming heartless, mindless marketing machines instead of vital stories of heroism and excitement.

Beyond The Avengers, next year promises even more superhero films with The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man and the Superman reboot Man of Steel. In each of their own distinct ways, these films have the potential to be some of the best superhero movies yet, and not just mindless stories laced with CGI.

Although audiences are getting tired of them, there’s no reason to give up hope and believe superhero films are becoming rubbish. They’re not. The high number of superhero films being made merely guarantees that not every one will be a success. However, if films like Captain America prove anything, it’s that superhero films are actually improving, not getting worse.

There’s still reason to put faith in superhero films, and although they may no longer be the economic powerhouses that they were a few years ago, they’re still powerful, evocative stories that continue to play upon our collective imagination.

image: Flickr/DuneChaser

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