In comics, long series are the norm. After all, there’s no end of the adventures our favorite heroes, villains, and sidekicks can go on, with new iterations, new worlds to explore, all with a renewable audience base. Movies, however, don’t usually have as long a timeline to play with. As such, some are beginning to feel that this trend has gone on too long. How long until audiences tire of the same superheroes punching bad guys? And have they started already?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe are both in a box office race, of which DC is currently losing, but each of these companies continue to pump out films until the revenue runs dry and public interest dies out. The big question is will there be an end date to this cycle of sequels and team-films any time in the next decade or is this going to be the prevailing model of film adaptations from now on?
In my opinion, this is not a system that is designed to work ad infinitum. While there are plenty of characters in the pantheons of both companies, there are really only a few that the audience cares about. Sure, Marvel has proven you can get audiences to love weird characters like Starlord, but financially speaking, people will always gravitate to the big hitters, like Spiderman, Ironman, Superman. And how many good stories can you build two hour epics around? There may be a good handful of great and beloved stories for each, but then what? Go totally off script? Reboot and rehash it? How long will that strategy work? Even mega-hits like Deadpool took a long time to get off the ground, and only because Ryan Reynolds was dead set on having it come to fruition.
It’s not like there haven’t been systems set up like this before. Until the late 1960s, film serials which told multiple stories along multiple shorts or features, were incredibly popular. However, the era of serial lasted about 40 years because it could constantly change genres since it was a format more so than dictating the content. With something as hyper-specific as the superhero sub-genre, there tends to be repetition in narrative formulas in tone that does not lend itself to adaptation.
There are a few reasons why this model might be crushed under its own weight, and the DCEU is already experiencing it. After a small handful of unsuccessful films, the franchise gets a reputation for creating bad films, which means that potential revenue is constantly at risk. Plus, the worse your movies are perceived, the less likely you’re going to get the best of the best actors, while then becomes a never-ending cycle of dwindling quality. And yes, Marvel came back from a terrible set of movies in the 1980s and 1990s, so DC has time to pull out of its current tailspin but they seem so stuck in the same mindset of grit and “realism” that it might be some time until they re-think their strategy.
The second is character recognizability. Who are three most recognizable superheroes of either of the companies? Superman, Spiderman, and Batman. The Superman film franchise has been rebooted twice, neither to much critical success. Spiderman will soon be appearing in his third incarnation in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War film, and though we will not be getting the Uncle Ben-dying-orign-story yet again, how long will it be until we see Spiderman version 4.0? There have already been five Batmans under that cape and cowl: Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck, all of whom had to redo the infamous death of the parents scene. By the time we get to Batman number 10, we’re going to have an over saturation of these characters. It is possible that they’ll be able to change the line-up in the next decade but when you have such established and popular characters, it’s hard not to give into temptation and make Superman 16: Lex Luther’s Second Cousin Twice Removed Is Acting Up.
Finally, many of the films have the same conflicts over and over again. In The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War presents a conflict of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers over ideological issues. Three whole movies dedicated to two men who can only really get along in the best of circumstances, and by the third film, it’s starting to feel played out. Additionally, there will need to be more (and hopefully better) films about Batman and Superman duking it out and forming the Justice League. And these tend to be the central drama of the film, leaving the side characters to have interesting B-plots that are under-developed. I’d much rather see the development of Scarlet Witch’s and Vision’s relationship than Steve and Tony punching each other in the face. And there’s only so much stoic Batman versus super American Superman I can stand.
So will there a collapse of this system soon? Probably not, at least not with the way Marvel is raking in the dough and DC is desperately trying to do the same. So, at least for the next five years, we will have these movies still sitting pretty on the line up, but no king reigns forever. Especially when it’s being sustained by something as fickle as audience tastes.