In 2008, Iron Man came out. It was the first film that kicked off what we know today as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was the eighth highest grossing film that year, just behind Quantum of Solace and just a smidge more than Wall-E. And while we certainly were no strangers to big movie franchises back then, what we’d experienced so far would’ve been just a fraction of the bloated hype machine that is our current existence today.
Nine years and 20 films later, including the now in full swing DC Extended Universe, we are knee deep in the relentless stream of comic book adaptations and there is no foreseeable end in sight. If this were a battle, now would be a good time to start waving that white flag.
It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly we got here or when the reality of the situation finally began to set in, but one thing’s for sure, it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.
In 2018, eight superhero films are slated to come out: Avengers: Infinity War, Hellboy, Black Panther, Deadpool 2, The New Mutants, Aquaman, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Aside from superhero films, franchises like The Fantastic Beasts films that are set in the Harry Potter universe and the new Star Wars offshoots, it’s beginning to feel like we’re all just constantly waiting on the next big thing.
There’s a special kind of existential dread that begins to set in when you settle into your seat at the cinema and that jolt of serotonin hits you when you see the letters M-A-R-V-E-L start flapping on the screen, like some deranged Pavlovian dog, hungry for that next hit of unadulterated box office bliss. If you’ve ever experienced this, know that you aren’t alone. You, along with legions of other cinemagoers, myself included, have been experiencing a kind of superhero fatigue.
In just a few days, DC’s long-awaited film adaptation of the Justice League hits theaters. In a cinematic landscape that’s long been dominated by Marvel, DC is just now gearing up to take over, despite previously lackluster results.
But if superhero fatigue really has become a thing, the numbers don’t seem to be showing it. Four of the top ten highest grossing films this year were comic book adaptations, while the other six comprised of sequels and reboots to existing franchises. So much for originality.
As a devoted fan of cinema, this is worrying. And as a lifelong fan of comic books, it is doubly so. Gone are the days when we could just let things lie. Nope. These days, every film that comes out has to be a full-fledged event, with merchandise tie-ins and toy releases months before the actual films hit the screens. And every year, these movies always promise to be bigger and better than ever before, tapping into a pop-cultural FOMO that banks on its fan base’s obligation to the franchise rather than their actual interest.
Throw in a few quirky and beloved directors known for their unique storytelling and original voices like Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, who’s known for quirky indies like What We Do In Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople; or Slither director James Gunn, who went on to direct the massive hit Guardians of the Galaxy; and the Russo brothers, who got their start on the show Community, and who would go on to direct three MCU films with two more coming; you not only reel in a fan base of devoted comic book fans, but you also manage to attract the fans of said directors’ work —people who might formerly have been ambivalent to superhero films.
This is not to say that some of these films have been terrible. They haven’t, and that’s a big reason they’re still going strong and millions of people have continued to show up at the theaters. What's problematic, though, is, all that creative juices devoted to transcending formulaic plot points and the high-stakes one-upmanship that result from such an endeavor can really take its toll on a person.
But just like the law of diminishing returns, or why eating pizza and ice cream every day is a bad idea, the slew of superhero films released annually can have a numbing effect on one’s psyche. After all, one can only tolerate so much of RDJ’s smugness before you start feeling complicit in the self-congratulatory nature of it all. If there's anything all those '90s rom-coms and the McConassance that followed have taught us, it's that there truly is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
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