Audiences are spoiled with superhero movies today.
Between this year and last, we’ve been treated to six movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not to mention everything else in between. Whether it be DC and Warner Bros.’ answer to the MCU in the divisive DC Extended Universe, or Fox’s “X-Men” franchise, superhero fans – for better or worse – have no shortage of movies to consume.
It was a different landscape 10 years ago.
In 2008, superhero movies were still popular, but they were at a dramatically different place tonally and culturally. “Cinematic universes” weren’t the talk of Tinseltown. In fact, the MCU had only just begun with “Iron Man” and the less impressive “The Incredible Hulk” later that summer. And “The Dark Knight” was a blockbuster phenomenon.
Looking back at that year today, it’s apparent that it was a turning point for the superhero genre. “The Dark Knight,” widely regarded as the best film in the genre but also regularly recognised as more of a crime thriller that happens to star a comic-book character, inspired countless less-successful copycats. Characters like Spider-Man and Superman would get the “dark and gritty and grounded” treatment in an effort to replicate the success of “The Dark Knight.”
But “The Dark Knight,” in hindsight, seems like an outlier. It’s hard to imagine the movie working by today’s superhero movie standards, which is why the movies it inspired were destined for failure. That’s thanks to the MCU, which was laying the groundwork for what the superhero genre – and much of the rest of Hollywood – would become at a time when studios thought “The Dark Knight” was the way of the future.
With that in mind, the genre has faced a sort of “whiplash” effect throughout the last 10 years, and below I’ll go through the evolution of the genre over that course of time – from the failure of “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies to the ascension of the MCU, and why no other studio can seem to replicate it.
Below is the evolution of the superhero genre since 2008, the notable movies that helped shape it during the last 10 years, and what the future may hold:
2008: “Iron Man”
“The Dark Knight” would become the cultural sensation of 2008, but it was released in July. “Iron Man” preceded it by a couple months in May, and little did we know at the time that it would set the precedent for the superhero genre 10 years later. “Iron Man” was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It got things off to an impressive start, but the franchise wouldn’t find its footing again until “The Avengers” four years later.
“Iron Man” is a remarkable achievement for a number of reasons, even excluding the fact that it kickstarted the MCU. Before this Jon Favreau-directed movie, Iron Man wasn’t a household name. But as soon as Robert Downey Jr. stepped into the gold and red armour, Iron Man was suddenly A-list. The movie grossed nearly $US600 million worldwide and has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, which was the highest rated MCU movie until “Black Panther” this year.
There’s an argument to be made that if not for the promise of “Iron Man” that the MCU could have derailed, just as its competition, the DC Extended Universe, has. The movies that followed it in the franchise weren’t as well-received, but “Iron Man” kept the ship afloat until “The Avengers” in 2012.
2008: “The Dark Knight”
Looking back, “The Dark Knight” is one of a kind. It was unique in 2008, but against the current status quo of superhero movies, nothing has matched it (the closest is “Logan,” but more on that later).
In an age of cinematic universes, “The Dark Knight” succeeded in a time when superhero stories still had a definitive end. Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy had wrapped up a year prior with “Spider-Man 3,” and “The Dark Knight” was the middle part of a planned trilogy from Christopher Nolan. Today we have franchises within franchises – there have been three Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America movies, but they are all within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They may be trilogies in the traditional sense, but they are also cogs in a larger machine. Whatever happens in “Captain America: Civil War” or “Thor: Ragnarok,” even if they have their own distinct tone, carries over into the rest of the franchise.
That wasn’t the case with “The Dark Knight.” Audiences flocked to the theatre despite Batman being on his own (the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker may have helped). There is no Superman, or Wonder Woman, or Flash. This was a Batman story, told the Christopher Nolan way, and it still made over $US1 billion worldwide.
The MCU has managed to let filmmakers imbue the movies with their own style recently, but “The Dark Knight” trilogy feels like the last time a superhero series wasn’t heavily influenced by outside forces, whether studio involvement or the pressure to tie into a larger universe. It ended on its own terms.
And even though it was the second part of a trilogy, “The Dark Knight” has become a classic in its own right. It’s known more for the backlash the Oscars received for not nominating it for best picture, and the expansion of the number of nominees the following year, and less for being a superhero movie. Whatever accolades movies like “Logan” or “Black Panther” may receive, it’s hard to match the significance of “The Dark Knight.”
A year after “The Dark Knight,” another “dark and gritty” superhero movie was released that can also be perceived as not a superhero movie, but a political thriller that happens to star costumed vigilantes.
While “Watchmen” was obviously in development before “The Dark Knight” struck success, Warner Bros. was probably hoping it would have another cultural phenomenon on its hands. But “Watchmen” had more going against it than for it. It featured no recognisable characters like Batman, was rated R, and was based on a highly acclaimed graphic novel. But the thinking was maybe if it didn’t make a lot of money (it didn’t), then it would at least be praised by critics (it wasn’t).
Director Zack Snyder was a hot item at the time, having directed 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” and 2007’s “300.” And while “Watchmen” didn’t become the groundbreaking piece of art that the graphic novel is regarded as, Warner Bros. would later go all-in on Snyder’s abilities to carry its own cinematic universe – to mixed results (more on that later).
If “Watchmen” proved anything, it’s that audiences didn’t see “The Dark Knight” just because it was a “dark” superhero movie. It had cultural importance, and was just as much of an “event” as it was a movie. “Watchmen” the graphic novel had that importance among comic-book readers, but to casual moviegoers, who cared?
“Watchmen” also proved that some ideas are better for the small screen: As movies have leaned more and more on franchise tentpoles, television is in a “golden age” for the opposite reasons. As Ben Fritz writes in his book “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies,” “shifting economic and technological factors have fuelled an explosion of originality and risk taking that makes the ‘idiot box’ home to arguably the best content Hollywood has ever produced.”
Even though it’s based on pre-existing material, the risk and creativity involved in something like “Watchmen” makes it perfect for television. “Lost” and “The Leftovers” creator Damon Lindelof is currently developing a “Watchmen” pilot for HBO.
2012: “The Avengers”
“The Avengers” was both the beginning and the end for the superhero genre as we know it. Nothing like it had ever been done before: a superhero film that brought together multiple storylines introduced in other movies, and numerous characters that had the potential to carry their own franchises. If “The Dark Knight” inspired “gritty” superhero movies, then “The Avengers” inspired cinematic universes. (Studios have found it difficult to replicate both.)
Warner Bros. has tried, but its answer to “The Avengers,” last year’s “Justice League,” flopped big time. Disney, which owns Marvel, has conquered the Hollywood landscape, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has conquered the superhero movie landscape – so much so that DC and Warner Bros. have had to rethink their entire strategy. If they can’t compete with the MCU, then they must focus on more standalone stories. It worked for “Wonder Woman,” and the hope is that it can work with lesser-known properties like “Aquaman” and “Shazam!” But it’s still a big hill to climb.
The MCU has found success in fun movies that work on their own but also as part of a larger universe, and “The Avengers” set the tone. Even non-superhero franchises have tried, and failed, to replicate the cinematic universe that “The Avengers” proved is possible. “Star Wars” found that the movie-a-year plan may not be for the best when “Solo: A Star Wars Story” disappointed earlier this year. And Universal has basically scrapped any plans for its monster-oriented “Dark Universe” after last year’s “The Mummy” reboot bombed.
It’s a testament to Marvel’s strategy that it is able to churn out multiple movies a year that manage to be be commercial and critical success stories.
2012: “The Amazing Spider-Man”
Sony wasn’t done with its Spider-Man franchise. Its “Amazing Spider-Man” reboot, which came just five years after “Spider-Man 3,” took the series in a (sort of) new direction. But it wasn’t new enough. “The Amazing Spider-Man” retold the character’s origin story that had just been told on screen 10 years earlier in the original “Spider-Man” movie. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone had decent chemistry in the lead roles, but the movie seemed too familiar – even if it tried to be more “grounded” than Sam Raimi’s movies.
Call it “The Dark Knight” effect, and its first casualty. “The Amazing Spider-Man” tried to tell Spider-Man’s origin story in a “darker” way – both in tone and aesthetic. It lost the brightness and fun of Sam Raimi’s movies and replaced it with a moody, “punk” Peter Parker who tried to capture teenage angst, but it’s hard to do that when your lead actor is almost 30 years old.
This reboot was being developed when the MCU was still in its early stages, before Marvel had it running like a well-oiled machine. So it makes sense that Sony would try to keep its biggest property relevant. By its sequel in 2014, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Sony was even hoping to expand on its crown jewel with a cinematic universe of its own focused on Spider-Man’s supporting cast. Among the planned movies was a villain-centric “Sinister Six,” which “Amazing Spider-Man 2” attempted to set up.
It failed miserably, and Sony would go on to strike a deal with Marvel that would allow the MCU to use Spider-Man while Sony retained distribution rights, and continued to develop movies based on the character (“Venom,” based on one of the wall-crawler’s famous villains, is coming in October).
“The Amazing Spider-Man” movies tried to replicate the success of both “The Dark Knight” and the MCU, and they wouldn’t be the last superhero movies to do so.
2013: “Man of Steel”
Zack Snyder got another crack at the superhero genre in 2013 with “Man of Steel,” and while it’s a noble effort at revamping Superman for a new generation, Warner Bros. still seemed to be stuck in the past.
“How do we make Superman more realistic?” was the question hanging over “Man of Steel’s” head. In came Snyder, who had made the hyper-realistic “Watchmen,” and Nolan, who was brought in as a producer. It was obvious that the studio was attempting to catch the lightning in a bottle that “The Dark Knight” struck, just with his brighter, more hopeful, superhero counterpart this time.
And that’s where it went wrong.
The movie worked to a degree, but could never escape its own bleakness, which isn’t a word that should be associated with a character like Superman (the movie’s controversial ending, where Superman kills his enemy, caused debate and uproar). It was another casualty of “The Dark Knight” effect. The movie’s star, Henry Cavill, would go on to star in two more movies as the character, as Warner Bros. used “Man of Steel” as a jumping-off point for its own cinematic universe.
2014: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
“The Winter Soldier” is notable in the evolution of the past 10 years of superhero movies because it marks a turning point for the MCU. The franchise has gotten better with age, and that began with this movie, when it finally found its groove and wouldn’t slow down after.
Prior to “The Winter Soldier,” the MCU could be hit-or-miss, with “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” being the essential entries and the others being take-them-or-leave-them, depending on your preference. But the franchise hit its stride with this movie, a bonafide espionage thriller. It marked the point that Marvel allowed its filmmakers to really take the reins (that same year came “Guardians of the Galaxy”).
Most of the MCU’s best movies have been released in its late-second phase and third phase. In hindsight, the MCU was a force to be reckoned with after “The Winter Soldier,” and other studios wouldn’t realise they couldn’t compete until it was too late.
2015: “Fantastic Four”
Seven years after “The Dark Knight,” and major superhero movies were still feeling its effects. Maybe 2015’s “Fantastic Four” reboot was a product of just that: being a reboot, and trying to take the characters in a new direction. But this and the other movies mentioned owe their dark palettes and “edginess” to “The Dark Knight,” whether directly or indirectly.
Some characters don’t translate well under that guise, and Spider-Man, Superman, and the Fantastic Four are among them. But in an effort to make the characters younger, edgier, and more grounded (i.e. less fun), Fox hired “Chronicle” director Josh Trank to helm the reboot.
The results were catastrophic.
The movie received 9% on Rotten Tomatoes and made just $US56 million in the US and about $US168 million worldwide. It was, by all accounts, a failure, and seemed to derail any plans for a X-Men/Fantastic Four crossover, as revealed in the leaked Sony emails. Fox seemed to be gearing up for its own cinematic universe (even though its X-Men franchise had grown a cinematic timeline all its own), and a leaked 2014 email, as reported by The Daily Beast, revealed that Sony was planning its Spider-Man universe in response.
Those plans sure did change quickly.
It’s a miracle a movie like “Deadpool” succeeded, but it goes to show how audiences will respond to a movie that is marketed well and takes creative risks. Watching “Deadpool,” it’s apparent that the movie’s star, Ryan Reynolds, is committed to the character, and audiences responded in droves. The movie, which has a hard R rating, scored nearly $US800 million worldwide, proving that a superhero movie could break through the noise even if it’s not meant for all audiences.
While technically part of the “X-Men” universe, it’s very loosely involved: it’s very much in its own world. But even if it was shocking that “Deadpool” did so well, in hindsight, the character is perfect for cinema. He’s hyper-violent, hilarious, and routinely breaks the fourth wall, making mainstream audiences who had never heard of the character invested. He’s not your run-of-the-mill superhero, which could be why moviegoers were so attracted to him.
2016: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”
If “Deadpool” proved that a superhero movie can succeed if you stick to the character’s core traits, then “Batman v Superman” is the exact opposite. Violence and hysteria make sense in the world of “Deadpool,” but imagine if it was devoid of humour and fun. That’s “Batman v Superman,” in which Warner Bros. took all the wrong lessons from both “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers.”
In Zack Snyder’s world, Batman murders on a whim and Superman never smiles. Warner Bros. gave the world “The Dark Knight” and was still living in its world 8 years later (the failure of “Green Lantern” in 2011 probably didn’t help). In fact, because of how lousy “Green Lantern” and divisive “Man of Steel” turned out to be, Batman was still the studio’s best superhero bet, so much so that he got top billing in this spiritual successor to “Man of Steel.”
“BvS” opened huge at the box office, pulling in $US166 million in its opening weekend. But it got terrible reviews, and when audiences realised how messy the plot was and how devoid of fun the movie was, its box office fell dramatically in its second weekend 69%. That’s not unheard of for blockbusters, and it’s not exactly a commercial failure, but it is representative of the DCEU as a whole: each movie since “BvS” has opened to less money than the one before it, and failed to stay steady in the US afterward.
The outlier is “Wonder Woman,” whose opening weekend was less than both “BvS” and “Suicide Squad,” but went on to make more money domestically than them – probably because it was actually a good movie.
“Logan” was the first superhero movie since “The Dark Knight” to rise to similar standards in terms of acclaim. It was the first superhero movie to be nominated for a screenplay Oscar, and like “The Dark Knight,” it seems to fit into another genre besides “superhero” (this time a Western).
What makes “Logan” different from “The Dark Knight” is that it was the culmination of a character’s story arc 17 years in the making, and the last hurrah for actor Hugh Jackman, who had portrayed Wolverine in the “X-Men” films all that time. As mentioned, “The Dark Knight” trilogy is notable in that it’s the last time a superhero series had a definitive end. That can be said for Jackman’s Wolverine/Logan, but his story will always be associated with the “X-Men” films. “Logan” isn’t so much the end of a trilogy (even though it is technically the third solo Wolverine movie) as it is the end of a character’s story arc within a much larger universe.
But “Logan” still managed to break through the noise by pretty much ignoring other “X-Men” movies, like “Deadpool” did, and proved that a superhero movie could succeed with an R rating, and “darker” tone – if that tone makes sense for the character.
2017: “Wonder Woman”
“Wonder Woman” is the one movie in the DCEU so far that has figured out what works and what doesn’t. For starters, it’s fun. Secondly, aside from a brief mention of Bruce Wayne, the movie is entirely devoid of any relation to the larger universe, which is shaping Warner Bros.’ strategy going forward.
As “Deadpool” showed, if you can’t directly compete with the MCU, studios have to do something that hasn’t been done before, that audiences will be invested in. “Wonder Woman” was the first major superhero movie to star a woman and be directed by a woman that was a critical and commercial success.
2017: “Justice League”
And then there’s “Justice League,” DC’s answer to “The Avengers” that royally backfired.
The movie was tainted by behind-the-scenes chaos leading up to its release in November, which didn’t help matters. After director Snyder stepped away after the death of his daughter, “Avengers” director Joss Whedon stepped in for extensive reshoots that drastically altered the final film.
But even with all the chaos and heartbreak, Warner Bros. couldn’t have predicted just how much the movie would flop.
“Justice League” opened to a measly $US93 million, well below studio estimates and extremely disappointing for a movie that was supposed to be the culmination of the DCEU thus far. It went on to make $US229 million domestically – for comparison, Marvel’s “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” made more than that in their opening weekends.
The commercial and critical failure (it has a 40% Rotten Tomatoes critic score) of “Justice League” was further proof that the MCU had landed on a recipe that couldn’t be equaled. If studios couldn’t handle the heat, they either had to think of a new meal – or get out of the kitchen.
2018: “Black Panther”
Similar to “Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther” was a significant superhero movie in that it gave audiences a diverse superhero. “Black Panther” is the first superhero movie to star a black character with a predominantly black cast, and audiences responded enthusiastically.
The movie scored over $US1 billion worldwide and the highest Rotten Tomatoes critic score of any Marvel movie. Not since “The Dark Knight” had a superhero movie inspired such culturally and politically important conversation. People even agreed with the film’s villain, Killmonger, despite being opposed to his methods.
It was another win for the MCU, but it was also a win for the superhero genre overall that will hopefully inspire more diverse stories to be told.
Lessons learned from the last 10 years
Judging by the movies listed above (and those are just a handful of the dozens upon dozens of superhero movies released in the last decade), there’s some lessons to be learned. Studios learned the wrong ones from the success of “The Dark Knight,” and instead of telling diverse (“Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther”) or unique (“Deadpool,” “Logan”) stories, some movies fell into the trap of “grounding” characters that didn’t need to be grounded (Superman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four). If a movie goes dark or mature, it should be right for that character. That’s not to say Superman can’t be in a “mature” movie, but it shouldn’t be more bleak than fun, either.
Lesson 2: If a cinematic universe isn’t the MCU, it probably won’t work. The DCEU learned that the hard way. Marvel has tapped into something that has worked primarily for it. The “X-Men” franchise is somewhat of a cinematic universe and has worked (mostly) for the last almost two decades. But besides Wolverine and Deadpool, they all have “X-Men” in the title (you don’t see every MCU movie with “Avengers” in the title).
And after years of messing up its timeline, even the “X-Men” franchise is starting to tell more standalone stories, like “Logan” and the upcoming “New Mutants,” similar to DC and Warner Bros. But future circumstances could upend any plans Fox may have for the franchise.
The future: DC’s standalone movies, the Disney/Fox deal, and more
Fox has more “X-Men” movies in development, but the future of the franchise is questionable for a couple reasons: both of its upcoming movies, “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” and “The New Mutants,” were pushed back.
And then there’s that Disney/Fox deal.
Disney bought much of Fox’s assets last year for $US52 billion. While a counter-offer from Comcast could have potentially upended the deal this year, Disney seems to have held off Comcast by recently boosting its offer to buy Fox. So, if this deal is finalised, what does that mean for the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
It means that characters like the X-Men, Wolverine, Deadpool, and Fantastic Four would be at Disney/Marvel’s disposal. What they would do with those characters is up in the air, but we have some ideas here, here, and here.
That leaves Sony to develop its own (sort of) Spider-Man movies. “Venom,” starring Tom Hardy, comes out this year, as well as the animated “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
Meanwhile, the DCEU has all but come to halt, as Warner Bros. focuses on standalone stories. “Aquaman,” “Shazam!,” and “Wonder Woman 1984” will most likely distance themselves from the connectivity of the shared universe, and there are plenty of other movies in development, like a Joker origin movie starring Joaquin Phoenix, that have nothing to do with the DCEU.
“The Dark Knight” inspired superhero movies to be grounded or darker, but at a time when the MCU was plotting dominance over the genre. Even Fox-owned properties could be consumed by Disney in the near future. Now, for superhero movies to succeed (if they’re not in the MCU) they must stand out from the rest of the pack, something that studios didn’t seem to foresee when they tried to replicate the MCU or “The Dark Knight’s” success.
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