Are superhero films eating up the business of other genres at the box office?

| Updated: October 11, 2022 18:06:09

Are superhero films eating up the business of other genres at the box office?

Since superhero films started portraying comic book characters on the movie screen, it has always been expected for the audience to see their favourite characters in cinema.

Despite previous attempts, the first time superhero films gained appreciation from the American audience was with Christopher Reeve playing ‘Superman’ in 1978, followed by three sequels in the next decade.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it was the turn of Batman with Jack Nicholson playing the Joker and actors like Michael Keaton and George Clooney acting as Batman. But, more or less, superhero films were not a regular phenomenon in those days.

The explosion began when the first X-Men film was released back in 2000. Since then, the revenue of superhero films at the box office has been soaring. If we take the 25 highest-grossing films of the 21st century, 12 of them were superhero movies.

Considering only the marvel cinematic universe, we come across the box office revenue of USD 26.6 billion worldwide, with ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2.8 billion) being the highest-grossing film of all time.

We are currently in a situation where from 2008 to 2022, 28 per cent of all the highest-grossing films are from the superhero genre. It’s time to reflect upon the effects of the success of superhero films on other genres.

Before describing the aftermath of the success of superhero movies, one thing has to be made clear. When the box office issue is concerned, we shouldn’t bring the online streaming service into the discussion.

Because the way the audience watches movies on online streaming services is completely different from watching them in theatre. In a streaming service, movies are watched by buying a subscription, and simply clicking on a film won’t require buying a ticket like a box office in the theatre. So, comparing a film’s revenue in a streaming service and a film released in theatre is problematic from the beginning.

Looking only at the theatrical releases, it is easy to deduce that superhero films are surely creating a hegemony over other genres at the box office.

Right now, we are in a situation where Ridley Scott’s brilliant historical epic ‘The Last Duel’ made only 4.8 million getting released after the pandemic. Whereas movies of the same genres like ‘Schindler’s List’ was a box office success in the ‘90s.

Hollywood is at such a stage where even auteur like Paul Thomas Anderson struggles to get their budgets from the studios. We see filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could barely get their respective films Red Tails and Lincoln in theatres because ‘The Avengers’ (2012) was dominating the box office.

Most superhero films have a probability of ‘High Risk, High Return.’ A superhero film could barely be produced with less than 100 million. So, instead of making a plethora of small films with that money, studios are taking the risk for a high return.

But, then, there comes this question of why superhero films gained that much popularity after 2000.

Well, there can be multiple answers to that question. One aspect that shows up before all is the technological revolution that we are passing through at this age. Most of the superhero characters were created in comic books back in the 1940s to ‘70s.

With modern Computer Generated Image (CGI), comic book characters appear more realistically on the movie screen, which is a source of attraction for the audience. So, the same appeal that the next model of the iPhone creates in our mind is prevailing in the film industry through the superhero genre.

That’s why even if superhero films are based on the cultural background of the west, they have been able to entertain audiences all over the world.

Also, the engaging plotline of superhero films and their relations to the socio-cultural situation of the west couldn’t be avoided. Although most superhero characters were created during the time of World War 2, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement, with the modern interpretation of those stories, relevance is being created with the current world scenario through the screenplay.

For example, Captain America was a character created during the period of world war. Still, when we see in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldiers,’ we see that scene where superhero’s homeland defence organisation director Nick Fury shares his plan of using composing data to determine the people posing a threat to society and eliminate them, and in reply, Steve responds by saying, “That isn’t freedom, that’s fear.’

That dialogue was like giving a reply to the ‘Patriot Act’ issued by the government in American politics to decrease people’s privacy to make them safe. That’s where an old character revives as new.

So, it’s the appearance of ‘larger than life’ characters with the use of technology and their relevance to the contemporary world that makes superhero films popular.

Another factor to be addressed is that most superhero films are released in sequels. So, if anyone misses the previous parts, suddenly watching ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2019) won’t make that much sense to him. In that case, making people wait for the sequels becomes a way for the franchises like Marvel and DC to attract an audience. 

So, will superhero films really destroy other genres at the box office? We can answer that by asking another question. Is it true that superhero films are making all other genres struggle to generate revenues at the box office?

The evidence doesn’t say so. After 2000, with the rise of superhero films, we also saw the success of other genres at the box office, like fantasy genres with film series like ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or sci-fi genres like ‘Transformers.’ Is there any similarity between these films and the superhero genres? The answer is ‘Yes.’   

That’s why other genres like Science Fiction, Action, Fantasy, and Horror, which are also connected to visual effects and technological advancements, are getting successful at the box office. In 2021, Dune (400 million), a film in the Sci-fi adventure genre, was a box office success.

The recent blockbuster action film ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (700 million) is also worth mentioning.

It’s the genres like drama or historical epics which are not generating revenues at the box office. This is the reason why films like ‘Marriage Story’ or Martin Scorsese’s film ‘The Irishman’ are getting released on Netflix instead of theatre. 

So, at the end of the day, it’s the technology and connected plotlines that are making characters appear ‘larger than life’ to the audience that will decide which genre will stay and which will struggle to get released into the theatres.   

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