Comic-book movie culture didn’t just stumble this year. It face-planted, giving us one movie after another that fans didn’t much care about and that the corporations backing these films took a disquieting loss on. And that’s not how it was supposed to go. According to the Gospel of 21st-Century Hollywood, the words “comic-book film” and “box-office disappointment” are not supposed to appear in the same sentence. When they do, not just once but over and over and over again, the tea leaves are telling us something ominous and maybe definitive.
Why, in 2023, did this happen? The analysis that has mostly been offered is simple: The movie companies served up mediocre superhero product. That’s why they — and we — suffered. If it had just been one or two duds, the situation might have been explained away. But when you think back on “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and “The Flash” and “The Marvels” and “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” the pattern is clear. It’s not simply a Marvel thing or a DC thing. The primal thrill and popularity of comic-book movie culture took a major hit, and it may be fading away. And yet…
In the very drubbing these movies received, at the box office and in the drumbeat snark of critical reviews, you might say there’s hope. Comic-book movie culture is, after all, only as good as the movies it gives us. And this was the year that the corporations — let’s name names: Disney and Warner Bros. — failed. They made bad movies. What if they’d made good movies?
The temptation to point a finger at the producers and executives and vilify them for their shoddy product has always been there. But now it’s part of the new couch-potato rebel culture. Critics, on their reflexive high horse, mostly hate comic-book movies, and more and more they have used their reviews of them to chastise The Man. The fans would seem to be on the other side of the fence, but they have their own collective resentments and rebel fire. This year, the critics and the Comic-Con horde stood shoulder to shoulder, joining forces to look the suits in the eye and say, “You did this to us! We’re bored as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
All that said, there’s a larger reality about comic-book movie culture that we tend to ignore. So let’s state it outright: This shit is starting to fail because it is spent. Because it’s been used up. I’m not just talking about Ant-Man or the Flash. I’m talking about the characters who got us in the door in the first place, the iconic larger-than-life ones: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Black Panther. They were the mythic engine of this thing, and for a good long stretch we didn’t just want to see them onscreen — we craved it. We needed them to be our gods again. And they were…until they weren’t. Memo to James Gunn: Gods have a way of losing power when you stick them in reruns.
The former U.S. President George W. Bush has long been used to illustrate the maxim “He was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple.” Comic-book movie culture is sort of like that. In the old days (i.e., the first 90 years of Hollywood, up to and including the Lucas/Spielberg revolution), movies were made the old-fashioned way. They were imagined, usually out of whole cloth. Sure, there were sequels and remakes, there were literary adaptations highbrow and low, and “Star Wars,” in 1977, riffed on the pulp sci-fi serials of the ’40s and ’50s (though the vast majority of the audience for George Lucas’s film had never seen those serials). So yes, Hollywood has always been a great big recycling machine.
But there’s a difference between imitation and IP. In 1978, when Hollywood gave us “Superman,” it was pinging off a magical comic-book character who sprung deep from the well of American pop identity. Who didn’t love Superman? And 11 years later, when Tim Burton’s “Batman” premiered (producing the real sea change in the industry — I’ll never forget the franchise frenzy that blanketed theaters the day that movie opened), it was like a deliverance. Unlike “Star Wars,” the Batman pedigree already occupied a place deep in the hearts of moviegoers. It spoke to comic-book fans, to everyone who’d grown up with the late-’60s TV series (still the greatest thing ever, by the way), not to mention the “Dark Knight” and “Killing Joke” graphic-novel generation. You could certainly say that Burton delivered — in the gothic Wagnerian sweep, the palm-buzzer demonism of Jack Nicholson’s performance. But in another sense you could say that the 1989 “Batman” was born on home plate and everyone in Hollywood thought it was a home run.
I sound like I’m shortchanging the awesome craftmanship that goes into a movie like “Batman,” or that has gone into so many of the Marvel and DC films. I am not. I have great respect for that craft, sometimes a reverence for it, to the point that I’ve given a passing grade to more than my share of the comic-book movies (like “Captain Marvel” or “The Expendables”) that Critics Weren’t Supposed to Like. But here’s the real point. The mass attachment to comic-book movie culture has always been steeped in our connection to its most legendary characters. They were the pure-cut cocaine of all IP. And for a while that created a fantasy moviegoing high.
Here and there, the films may continue to do that. I adored “The Batman” — though tellingly, even though it was a great movie that became a huge hit, it seemed to have no cultural impact. And “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” as much as I hated it, demonstrated the sheer power of that character, the more of them on screen the better. This year, the darkly bedazzling aesthetic and commercial triumph of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” pointed toward what may be the future of the superhero-movie form — the mutating majesty of animation. And though I’ve been talking here about the old-school characters, there’s no doubt that the “Deadpool” films, with their transcendent naughtiness and ultraviolence, are a franchise phenomenon all their own. Like most industry watchers, I’m anticipating that the third “Deadpool” film, when it’s released this coming July, will be a commercial monster.
So no, comic-book movie culture isn’t on life support…yet. Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, was certainly right when he acknowledged — in an act of damage control — that the MCU had spread itself too thin, diluting its appeal with spin-off TV series and a general sense of the multiverse as something that was becoming homework even for fans. Yet what’s the solution? There’s no real way to put the genie of too-much-product overkill back in the bottle. Because the only way to “solve” that problem is with more product. James Gunn, in his role as the executive guru (along with Peter Safran) of DC Studios, now ready to wipe the slate clean and launch a new universe of DC storytelling, wants to fix it all with quality control. He’s basically saying, “Fuck those Zack Snyder movies. My Superman will be boss!” Yes, except that his Superman is going to feel like it’s about the 12th Superman.
The executives, sitting in their Death Star suites, were full of excuses this year. “The movie got rushed into production.” “We overextended ourselves.” And no one can blame them for the personal and legal implosion of Jonathan Majors. At the same time, the critical-rebel establishment, speaking more than ever for fans, saw blood in the water, and with it the opportunity to help kill off the comic-book movie culture it has come to regard as an existential threat to cinema.
But if that culture is now entering the early stages of its death throes, it will actually be for an honorable reason. Comic-book movies were never going to die because an “Ant-Man” or “Captain Marvel” sequel was bad. The only reason they were going to die is that they had served their purpose. They made us dream of men and women in capes who could fly and who seemed indestructible, because all of that made us feel good. But then it stopped making us feel so good, because we had already been there and dreamed that. And it was time, perhaps, to get back to reality.