If you’re at all interested in superheroes, you’ve probably heard people talking about “superhero fatigue.” You’ve probably even seen prominent directors and actors critiquing superhero movies, suggesting that they’re everything that’s wrong with the industry. You might even have complained about it yourself — to friends after walking out of the theater or to fellow fans in comments sections of trailers or reviews. Especially as we’ve pressed farther into the post-Avengers: Endgame era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), concerns about the oversaturation of superhero movies are high. But there’s a simpler explanation as to why you might feel a weariness toward the idea of people in spandex punching CGI monsters, and it might just help you remember why you appreciated these kinds of films in the first place.
What Is Superhero Fatigue, and Why Is It a Problem?
For the uninitiated, superhero fatigue is the idea that there are too many superhero movies and television shows being released, and audiences are getting bored with them. A frequent point of comparison has been the Western genre, which has largely fallen by the wayside and no longer has the grip on the industry that it did at its peak in the 1950s and ’60s. While Westerns are far from completely gone and have even had some resurgences over the years, they’ve never managed to regain their pop culture dominance. The theory goes that superhero movies will soon suffer the same fate.
On its face, this theory makes a lot of sense, the MCU will be 15 years old next year, and the only thing that’s managed to slow down its output is a pandemic that shut the industry down for months. In 2023 alone, the MCU will have released two feature films (with The Marvels still to come this November) and two Disney+ shows, with the second season of What If…? slated to release this December. Next year looks to be just as densely packed with content — Deadpool 3, Captain America: Brave New World, and The Thunderbolts are all set to release in the MCU’s usual release windows (barring any delays).
Disney+ currently has Echo, Agatha: Darkhold Diaries, and Marvel Zombies tentatively scheduled to release in 2024 as well. And then there’s the wealth of non-MCU superhero content on the horizon. Sony has three Spider-Man adjacent movies set for release next year (Kraven the Hunter, Venom 3, and Madame Web). James Gunn and Peter Safran’s new DC universe kicks off next year with Creature Commandos, but there are still some sequels from the old regime to get out of the way first. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom releases later this year, and Joker: Folie à Deux is coming in 2024. And that’s only counting projects based on the “Big Two” of Marvel and DC. Plenty of projects based on other superhero properties, like Amazon’s The Boys and Invincible or Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, have new seasons coming out within the next year or two.
So yeah, superhero fatigue seems like a good description of the deep, existential weariness reading that (non-comprehensive!) list probably made you feel. There’s so much superhero content that it feels impossible to keep up with it all. And in the aftermath of high-profile box-office failures such as The Flash or Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania there’s a growing feeling that the superhero movie is going to be milked dry before being unceremoniously discarded for something new, long after anyone has stopped caring. It’s easy to blame superheroes for being everywhere, wearing us all down year after year. But what if there’s something else going on?
Successful Projects Like ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’ Prove the Problem Isn’t the Superheroes
As much as it seems like audiences are starting to get tired of superheroes in the aftermath of flops like The Flash and Quantumania, the evidence doesn’t entirely back this up. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was released in between those two films and made $381 million in North America and $690 million globally, making it the current sixth-highest-grossing film of the year and the highest-grossing Sony Pictures Animation movie of all time. It was a hit with critics and fans alike, and the consensus seems to be that Beyond the Spider-Verse can’t come soon enough — provided it does so by treating its animators well. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was another strong showing, making a worldwide total of $845.6 million during its theatrical run, not surpassing Vol. 2’s box office haul but still making more than the first film. Guardians was also a critical success and provided a heartfelt and compelling conclusion to the trilogy.
On the television side, Adult Swim’s recent My Adventures with Superman has earned positive responses from critics and fans alike. It’s performed well enough that Adult Swim has already given Season 2 the green light. Amazon’s Gen V has thus far proved a successful spin-off of The Boys, earning generally favorable reviews from critics even though, like The Boys before it, its more shocking content tends to polarize audiences. As it’s an Amazon Prime production, there are no concrete numbers on Gen V’s viewership so far, but its recent mid-season renewal for Season 2 is a good sign that it’s performing well. While both shows are more niche than the blockbuster films mentioned above, they’re still evidence that there is still an audience for superhero content. So why did massively hyped films like The Flash and Quantumania fail?
The answer is simple: quality. If general audiences were truly souring on blockbuster superhero fare, even high-quality projects like Guardians or Gen V would also be taking a hit in viewership. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. Fans still want to see superhero stories; they just want them to be good. Quality superhero movies and shows can still be successful, as we can see with Across the Spider-Verse and Gen V. The real problem is that audiences are growing tired of bad (or worse, thoroughly mediocre) superhero stories, and that is what’s starting to be reflected in the box office and viewership numbers. But if this is the case, why does the gloom of superhero fatigue seem to hang over every new release?
The MCU Taught Superhero Fans That Everything Is Connected
At its peak, the core fantasy of the MCU was the idea that “it’s all connected.” The mantra was used heavily during Phase 2 of the MCU, building the idea that if fans wanted to get the most out of any specific MCU project, they would need to watch everything. While you could follow along fine by just keeping up on the solo films of your favorite characters and checking in for the big Avengers release every couple of years, Marvel really wanted you to feel like you also needed to watch Ant-Man and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and all the Netflix shows if you wanted to truly appreciate the MCU in its entirety. And after a while, it worked. A little too well, it seems.
Today’s superhero media all have an innate sense of urgency built into them. You have to watch The Flash if you want to understand why Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck aren’t Superman and Batman anymore. You need to watch Loki so you can see the backstory of the villain of Quantumania. Gen V might introduce a character powerful enough to stop Homelander (Antony Starr) on The Boys, so you can’t miss that! Everything is potentially setting up something else, so you have to watch. If you don’t, you’ll be out of the loop and won’t understand the next Avengers or Justice League or that spin-off of a spin-off that your friends are all saying you have to watch. But here’s the thing: you don’t actually need to watch all of it.
No, really. Just like any other type of movie, from westerns to action movies to rom-coms, there’s no need to watch every superhero movie. You probably shouldn’t! For every good movie, there’s going to be at least one or more bad movies of the same type. For every The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there’s a Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. For every La La Land, there’s a Cats. For every Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there’s a Morbius. And so on. Bad movies get made all the time, but only superhero films have the built-in incentive to watch all of them, just in case one ends up being important later. Trying to watch every superhero movie or show is akin to trying to watch every police procedural on TV: you might find a few you like, but mostly you’ll just start to really hate police procedurals, and you won’t have time to watch anything else.
So, give yourself a break. The next time a big Marvel or DC movie releases or the next superhero show starts airing on Disney+, Netflix, or Amazon, think about if you really want to watch it or if you just feel like you have to. And remind yourself it’s okay to skip it if you aren’t feeling it. Sure, you might not “get” that reference to it in the next Avengers, but you’ll probably still enjoy that movie regardless. And ultimately, superhero stories are meant to be enjoyed. So, stop bumming yourself out, and only watch the things that you want to watch.
The Big Picture
- Superhero fatigue is the feeling of weariness towards an oversaturation of superhero movies and shows, but it’s not necessarily a problem with the genre itself.
- Quality plays a significant role in audience engagement. Successful projects like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and My Adventures with Superman demonstrate that audiences still enjoy superhero content if it’s well-executed.
- The sense of urgency built into superhero media, where everything is connected, can contribute to the feeling of fatigue. Audiences should give themselves a break and only watch the superhero content they genuinely want to watch.