The Hype Cycle of Superhero Movies
You might be forgiven for thinking Hollywood is only making one genre of movie these days. Pop movie culture is currently overrun by superheroes, adaptations of classic comic book super men (and the very, very occasional super woman). Why is it happening? When did it really start? When will it end? Cultural trends operate on cycles, and here we’re going to use the Hype Cycle to predict the end of superhero movie trend or at least, what comes next for the genre.
The Early Days of the Superhero Movie
Hollywood has been making superhero movies since the beginning. There’s little surprise that the genre has become a mainstay of popular cinema – superhero movies are entertaining; they’re familiar and come with a pre-built fan base; they usually employ some kind of exciting special effects and, for the most part, they’re quite mindless and easy to watch.
The 1940s and 1950s saw the first superhero movie trend with a series of superhero movies released in quick succession with titles including The Shadow (1940);The Green Hornet (1940); The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (1940); The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941); Batman (1943); Captain America (1944); Superman (1948); Batman and Robin (1949); Atom Man vs. Superman (1950); and the list goes on. The genre started to dwindle in the early 1950s, but of course, didn’t disappear completely.
Flash forward to the beginning of the Twenty First Century and we arrive at another superhero movie trend cycle. Hollywood has always worked on trends, but the recent onslaught of superhero movies goes beyond trend and into the realm of extreme glutted overload. Since the early 2000s, superhero movies have been coming out at an alarming rate – 4 or 5 a year on average and this number is only set to increase.
This is good news for people who like superhero movies. For those who don’t enjoy the genre, or for those of us who used to enjoy the genre but could really do with a fresh dose of anything but, there’s also good news…. The superhero movie hype cycle has peaked and superhero movies are, I predict, on their way out.
The Hype Cycle
The Hype Cycle is a concept developed by IT research firm, Gartner to track the adoption, use and demise of various technologies. The same general ideas can work with most things that are subject to cultural hype, including superhero movies. The Hype Cycle is not a perfect fit, but it can help us understand what’s happening and what might likely be happening next.
The Hype Cycle starts with a trigger – an early success which builds media interest and public curiosity.
When talking about movie trends, there’s always going to be more than one trigger. In this case it’s a combination of advances in cinematic technology and the contemporary cultural climate. The early 2000s saw the first really exciting things happening with digital cinema. Speculative fiction genres were able to be realised on screen in ways like never before and movies like The Matrix (1999) and Lord of The Rings (2001 – 2003) blew our collective minds.`
Digital effects not only made supernatural stuff look incredibly cool on screen, it also made such effects relatively easy and cheap to produce, and bringing super-heroic feats to life on screen became quite easy. It’s a similar situation to the early years of cinema where the technical novelty of movies with sound and later colour were finally being able to be accessed by the general population.
The first of the X-Men films (2000; 2003), Eric Bana’s Hulk (2003), and Spider-Man (2002) were all immensely successful adaptations, bringing well known comic superheroes to life on screen in new and exciting ways. It wasn’t just the well-known big guns in comic heroes that were doing well on screen. Even more slightly obscure comic heroes like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Marvel’s vampire/human hybrid vampire hunter, Blade, enjoyed a new found mainstream popularity on the big screen and created a whole new world of fans.
As well as technological terms, the early triggers of the 2000s superhero trend and the 1940s and 1950s superhero trend also share a similarity in sociocultural terms.
In both eras, superhero movies have become somewhat of an antidote to the real world. In the 1940s and 50s, a World War was raging, and then ending, the world trying to recover. The current socio-political landscape in America and other Western countries that welcomed a flourishing of the superhero genre isn’t all that different.
The Early Adopters
The Early Adopter is a critical part of the trigger phase of the Hype Cycle. In tech terms, these are the folks who rush out and get the latest gadgets before anyone else really knows about them. In the world of cinematic hype, these early adopters are the existing fans who brought an already established audience from comics across to the box office. As the genre proliferated, comic hero fandom was no longer dependent on the original source – it’s now entirely possible to be a Marvel fan without ever having picked up a comic book (though the comic fans would probably have something to say about it…). This leads us to the next stage on the Hype Cycle – mass media hype, proliferation an successes.
Peak of Inflated Expectations
The next phase of the Hype Cycle sees the peak of inflated expectations. Here, the activity has moved far beyond the thrills of those first early adopters, or existing fans. Comic heroes are everywhere and everyone has something to say about the genre.
This is where we’ve seen the gigantic game changing successes, most notably, with the Dark Knight films (2005 – 2012) and Iron Man (2008). What The Lord of the Rings movies did for fantasy, Batman Begins and Iron Man did for modern superhero movies, catapulting the genre into widespread success across all sorts of demographics, opening it up to audiences who wouldn’t usually be going to see “comic book movies”.
Suddenly, superhero movies weren’t just about cool, tough guys with super powers (or super gadgets) in capes. The Dark Knight series created a deeply nuanced drama out of the Batman word, bringing a side of Batman to the mass popular consciousness that was really only known in comics in the Frank Miller Batman comics.
Putting Robert Downey Jr in the Iron Man suit was a genius move, giving the comic hero a wide appeal from Downey’s existing fan base and also harnessing the style of acting he’s best at – a kind of understated comedy – to make an amusing, yet still action/drama oriented film.
In this second half of the decade, superhero movies started coming out thick and fast. There were enormous successes and dismal failures. Superhero movies weren’t only all about the big Marvel or DC characters, with cult comics with marginal fandoms like The Watchmen (2009) and Kick-Ass (2010) also achieving considerable big screen success while in their own ways also posing a critical look at the genre itself.
With any huge Hollywood success, the sequels will inevitably follow. The serial nature of comic books lends itself well to sequel culture. In addition to the usual sequels, we’ve now franchises like The Avengers, and the Justice League movies which are now just getting going. These ensemble pieces not only give us the collective group film and all of its sequels, but the individual character arcs and all of their sequels.
Which leads us to our present cinematic situation – complete superhero overload and a descent into the trough of disillusionment.
Trough of Disillusionment
I’m not sure there is another pop culture genre that has ever reached the same level of media saturation that comic superhero movies are currently at. Not even our small screens get a break with the Avengers franchise moving into TV in the form of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2014 –), Agent Carter (2015 – ) and Batman getting its next generation of TV treatment in Gotham (2014 – ).
Studios are still peddling superhero after superhero, with dozens more on the horizon but are audiences starting to lose interest?
Media commentators have begun to criticize or at least question the saturation of the genre. Kenneth Turan from The LA Times has labelled it as Marvel Fatigue, which I think is an incredibly apt description. Even Robert Downey Jr. has suggested that the genre may be getting a little old.
In this article from The Atlantic, Derek Thompson points out, the superhero overload has come about because: a) the genre enjoyed a successful popularity and b) studios seeking to continue that success simply ended up repeating the movies, creating a formulaic superhero plot where nothing much changed from film to film except for the title character (and given the current world of sequels, even that stays the same a lot of the time).
Yet, the studios cannot be made entirely to blame. We’re going to these movies, after all. Right? But the dissension has begun. So, what’s next?
Predictions for the Future of the Superhero Film
Unfortunately, once we enter the trough of disillusionment, the Hype Cycle model as applied to the film culture starts to get a little less applicable. It’s not, however completely irrelevant and certain predictions can be made. Now the negative press has begun, more and more failures will become apparent, translated as the public is starting to stop watching. In order to regain that popularity, we may enter into a new generation of superhero movies, but unless the studios start coming out with completely original characters and concepts, I doubt this will happen. It’s also doubtful that Hollywood will move away from material based on pre-sold markets in any genre in any future. I do doubt, however, that the five or six a year release schedule for comic hero movies will be able to be maintained.
On TV, we’ll likely see more big scale small screen superhero stuff in the spirit of S.H.I.E.L.D and Gotham. TV is cheaper to make and more forgiving of a lessening popularity than cinema.
On the big screens it’s hard to know. Perhaps we’ll see more films like Birdman (2014) that, while completely original and genre defying, tap into the superhero culture in innovative ways.
Superhero movies will never go away completely. There will be more Batman castings to whine about long after Ben Affleck has donned the rubber abs. There will be more tongue in cheek contemporary pop culture references to throw at the newly awakened Steve Rogers. Even though Iron Man himself is bored with superheroes, there’ll be more Iron Man movies. There will be more second rung superheroes getting their fifteen minutes as summer blockbusters, and (Gasp!) we may even one day get a female lead superhero movie! Take a deep, patient breath and remember too that there’ll also soon be a choice of genres besides superheros showing at the box office.
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