the superhero bubble

marvel’s prophecies of doom

Marvel has a machine. Three of the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time were produced by Marvel. Every Marvel film except one (2008’s forgettable “The Incredible Hulk”) has grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide. They’ve even bred continuity, forming a franchise of films known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that are linked by characters and story arcs in a way previously only seen in TV shows or comic books themselves. And the bottom line? People go to see these movies.

The reasons are clear. The movies themselves are almost always quite good and remarkably consistent in tone. The studio has crafted a brand of popcorn movie with equal parts action, special effects, and humor, in which the heroes launch projectiles at the enemy with the same skill as they launch witty barbs at each other. The films feature some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, whom Marvel wooed with the promise of highly visible roles throughout the ensuing decade. Crisp special effects and an emphasis on visuals have made them equally successful overseas, especially in the growing market of China. And never underestimate the power of fanboys—Marvel has excelled in converting its target audience’s love of comic book culture into ticket sales.

But for all the enjoyable product the studio puts out, the party’s got to end.

There is a superhero bubble. I believe this model cannot exist forever, or at least not keep raking in the unprecedented wads of cash it has been. Its audience, despite what box office numbers will tell you, is becoming jaded to a type of constant escalation perfected and perpetuated by Marvel.

This is due to a few reasons. First, since Marvel’s films all take place in the MCU, there is endless overlap between movies. This is narratively and logistically unsustainable, with even Joss Whedon, the man credited with Marvel’s success, calling the films more “juggling act” than storytelling. Every Avengers movie is, in essence, a crossover event. We’ve seen characters from one movie team up with characters from another to find the villains from a third, setting up an eventual climactic battle with the Big Bad from six movies in the future. Every film is simply setting up the next one. (And with release dates planned until at least 2019, this dynamic could keep expanding upon itself indefinitely.)

But it won’t. I believe audiences will no longer fall for the trick of sitting through a whole movie just for the Easter egg at the very end. Marvel actively encourages this kind of speculation, this fascination with what’s about to come. During just about every credit reel, they’ve included bonus teaser footage hinting at the next movie: not just a highlight reel of action or a funny line or two, but rather a taste of something larger. When Nick Fury mentioned the “Avengers Initiative” during the credits of the first MCU film (2008’s “Iron Man”), he was referencing a movie that would come four years later and include characters from three other movies that would be released in the interim.

Secondly, while the pool of ideas from which to draw is virtually limitless, due to the sheer number of superheroes that have ever been thought up, the appeal and name recognition of the lesser superheroes is much lower than the heavyweights. All of the big guns have their own movies already. This saturation has resulted in more and more obscure superheroes being handed their own feature films. (Maybe I’m underestimating the amount of people who’d pay to see Benedict Cumberbatch in spandex, but c’mon, was anyone clamoring for a Doctor Strange movie?)

Another side effect of this is that “super-teams” such as the Avengers and DC’s MCU-imitation “Justice League” (2017) are becoming the new normal. The returns on a single superhero are diminishing. So the question remains: How many superheroes can you cram into one movie? Joe Russo, the co-director of the next Avengers movie, has said it could feature as many as 67 characters. They’re already feeling the heat—apparently, no one’s excited by a superhero movie anymore. Marvel is acting as if audiences demand that a superhero convention, a superhero Oscars, take place before their eyes in order for them to cough up $10.

Third, Marvel has been cultivating a fascination with end times. It makes sense, really. Stakes need to be raised constantly. There’s only so many times you can watch a city or a country in danger before wondering, well, gee, what would happen if it was the entire world at risk, or an entire galaxy? If these trends are any indication, it seems that Marvel believes that its audience is growing desensitized to anything with less at stake than the fate of the entire universe. Just look at the next entries in two of their most successful franchises-within-a-franchise: “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” The next subtitle might as well be “Apocalypse.”

Oh wait. This May will see the release of the next installment of non-MCU Marvel property X-Men, the delightfully subtle “X-Men: Apocalypse.”

Where can it go from here? What could possibly be more high-stakes than the literal end of the world? Eventually we’re going to have to see Thanos, the super-evil bad guy who’s been causing all the drama so far—but after the Avengers defeat him, then what? How can they possibly keep up the same tension, the same fanboy thirst that has driven them to the apex of Hollywood?

Marvel has gone so far and committed itself so fully to this model of cash-grabbing that I have a hard time seeing it continuing indefinitely. As Stephen Spielberg said in 2013, “cycles” such as superhero movies have a “finite time in popular culture.” The only question is when the bubble will pop.