Comic book superheroes movies have become the mainstream film genre of the decade and every studio wants a piece of the pie. To stay with that metaphor, studios take their tray up to the comic book franchise buffet and prepare to return to their table with a full plate of entertaining content. However, in fearing the fans won’t be satisfied, the studios and creatives begin to pile their plates up with as much “food” as possible. They begin to copy one another in quantity, looking at other plates to see who has what and how much, and the desire for more becomes tantalizing regardless of what’s currently on their own plates. The studios begin to pile on more of everything—more characters, more plot lines, more Easter eggs, and more story arcs to save for seconds. But it’s not enough. . .they still need more. Plates begin to overflow and spill out all over the trays. The studios return to their audience with a gigantic mess, hoping you’ll be impressed more by the portion size than the taste. They believe we can take a heaping spoonful of all the accumulated content and not be sickened or dissatisfied by it all.
After witnessing X-Men: Apocalypse, the third superhero ensemble picture of 2016, I’ve identified an undeniable trend in these superhero movies that is starting to turn disastrous. Yes, the most obvious concern is the oncoming tsunami of superhero movies in general, all of which will no doubt fatigue mainstream audiences (this year in particular). But the trend I’m referring to is the studios’ need to cram as much into these films as possible. There’s a fever in Hollywood to have these movies give rise to connected universes with continuing stories and characters that can pop in and out of any picture. On one hand, it’s amazing that we can have movies where Batman can team up with Superman and Iron Man can battle Captain America. But the fire started by Marvel Studios has turned into a wildfire. . .and I’m hoping it’ll be put out soon.
When Marvel first laid the groundwork to make an Avengers movie, the effort was met with both excitement and skepticism, because no studio had ever attempted such a campaign. Marvel took their time to make entertaining movies for Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America, as each film firmly established the characters and their worlds. Then, Joss Whedon combined them all into a big superhero ensemble that seemed impossible but was highly successful; The Avengers became a huge hit at the box office and with fans. Consequently, superhero ensemble films become the blue light special and every studio raced to duplicate that success.
Sony quickly began plans to kick The Amazing Spider-Man into a mega-franchise. Prior to the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, plans were already being assembled for two more sequels and a Sinister Six spin-off movie. Preparations were well underway, as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 featured a handful of scenes with Rhino and an overlong sequence of the secret lives of Peter Parker’s lost parents. Add in the forced elements of more villains and you have yourself a 2½ hour mess of a Spider-Man movie. It was a picture that failed to draw an expected large box office which derailed all of Sony’s future plans.
Warner Brothers didn’t want to take their time in developing their own DC Cinematic Universe. They didn’t have the patience to wait four years for Avengers-level money—they wanted that money now. The follow-up to 2013’s Man of Steel would not be a Superman sequel, but a versus picture featuring both Batman and Superman. No, wait, it will also be a movie with Doomsday! No, hold on, it’ll also have Wonder Woman! But, wait, let’s also include Justice League cameos! And as a final touch, we’ll add in two premonition scenes suggesting additional upcoming films, just in case the movie isn’t over two hours yet! The DC Cinematic Universe seems to be off and running at this point, but with a very clunky start that does not appear all that promising for the future.
Meanwhile, Fox seemed to have the right idea with their newly formed X-Men revival. With X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, the series was riding at its highest peak both critically and financially. But it appears as though the X-Men have caught the over-stuffing bug as well with X-Men: Apocalypse, by including more heroes that do nothing, more arcs that go nowhere, and a different villain who just screams of standard comic book fare. I’d rather Jubilee not even be in the movie if she never gets a chance to add anything to the story. Actually, I could say that for about half the cast which are mostly present because X-Men lore requires that they show up.
Now, of course, Captain America: Civil War ends up being the exception to this trend by a trend-setting studio. But why? There are just as many characters present as any superhero ensemble and about the same amount of plot lines. I think it works so well in that the studio isn’t much trying to duplicate other superhero movies so much as they are trying to top themselves. It doesn’t feel as though there’s a worry about the movie not having enough or needing to insert an abundance of foreshadowing. The creative control and focus required to make the best superhero process is displayed clearly on screen in an intricate and delicate balancing act.
The only downside is that, due to the success of Captain America: Civil War, the ensemble superhero movie will continue to be seen as a marketing strategy worth pursuing for its competitors. It’s only going to get worse as Marvel Studios prepares for the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, which is rumored to have the highest count of heroes in any superhero movie ever made. How would DC Comics respond to such a success? Are they going to cram 50 heroes into their Justice League movie? Heck, why not 60? No, wait, force in the Justice League International and Teen Titans while you’re at it! It’s not like the audience is going to be overwhelmed or incredibly confused by all of this—they’ll watch anything with heroes, right?
As superhero movies continue to expand in their content, they are growing far too large, to the point where the bursting seams can be seen. We could be looking at the eventual end of the superhero movie trend as these movies become more crowded and bloated. . .until the bubble finally bursts. The bigger these superhero movies become, the harder they will fall. And, yes, that big fall is coming for this genre if these over-stuffing trends continue.