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2018 was a herald of change in superhero movies — big change

The year was a turning point for the genre, or at least it sure looked like one

From the first trailer for Avengers: Endgame
Tony Stark in the first trailer for Avengers: Endgame — the first step into the future of the genre.
Marvel Studios

Ours is a media environment saturated by superheroes. But even by that standard, the sheer number of big superhero movies released in 2018 deserves emphasis. Warner Bros., Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures all put out at least two superhero films; even Pixar got in on the act with The Incredibles 2.

The year kicked off with a movie that we are still talking about, Black Panther, and hit its stride with the massively anticipated release of Avengers: Infinity War and 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool 2. But it was been the final stretch of 2018 that has produced the most surprises, with the unexpected success of Venom, Aquaman, and the electrifying Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Ten years after The Dark Knight and Iron Man changed the genre forever, the biggest superhero studios are finally starting to figure out what comes next.

In 2018, Marvel prepared for its post-Robert Downey Jr. Era

Robert Downey, Jr., then as risky a proposition as the idea of a movie about Iron Man, is the reason the entire Marvel franchise didn’t simply flash and die in 2008. What a difference 10 years makes!

There hasn’t been a major event in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that hasn’t rested on at least a cameo appearance from him since. All three Avengers films — and even one Captain America movie! — have found their emotional turning point in Downey’s equally egotistical, hubristic and charming portrayal of the smartest Avenger. And when Marvel needed someone to establish the MCU’s official footprint in another company’s superhero universe, it was Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man who gave Spider-Man: Homecoming its Avengers tie-in.

Avengers: Infinity War poster Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios

In 2018, Marvel Studios laid the groundwork to leave Tony Stark and his incarnation of the Avengers behind — potentially forever. Avengers: Infinity War, for all its zipping across the galaxy, was ultimately a setup for Endgame’s punchline: a last (perhaps tragic) hurrah for the original seven Avengers. Thanos’ snap cleared the board of nearly every character in the roster but, in a way that is impossible to ignore, left Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye standing.

And with most of the Avengers actors reaching the end of their contracts, Marvel has also been preparing for a very different future. This year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp finally brought the Wasp to the prominence she deserved, while Infinity War prepped audiences for the introduction of Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel; and next summer, Spider-Man will swing back into theaters. In 2018 alone, Marvel Studios announced the production of an Eternals movie and a long-awaited Black Widow film, starring Scarlett Johansson. (Meanwhile, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 remains in limbo.)

And, of course, there was Marvel Studios’ biggest cultural success of 2018, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the second-highest grossing movie of 2018. Not since The Dark Knight has a superhero movie stood such a good chance of seeing its box office receipts actually turn into Oscar gold.

And Black Panther’s success does not seem to have gone unnoticed by Marvel. The studio’s most recently revealed film project is Shang-Chi, which will reportedly be an attempt to reach Asian and Asian-American audiences by using the same tenor and nuance with which Black Panther reached black and African-American audiences.

Marvel Studios’ legendary producer Kevin Feige has said that Avengers: Endgame will wrap a 22-movie story arc for the franchise. What comes after will represent an entirely new future with new characters. Whether that future succeeds will depend greatly on decisions the studio made in 2018.

Warner Bros. might have finally realized that it can’t make The Dark Knight happen twice

If 2018 seemed like a comparatively light year for Warner Bros.’ DC Films universe, it’s because it was. After 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, and 2017’s Wonder Woman and Justice League, 2018 slipped quietly along until its very end, when Aquaman arrived as an implausible box office splash smash.

As of this writing, the Momoa-led vehicle has made nearly $800 million. By the end of Aquaman’s second weekend in US theaters, it had grossed more than Suicide Squad reaped in its entire run. And it’s the kind of superhero movie that Warner Bros.’ DC franchise is known for not being — colorful, earnest and cheerful. It’s pure escapism, and proud of it.

When Warner Bros. shifted in favor of producing a loose franchise of films over a directly interconnected superhero universe like the MCU, it was easy to read as a retreat, not a regrouping. What should have been grand slams for the studio — a live action film with Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman in it! A Justice League movie! — had underperformed and been excoriated by critics. Both Justice League and Suicide Squad had gone through troubled and disrupted productions.

It takes a long time to turn a ship as large as Warner Bros.’, but 2018 saw the first concrete glimmers of that the new direction wasn’t a scrambled solution but a learned adaptation. The studio has a comically large slew of movies in some stage of production, but the ones we saw solid movement on in 2018 represent a much different tone than the pessimistic, grim, and gritty one that has been so associated with DC Films.

shazam Steve Wilkie

Shazam’s kid-oriented take on the venerable sort-of-just-a-kid superhero will hit theaters early this year, and Wonder Woman 1984 will grace screens in 2020, dressing the character in all the neon design work of that decade. And 2018 was the year that Birds of Prey finished scripting and casting stages, revealing the delightfully silly full title Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).

Improbably, Joaquin Phoenix’s gritty, 1980s-set Joker vehicle now seems like the odd one out. Add in the potential of a pulp-y Steven Spielberg-helmed Blackhawks and a trippy New Gods from Ava Duvernay, and we’re finally seeing the long-gestating results of a sea change in how Warner Bros. makes superhero movies.

Nearly 10 years after The Dark Knight, the studio has finally realized that its success can’t be replicated by grounding the entire DC Universe in somber stories about trauma and Pyrrhic victory — but rather by finding focused, inventive and skillful filmmakers who have something to say, and then letting them say it.

The biggest cliches of comics came to the big screen

In 2018, superhero movies brought some of the most unique tropes of the genre to the big screen, but at differing levels of success. The Avengers movies have always had all the upsides of a traditional comic book event crossover: All your favorite characters are here! The world is in danger! Nothing will ever be the same!

Avengers: Infinity War also introduced audiences to many of the downsides: There’s no time for anyone to really have a character arc! A cliffhanger ending will strike half the audience as a cheap, because it’ll be clear that most characters will have to return from the dead, for money reasons!

Infinity War was an expertly designed blur (to be fair, there’s really no way it could have been anything else) but still a blur. And how we feel about its cliffhanger now rests entirely on how Avengers: Endgame — or, let’s be frank, Avengers: Infinity War — Part II — turns it all around.

While Infinity War may have brought the idea of necessary comic book resurrection to wide audiences, the best intro to a core concept of the superhero universe came from a late and unexpected corner. Sony Pictures Animation released an animated, family-friendly action movie with in which no fewer than eight separate Spider-Persons appeared, from seven separate parallel Marvel earths. And it worked.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was the best comic book crossover event of 2018, and it wasn’t even in a comic. The success the movie has seen with audiences and critics just goes to show the biggest lesson behind the success of the superhero movie:

That the “niche” genre of superhero stories has always had the potential for universal appeal.