It’s the final days of 2023, and voices everywhere are predicting the final days of the superhero movie. Even that bastion of the mainstream, the New York Times, is getting in on the eulogies. It’s no wonder, with this year’s solid string of financial and critical flops ebbing into 2024’s low-tide lineup of a mere three “interconnected universe” movies: Deadpool 3, Madame Web, and Kraven the Hunter.
But in the final days of 2023, one thing remains clear. People aren’t tired of superheroes — they’re just tired of bad superhero movies.
It’s not just a phase
Yes, superhero films and TV shows floundered consistently in 2023, as a whole crop of delayed productions finally hit screens and were not worth the wait. The Flash, first announced in 2014 and slated for 2016, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, which wrapped filming in January 2022, both hit to snores. The Marvels is officially the MCU’s lowest-grossing film, and it doesn’t really deserve it, especially in the year with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. It’s very possible that you’ve already forgotten about Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Secret Invasion.
This year, the extended universes ran out of things to do except gesture at the extended universe: Kang getting second billing in Ant-Man and Loki, Wonder Woman saving the day in Shazam, and the cast of 2013’s Man of Steel and 1989’s Batman in The Flash. Warner Bros. ended 2023 with the final movie connected in any way to Zack Snyder’s Justice League, while Marvel found itself dropping Jonathan Majors from its roster.
These superhero movies took the audience for granted. Companies considered the simple existence of an extended universe and the affection for recognizable characters as a core selling point, when it is, and should always be, the sauce and not the meat. What failed this year was the interconnected universe. But superheroes themselves succeeded.
What worked? The rejuvenating Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, television shows like Invincible and The Boys spinoff Gen V, and the adorable, all-ages action-romance cartoon My Adventures with Superman, which bids 2023 farewell with an ardent following and a season 2 renewal.
What succeeded for the MCU was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a demonstrably heartfelt sendoff and inarguably the most comic book-honoring ending the MCU has yet produced. What succeeded was Loki season 2, which, its numerous faults aside, delivered on what hardcore fans of the character wanted: Tom Hiddleston’s puppy-dog eyes, and their fave secretly becoming the most important person in the universe.
In 2023, Hollywood didn’t just make superhero movies, it’s started repeating history — comics history, that is.
Multi-versus the superhero
Bear with me while I hyperbolize slightly. If you ask comic book superhero fans about the best superhero stories ever told in comics, you will get a very long list. There will be dozens of stories about Batman and Wolverine — and half a dozen about Superman, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, the rest of the X-Men, and so on and so forth. There will be two, maaaaaaaaybe three, that are about the multiverse. There will be none that are about Kang.
If the boom of superhero movies has proved anything, it’s that our favorite superhero stories were not actually less compelling than those in other genres — it was just stigma (against reading comics) and access (it’s more difficult to read comics than to engage in most pop culture mediums) that kept them from wider acclaim. But it’s also proved that superhero cinema can plummet into the same pitfalls as superhero comics.
A decade-plus of continuity homework became a hurdle to access, and as overall quality succumbed to the demands of quantity, old associations of superhero stories as meaningless explosions and punching have been reified. And it was all pinned around the “multiverse,” one of the trickiest ideas to create universally compelling, lasting stories around — a sprawling collection of secondary timelines and parallel Earths that are by their own definition less meaningful to tell stories in than one central continuity.
Huge cosmic struggles became common superhero events in contrast with the more common everyday, soap-operatic adventures of individual heroes. And the superhero comics scene even has a term for when a company spends too much time reaching for the big and bombastic and world-ending, and not enough time letting characters breathe: event fatigue.
2023 was the year of maybe the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie… ever, thanks to the deliberate character choice to lean into the “teenage” part. It was the year when Spider-Verse proved it could sequel with the best of them, and almost certainly win another Oscar. It was when the no-holds-barred superhero satire of The Boys showed that it could franchise, too, when there was something more to say. And when the Marvel Cinematic Universe said tidy goodbyes to two of its biggest unexpected successes in character-driven fashion, audiences had a blast.
If 2023’s year of superhero duds proves anything, it’s that the superhero concept is sound. Don’t blame the flops on superhero fatigue — this is event fatigue.