Marvel and DC Stories Thrive Because of Viewers’ Nostalgia

by nyljaouadi1
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Among all of the other unprecedented events that occurred in the godforsaken year of 2020, there’s also this: it was the first calendar year since 2009 that did not see a release from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU has grown at an exponential clip over the last decade and change, from one or two movies each year in the early going to a schedule of three-per-year starting in 2017. Critics of the franchise had always assumed that the threat of over-saturation was the series’ true super villain, but in reality, it took nothing less than a global pandemic for Marvel’s superheroes to take a time-out.

Of course, if over-saturation really does pose a threat to Earth’s mightiest heroes, Disney doesn’t seem the least concerned. The scheduling might be reshuffled depending on how the COVID vaccine rollout goes, but as of right now, there are four MCU movies penned in for this year (including a Spider-Man sequel in December that doesn’t even have a title yet), as well as six seasons of TV headed to Disney+. And that’s not including the firehouse of content headed our way in the coming years, much of it recently announced in early December in a Disney investors’ call (now a hyped-up event, oddly).

Disney doesn’t have a complete stranglehold on the superhero market, but it’s close. Their acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019 gave them access to a chunk of Marvel properties like the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, and they have a co-production deal with Sony to include Spider-Man (the only major Marvel superhero outside the Mouse House’s grasp) in the MCU. If you love superheroes and don’t care for the MCU, then your best option is the DC Extended Universe—less interconnected than the MCU, the franchise is overseen by Warner Bros and features superheroes from DC Comics like Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, and the Flash.

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Sorry, did we say best option? It’s really your only option. Taken together, Disney/Marvel and WB/DC effectively have a duopoly on superhero content in pop culture. Almost every popular superhero movie from the 21st century hails from one of two comic-book universes, which, in turn, are owned by just two mega-corporations. No matter how much you might love the characters who inhabit those two universes, that’s both disconcerting and deeply weird. And it raises a question that might seem crazy on the surface but can’t be avoided: are superheroes really that popular? Or do audiences just love specific characters that happen to be superheroes, thanks to the lure of nostalgia?

One little-remarked-upon quirk of the superhero craze is that almost all of its biggest faces are practically ancient, at least by pop-culture standards. Most of the DC heroes—including Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash— were created in the late 1930s or early 1940s and are thus roughly 80 years old today. The Marvel heroes, by contrast, are a little younger. Most of them sprang to life in the 1960s, although there are a few outliers: while the Guardians of the Galaxy made their first appearance in 1969, most of the team members in the 2014 film were created in the ‘70s, and Deadpool debuted in an X-Men spin-off comic called New Mutants in the practically-just-yesterday of 1991.

In other words, it’s extremely rare to see a Marvel or DC superhero movie that’s populated with characters created in the last 40 years. And that applies not just to the superheroes themselves, but the larger world they inhabit. They fight the same villains they’ve been feuding with for decades. They romance the same love interests they’ve been pining for since their earliest issues. They even relive the same landmark events. Superman’s cornfed upbringing in Middle America. The murder of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. The transformation of Jean Grey into the malevolent Dark Phoenix.

las vegas, nevada   april 01 an advertisement for the upcoming dark phoenix movie is displayed at caesars palace during cinemacon, the official convention of the national association of theatre owners on april 01, 2019 in las vegas, nevada photo by gabe ginsbergwireimage

Gabe GinsbergGetty Images

This isn’t to say that this new batch of superhero stories are always a complete xerox of past glories; the Avengers movies Infinity War and Endgame, for instance, were heavily inspired by the 1991 mini-series Infinity Gauntlet, but tell a mostly new story with the same setup. Yet there are very obviously hard limits on how much these new movies and TV shows are allowed to change the mythos that fans have grown to love. They can find new shades within the overall picture, but must always color inside the lines.

To be fair, Hollywood wasn’t exactly a paragon of originality even before it got addicted to forever franchises. Studios were constantly on the lookout for material to adapt that was already popular—rare was the best-selling novel that didn’t become a heavily marketed movie—and every smash hit inspired its own set of knockoffs. Consider the long tail of Silence of the Lambs: the original novel drew rave reviews and brisk sales, which led to a stunningly successful, Oscar-winning movie adaptation three years later, which in turn led to a wave of serial-killer films over the course of the ‘90s.

But the superhero craze hasn’t fit this pattern: its consumers aren’t that interested in stories based on recent comics, and original concepts are even less popular. Studios without access to the treasures troves of Marvel or DC have barely even tried to compete, as it’s vanishingly rare for any superhero film without a decades-old pedigree to make a dent at the box office. There are exceptions, of course, but they tend to have their own caveats.

The Incredibles films and Big Hero 6 were huge hits, although they were produced by Pixar and Disney Animation (practically mega-franchises unto themselves). 2010’s Kick-Ass didn’t even break $50 million in the U.S. Chronicle was a sleeper success in 2012 and Netflix claims that its excellent 2020 release The Old Guard was viewed by 78 million viewers during its first month of release, but both played down their superhero-ness—they were sold as, respectively, another freaky found-footage thriller and an action flick that just happened to center on immortal warriors. Even M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable saved the fact that it was really a superhero origin story for its final plot twist.

the old guard

Charlize Theron in Netflix’s The Old Guard.

Netflix

Part of the issue is that it’s increasingly difficult to promote “new” things to the public. Social media is the nerve center of all communication, and it runs on algorithms that are designed to give you more of what you already like; anything that isn’t well-known is operating at a huge disadvantage when established franchises are sucking up all the oxygen. You can see that in the cautionary tale of 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which must have seemed at the time like catnip for the geek audiences that now rule the multiplexes: it was based on the hottest comic of the moment, generated enormous buzz at Comic-Con, got strong reviews, and boasted an ad campaign that played up the colorfully over-the-top nature of the material. And then it bombed. And not because audiences disliked it, either (it earned an “A-“ CinemaScore), but because “Scott Pilgrim” didn’t have massive name recognition.

With few options left, even the studios controlling our superhero stockpiles are making some desperate moves. Just a few weeks after Disney’s investor call, Warner Bros president Walter Hamada announced that the company would increase its superhero output by embracing the concept of “multiverses.” In theory, that means that popular DC heroes will simultaneously star in multiple series across movies and TV shows, with each series having its own separate continuity and a different set of actors. In practice, it means that the WB needs more content and the only way it can think to get it is by doubling the amount of stuff each year that stars Batman or Wonder Woman.

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Hearst

It’s easy to mock this strategy, but the truth is that Warner Bros is simply responding to a market shaped by fan myopia. If audiences ignore everything except more Batman, then they’ll inch closer and closer to a release schedule of 25 Batman movies per year. And as that happens, it gets harder to ignore that the engine driving the superhero craze is simply nostalgia. No doubt there are many budding young creatives out there with new ideas for superhero characters and stories, tales that might have more to offer than the twelfth movie in 20 years to feature Spider-Man. But in order to make them a reality, fans will have to show a little more curiosity and a little less corporate fealty. The superhero genre deserves a future bigger than just an endless recycling of its past.

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