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After 'Infinity War', will superhero movies ever die out?

Muhammad Haikal Satria
Muhammad Haikal Satria

An avid film watcher

Jakarta | Thu, April 26, 2018 | 03:14 pm
After 'Infinity War', will superhero movies ever die out?

A still from 'Avengers: Infinity War'. (Disney/File)

The year 2018 marks the 10th year of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With a total of 18 films and 14 TV series, it is without a doubt one of the most ambitious cinematic franchises in modern pop culture. This week, the 19th MCU film, Avengers: Infinity War, was released. Many media outlets are already calling it the biggest crossover in history.

But it warrants an important question: When will the era of superhero movies end?

The first superhero movie, Adventures of Captain Marvel, first screened in 1941, three years after the first Superman comic book was released. Superhero movies found a moderate level of popularity for the next 55 years, with multiple comic book properties being adapted into movies.

Nearing the end of the 1990s however, the stories of Batman and Superman were retold and its actors recast to the point of boredom. This led to the release of grittier and more obscure superhero films, such as The Crow and Blade. The most important film to appear from this era, and arguably the seed of the first mainstream superhero franchise, was X-Men, the first of many films to star Hugh Jackman and his band of mutants solving both global and personal problems.

Read also: In search of a new male hero archetype

By the 2000s, the general movie-going public had become more open to the idea of watching a guy or gal in tights fight crime, which led to a boom in the popularity of superhero movies. Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy, Christopher Nolan's dark take on Batman, and the first Iron Man are just some of the titles to appear in this period. 

With a robust history, superhero movies are obviously nothing new. But what has made them so popular, dominating global box offices for the past decade?

One reason may be the star power both DC and Marvel have brought to their films. Although there are actors like Tom Holland and Chris Hemsworth that credit a lot of their success to the MCU, other stars like Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Samuel L. Jackson were famous long before they joined The Avengers. Another factor might be the technological advances of visual effects. Superhero movies before the year 2000 suffered from unrealistic visual effects, opting for either over-the-top set pieces or cheap digital effects. Thankfully, by the time Iron Man rolled around, visual effects were much more believable and practical, immersing audiences in the cinematic experience.

So, with MCU's history and boom in popularity explained, let's get back to the main question: How long can this trend continue?

Let's first talk about the problem of MCU movies. With hundreds of characters at its disposal, it is obvious that the MCU has tons of material to work with. However, it also means that they have to try to fit all of these characters into a finite number of films, all with running times of less than three hours. Unfortunately, this is a hard feat to achieve, even with directors like Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, Jon Favreau and the Russo brothers. The villains of the MCU have complex names, one-dimensional backstories and an overall forgettable presence. This also happens to some of the heroes, like Black Panther and Spiderman who only appear in Captain America: Civil War for a brief fight before disappearing for the rest of the film.

Another downfall of this strategy is that death means very little in the MCU. In that particular universe, it happens in two ways. First, if you hold enough importance, you can have a death scene in one film, and then be miraculously revived in the next film or even the next few scenes. Second, if you hold little importance to the story, you can probably expect to die by the end of the movie, if not the next one. What this ultimately means is that death in the MCU fails to evoke deep emotions in its viewers. We either know that the character will come back to life, or have no time to emotionally connect or empathize with the character before they die.

These two problems culminate into one over-arching issue: The MCU provides very little closure to its audience. This isn't surprising, considering the nature of the cinematic universe, but it still feels unsatisfying. When you watch an MCU film, you know that each fight will never be the last. At the end of every single movie, there always seem to be a new threat, a loose thread or an unfinished plot. There are even some movies that seem to exist merely to add information for the overall finale (Guardians of the Galaxy 2, anyone?).

Of course, these problems might change with time. The MCU has made solo movies for some of its main characters, allowing each of them to add some depth to their story, like the recently released Black Panther. Infinity War has been rumored to kill off some of the universe's main characters and move a step toward "the end of the Avengers as we know it”. Let's just hope that, this time, they'll stay dead.

I have to say that I am certain that sooner or later superhero movies will die out. Much like how the Western genre disappeared from our screens, audience enthusiasm for MCU movies will change over time. They'll get bored, they'll stop believing in the superhero story, they'll want closure in one way or another. So if Marvel Studios still wants to be relevant in the next 15 to 20 years, they'll either need to shake up the MCU to make it more interesting, or prepare a whole new universe to keep the audience engaged. No matter what happens, it will be interesting to see what trends develop when our cinemas aren’t filled with stories about superheroes.

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An avid film watcher, Haikal aspires to one day sit in a director’s chair. He reviews movies on his Instagram account @haikalstr for fun.

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