Superheroes have been popular at the movies for ages, but lately it seems that’s all anyone’s watching.
For all the incessant talk of superhero fatigue being imminent, the opposite seems to be true: moviegoers are avoiding everything BUT superheroes. The summer box office is winding down, and the box office charts paint a startling picture in North America. Here are the top movies of the 2017 summer movie season (defined in the industry as May-August):
1. Wonder Woman: $400M
2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2: $388M
3. Spider-Man Homecoming: $295M
4. Despicable Me 3: $241M
5. Pirates of the Caribbean 5: $171M
6. Cars 3: $148M
It’s not uncommon for a superhero to come out on top of the summer box office: Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises ruled the roost in 2012, Iron Man 3 did so in 2013, Guardians of the Galaxy did so in 2014. The last two years, it was a near thing: Avengers: Age of Ultron was #2 in 2015, and Captain America: Civil War was #2 last year. But to have complete domination of the top three slots by superheroes is unprecedented. Diana Prince, Peter Quill, and Peter Parker account for a third of the entire summer box office this year. Moreover, give or take the Minions, no other film is even in the same league as the superheroes.
The question that must now be asked is whether there is causation or only correlation between the superheroes’ triumph and other films flopping. Are people seeing superheroes at the expense of other movies, or would they still see other movies if there was anything worth seeing in cinemas?
With the caveat that I’m sure most of the other movies this summer have their staunch defenders, I would argue it’s more the latter. It has been a singularly uninspiring couple months for movies. Aside from superheroes, it mostly seems to be about franchises that Hollywood should have put out to pasture a long time ago. Pirates of the Caribbean, Planet of the Apes, Alien, The Mummy, and Transformers #82. It’s boring. And it’s accompanied by Hollywood making mediocre movies out of brands that no one asked to see on film: Baywatch, Captain Underpants, and emojis for crying out loud.
For all that people can complain about superheroes being formulaic, they seem like a breath of fresh air compared to everything else coming to a theater near you.
There is merit to the other argument though, that superheroes are sucking up all the oxygen in the movie theater. That’s because of the diversified secondary genres of comic book movies — so they are replacing films in other genres. If you want a comedy (my personal feelings about the movie notwithstanding), watch Guardians of the Galaxy 2 instead of Rough Night or Snatched. GOTG2 also scratches the sci-fi itch, so skip Valerian. If you want action, Wonder Woman has you covered, so skip Atomic Blonde and King Arthur. Something fun and family-friendly? Spider-Man’s probably more fun than Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Not only do the superhero versions look better than most of the regular versions, there’s also the social aspect to it. Going to see Spider-Man becomes an event with all your friends, but good luck convincing others to go see Everything, Everything (believe me, I tried!). And after you see the movie, you can be part of the cultural conversation. No one has much to say about The Mummy, but you can bet your fellow geeks (and the world at large) will be eager to talk about Wonder Woman and Spider-Man.
This entire article does rest on a significant assumption: that if people want to go see a movie, they can and they will. I’ve read arguments about prices being a deterrent, or obnoxious people on their phones being a deterrent. But it doesn’t seem like people have gotten noticeably more obnoxious in the last year. And ticket prices have gone up 25 cents on average, as they do every year, but the economy is good. Yet the summer box office is down more than 10% from the last two years — we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.
Right now, the folks at WB and Marvel must be pretty happy. Wonder Woman is about to become only the 27th movie in history to top $400 million at the North American box office, and four of those movies needed rereleases to get there. Meanwhile, Spider-Man Homecoming just topped Man of Steel to become the biggest-grossing reboot of all time. (Feel free to shake your head in sadness that this is becoming a competitive box office record.) But all the other execs in Hollywood are going to be doing some serious soul-searching right about now.
I’m interested to see what Hollywood’s takeaway from this summer will be. When superheroes do well in film (or television), the strategy has been to make more. But will Hollywood bother dropping $200 million on making other movies if they won’t actually be making money? Hopefully, there’s a lesson to be learned here about budgeting responsibly. Just like they don’t drop nine figures on a romance or a comedy, because those won’t make a billion dollars worldwide, Hollywood needs to realize that audiences won’t turn out in droves for yet another “dark-and-gritty” version of King Arthur, Peter Pan, Robin Hood, or the Mummy.
As for whether Hollywood will stop keeping franchises on life support for 29 installments… no, they won’t. The reason a superhero wasn’t on top of the box office in 2015 and 2016? Jurassic World and Finding Dory.
And while it’s a much more abstract goal, I really hope Hollywood starts making movies that actually look appealing. Now, who’s excited for Thor: Ragnarok?