Superhero films need to evolve beyond cameo appearances

The year 2022 is already drawing to a close and that means that every superhero movie of the year has already been released. This year’s crop of live-action superhero features that included The Batman, disease, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Adamand Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, were a massive boon to the cinemas bottom line. In North America alone, these six films contributed over $1.6 billion to the box office (at the time of this writing). Wakanda forever ready to add even more to that total when all is said and done. The COVID-19 pandemic may have kept these films out of theaters for most of 2020, but it’s clear their box office numbers may not have declined over the years and years of upheaval.

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Given the continued ubiquity of this subgenre, it only makes sense for people to look at the various box office results of these films and analyze some bigger lessons for the current film landscape. In every Hollywood era, what’s most popular with moviegoers offers plenty of insight into the psyche of the planet at that point in time. The superhero movies of 2022 are no different.

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Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Image via Marvel Studios

It’s impossible to look at a collection of films where 2/3 of the domestic entries have surpassed $340 million and try to say that a serious problem is afoot. The superhero film, especially those from Marvel Studios, still pulls in the crowds in its opening weekend like few other subgenres can. However, there are some caveats, albeit very slight ones, when considering such a thing Multiverse of Madness still over 950 million US dollars worldwide. For one, these movies are becoming more common, at least in North America.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only four Marvel Studios titles fell more than 60% in their second weekend. All four of these films (The incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, Spider-Man: Homecomingand Ant Man and the Wasp) were released after Memorial Day weekend well into the summer when more children are leaving school. This meant it was reasonable to assume that these exceptions were due to people watching these titles during the week instead of just waiting for the weekend. Start with Black widowbut every single title from Marvel Studios except for Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings had a 60+% drop over the second weekend. That’s to be expected with controversial titles eternal and Thor: love and thunder, but also very well received projects like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever 63% slipped in their second frames of release.

Marvel Studios had two titles (Multiverse of Madness and love and thunder) lose over 67% on its second weekend after domestic release while the film was horribly received by Sony/Columbia Pictures disease plummeted 73% on its second weekend of release (The Batman bucking tradition with a much more steady 50% drop over the second weekend). Some of this simply has to do with the divisive nature of some recent Marvel Studios projects, as well as the last four Marvel Cinematic Universe films, which are sequels with built-in fan bases rushing to see those films over opening weekend. However, it’s also clear that superhero films, by and large, are becoming more and more front-line.

They’re still making too much money for Hollywood to care, but it’s worth noting that these films aren’t attracting as many non-hardcore fans as they used to. Even a non-sequel like Black Adam (albeit part of a larger cinematic universe) seemed to garner a lot of love from more than just the general public, possibly because of a marketing campaign that was largely geared towards DC devotees (mainly in that last-minute emphase). Henry Cavill‘s mid-credits Return as Superman). Recent efforts by superhero films to stay in the public eye beyond their opening weekend are particularly remarkable considering how some of the biggest hits of 2022 (namely Top Gun: Maverick and Everything everywhere at once) were impossibly long-legged affairs that stayed on the pop culture radar for months.

Superhero movies place too much emphasis on the past and future

Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth as Jane Foster and Thor Odinson in Thor: Love and Thunder
Image via Marvel Studios

The superhero cinematic landscape of 2022 was filled with familiar faces, including Batman (albeit played by a different actor), Doctor Strange, and even Jane Foster. Meanwhile, the marketing campaigns for disease and Black Adam Each leaned heavily on cameos from recognizable characters while also teasing what the future of their respective franchises might hold. Superhero movies this year drew heavily from the past and the future, a phenomenon common to superhero movies in a post-avenger World. But it felt particularly distinct this year, possibly because we didn’t have a really big original swing like that Shang Chi or Guardians of the Galaxy to balance things.

With so much focus on the past and future, there’s a reason The Batman and its largely self-contained story resonated with so many viewers. Its plot also grappled head-on with relevant issues related to social inequality, an approach that ensured the film could really lean into the here and now in a very different way. It was a breath of fresh air in a year that saw Shazam and Venom reappear often to wow moviegoers. Again, making superhero films brimming with in-universe references and sequel teasing is nothing new. But those qualities felt particularly standout this year, along with dredging up every character studios could find for a few extra nostalgia kicks.

What superhero movies did well in 2022

Angela Bassett as Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Image via Marvel Studios

Of course, not all takeaways from live-action superhero films of 2022 have been negative or emblematic of troubling trends in the subgenre. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, for example, had its flaws but was largely successful as a worthy and emotionally powerful sequel to its iconic predecessor. In the meantime, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness had a blast recognizing the presence of legendary Marvel superheroes like Mr. Fantastic (John Krasinsky) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) only to brutally kill them all one by one. Such characters would normally be perfect tease fodder for the end credits in another film, but here they were used for a dark comedy. It’s the kind of standalone entertainment you can’t resist.

Live-action superhero movies of 2022 have been at their best, much like superhero movies in a year, as they focused on wowing audiences with fresh concepts rather than just leaning on the taunts of the future or regurgitating the past. The latter element in particular cannot be relied upon solely to carry a film, as seen in the promise of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) crossing with Morbius failed to excite people disease. Even promising to meet Superman and Black Adam wasn’t enough Black Adama film whose worldwide box office success will be below the cheaper ones Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage.

It’s not enough to just put the familiar in front of moviegoers, you have to deliver something unique that they can hold onto to this day. The live-action superhero films that the public responded to and rejected in 2022 reflect their ongoing desire for good contributions to this subgenre. Times are still very difficult out there (the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging, for example) and it’s no shock that people still want light-hearted material that can lift their spirits. They won’t just show up for anything branded with a Marvel or DC logo, though.

2022 was an undeniably weird year for the superhero film. It was a year in which his box office dominance was undisputed, but also a year in which some odd flaws suggested this subgenre shouldn’t take his enduring success for granted. Whatever the future holds for this subgenre, hopefully it will include more superhero films with obscure, untested characters, as well as titles that learn the right lessons from features like The Batman and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Also stop trying to make disease happen, it won’t happen.

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