By Max Espinola
At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, which took place in July, the president of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige revealed a whopping 16 films and television series to be added to the billion-dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). While the announcement has generated hype among enthusiasts who are eager to see their fan-favorites return to the big screen, many have expressed their declining enthusiasm for the endlessly expanding franchise. This phenomenon, dubbed “superhero fatigue”, can be observed in the relative underperformance of recent films like Thor: Love and Thunder, which boasted a strong opening weekend followed by a massive 68% decline in sales the following weekend, which can likely be attributed to its mixed reception from audiences and critics alike. Similar things can be said about Morbius, a film which, following an embarrassing box office release in April and its subsequent universal panning by critics, was subject to relentless internet ridicule and mockery. Despite occurring recently, this trend highlights inherent issues in not just the Marvel franchise, but also in the cultural behemoth that is the superhero genre itself. And with the ever-shifting political spectrum propelled by injustices old and new, perhaps it is time for us to reevaluate those we have long viewed as heroes.
So, are these films the great works that audiences and their wallets laud them to be, or thinly veiled pieces of propaganda that can hardly be called cinema? I would argue the latter.
In terms of artistic merit, it can’t really be said that recent superhero movies have much, as enjoyable as they may be. A great example is Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that broke box office records on release after opening to widespread audience excitement. While its CGI spectacles and nostalgic role reprisals thrilled fans, beyond the green smokescreens laid superficial character development and an insultingly illogical plot. It’s because of flaws like this that many have likened new Marvel movies to theme parks more than anything, for in their market-tested, audience-approved and risk-free creation, fans are stimulated into consuming content at a pace few other studios could foster, squeezing out every last drop of milk from the cash cow that is the MCU.
And while such a cycle seems harmless, the sheer popularity of these films grows even more concerning when you consider their subtle right-wing spirit. Consider Spider-Man and Batman, arguably the two most popular heroic symbols of hope and justice who are almost universally loved by audiences. While their pursuits of “great responsibility” are mostly justified (considering the number of crazed supervillains that make up their rogues’ galleries), such crusades border on fascism. Rather than addressing the systematic and societal conditions that force citizens to turn to crime, these “heroes” instead beat common street thugs senselessly and turn them over to the police, preserving the status quo with near-absolute power. Sound familiar?
Furthermore, even some of their more powerful adversaries, as chaotic as they may be, had reasonable motivations for pursuing their goals. Take the Riddler in The Batman, for example, a genius who, despite carrying out his aims in a violent and psychotic manner, was opposing the harsh corruption and inequality of Gotham City. While he was thwarted in the end, the supposed hero of the story would do almost nothing in response to his valid societal grievances, a resolution typical in superhero movies. It’s almost as if the “hope and justice” offered by these films is no more than a carrot on a stick; dangling before the mouths of the oppressed close enough to motivate and influence but never to feed them, all the while we carry fascist ideals themselves on our shoulders.
Perhaps the greatest characteristic of art is its ability to bring about change. And with the current omnipresence superhero movies possess in our modern culture, it is imperative that we ensure the change these films facilitate is that of liberty, not tyranny. If we want our heroes to truly be “super”, perhaps it is time for them to go after the real villains of this world. And with that, if these studios wish to preserve the same charm they’ve held for years, they have to stop treating their fans like a crowd of talking wallets—mass-producing soulless cash grabs at a scale not even their most loyal fans would like to keep up with— and instead bring some new ideas to the table. Only then, perchance, can we get a bit closer to that sense of justice we’ve sought since the birth of these heroes themselves.
Featured Image (at the top of this page): A still from Black Adam, which opened last Friday to mixed reviews. (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)