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A pocketful of kryptonite: are superheroes dying out?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Steve Rose
Chadwick Boseman, Gal Gadot, Tom Holland posing for the camera: No heroics... Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Spidey © Allstar/Marvel/Disney; Warner Bros/Rex; Columbia/Koba/Rex No heroics... Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Spidey

Maybe we didn’t need Thanos after all. Even without Marvel’s massive-chinned mass-murderer, superhero movies are experiencing a mass extinction event. The big beasts of our Hollywood-transforming superhero epoch are starting to shuffle out of the frame. So, will they be replaced by slightly smaller beasts?

We already know that Avengers: Endgame will somehow bring back many of those supposedly killed at the end of Infinity War. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has a new movie out in July, which is a bit of a giveaway. And there is no way that Marvel is killing off Black Panther (a sequel has been confirmed). But some key Avengers have announced that Endgame will be it for them, including Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Samuel L Jackson (Nick Fury), and the one who started it all, Robert Downey Jr – for whom Tony Stark has become what Jack Sparrow is to Johnny Depp.

© Getty

It is not just the Avengers who are facing their endgame. After 19 years, 12 films, numerous cast changes and some convoluted time-travel rebootage, this summer marks the end of the X-Men as we know them. Their chief asset, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, retired two years ago; X-Men: Dark Phoenix is expected to be the last in the mutant franchise, as confirmed by Fox’s studio boss, who described it as “the perfect send-off”. So no more blue body paint for Jennifer Lawrence, and no more grimacing in front of a green screen for Michael Fassbender. They are bigger than that now.

And look at what’s happened to DC’s marquee titles. Ben Affleck hung up his Batman cape this year, having failed to get a solo movie off the ground. A new Batman is planned for 2021, but don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, DC is giving us Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker movie. Henry Cavill has also retired as Superman, with no replacement named. So, it turns out the winner of Batman vs Superman was … Wonder Woman.

© Getty

It is too early for any “death of the superhero movie” proclamations, but there is no escaping that these are the genre’s household names, characters that have been in the popular imagination for most viewers’ lifetimes. Replacing them with the likes of Cyborg, the Eternals or the New Gods is going to take a lot more origin movies and strategically planned crossovers, and many punters simply won’t have the appetite. The New Mutants, an X-Men replacement movie, has been delayed for more than a year.

A new superhero era could be liberating. Many of them promise to be more modern, more diverse and more adventurous than before. But will it be as momentous? Will we ever get excited about a $400m, three-hour sequel like Avengers: Endgame again? If not, Robert Downey Jr can basically name his price for Iron Man 4.

Related: Superheroes then and now [Microsoft GES]

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