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It’s Time For Superhero Movies to Get Small Again

Collider 3/26/2023 Douglas Laman
© Provided by Collider

Given how often they were both shuffled around the release slate across 2023 and 2022, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Shazam! Fury of the Gods were never supposed to come out within a month of each other. Though this placement is totally incidental, their presence as the first two major superhero movies of 2023 helps to illuminate a problem this subgenre is enduring right now. Both Quantumania and Fury of the Gods are sequels to superhero movies that many praised for being smaller-scale fare compared to typical comic book movie blockbusters. Unfortunately, these new follow-ups blow up the scale of their predecessors and engage in lots of CGI-heavy “epic” mayhem. All the humanity and charm of earlier Ant-Man and Shazam! adventures get lost in the middle of all the noise.

This problem is not exclusive to just the first two superhero films of 2023, though. The recent slew of superhero movies dropping in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have had a recurring problem of being constantly big all the time. It’s an issue that has only one fairly obvious solution: it’s time for superhero movies to get smaller again.

Superhero Movies Haven’t Always Been Massive Tentpoles

Considering the majority of the movies that cost $275+ million to make are gargantuan superhero team-up movies made after 2014, it’s hard to imagine today that the superhero movie was ever something smaller. However, in its original form, superhero films weren’t breaking the bank by default. Back in 1978, the original Superman was the costliest feature in history at the time of its release, an early sign that this genre could rack up big costs. However, the original film adaptations of Marvel Comics characters, like Howard the Duck and Blade, weren't bank-breaking endeavors while the initial X-Men movie cost $75 million in 2000.

RELATED: ‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’ Review: A Superhero Film Where the Hero Is the Problem

By 2007, Spider-Man 3 proved superhero movies could run up $250+ million in costs, but that same year, Ghost Rider cost “only” $110 million to make. In the years that followed, most superhero movies would creep past the $100 million mark in their respective budgets, but not all of them were globe-trotting outings that featured massive casts of characters. Massive endeavors like The Avengers were often accompanied by smaller-scale superhero outings in the same year. The initial three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed to especially realize the value of making sure there was variety in the scope of superhero movies in the marketplace. In 2015, Marvel Studios dropped the massive Avengers: Age of Ultron into theaters, but also the more low-key Ant-Man. Similarly, the big crossover event Captain America: Civil War in 2016 was followed up six months later by the more self-contained adventure Doctor Strange.

Nobody in their right mind would consider something like Spider-Man: Homecoming as intimate or small-scale as an early Jim Jarmusch movie. However, titles like Ant-Man and the Wasp did provide welcome breathers and more down-to-Earth struggles in contrast to the propulsive epic blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War. There was some difference in scope between several of these superhero movies…but the lines have blurred between entries in this subgenre within the last two years. Now nearly everything is trying to be Avengers-scale in scope.

Why Have Superhero Movies Become so Consistently Big?

It appears that a swarm of varying factors seem to have converged to ensure that all superhero movies are now as big as possible. Part of it is simply the lingering after-effects of Avengers: Endgame, which raised the bar for scope in superhero blockbusters to a considerable degree. Rather than treating that film as an anomaly, subsequent superhero films have used Endgame as a model to emulate. That’s why Eternals has such a sprawling cast, Black Adam tried to be an origin story for its titular lead and a showcase for the Justice Society of America, and various Marvel Cinematic Universe titles like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have attempted to tie into countless different Marvel titles.

Of course, what these projects failed to take into account is that what worked for a big team-up movie doesn’t necessarily work for solo titles. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania wasn’t better than its smaller predecessors just because it featured a future Avengers villain and Multiverse of Madness tying in so directly with WandaVision confused more moviegoers than it captivated. Instead of creating new fun experiences like Endgame, the deluge of big superhero movies is just making new entries in the subgenre harder to enjoy for general audiences.

Many recent superhero movies were deep in production before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so it’s not like the effects of this global health crisis on the theatrical film space were affecting every single superhero movie made in the last few years. However, it can’t be denied that the timing of constantly massive superhero movies with studios wanting to reaffirm the importance of movie theaters is…interesting. With so many superheroes fighting each other on the big screen in one movie and lots of massive spectacles, these titles now often operate as perfect demo reels for the most lavish sound and projection systems at movie theaters.

This is a narrow definition, of course, of what constitutes “proper” theatrical cinema (smaller arthouse titles like If Bale Street Could Talk are even more valid for big-screen exhibition than an average superhero film). However, the influx of sprawling superhero titles certainly could help movie theater chains and studios feel more comfortable navigating the weird world of theatrical exhibition in the wake of COVID-19.

It doesn’t help that a lot of superhero franchises were at a weird turning point at the end of the 2010s even before COVID-19 upended the entertainment landscape. Avengers: Endgame ended an era for Marvel Studios while the DC Extended Universe was trying to figure out what its future would look like after wildly varying box office performers (Aquaman was the biggest DC adaptation ever, while Justice League was a bomb). The solution for both franchises, it turned out, was to go big or go home. In the face of uncertainty over how their respective sagas could continue, the dominant superhero franchises opted to embrace the rampant spectacle.

Returning to COVID-19, I also can’t help but wonder if maybe a misguided attempt to provide “escapism” from reality informed the bloated scale of these movies. The most recent superhero titles, like Quantumania and Fury of the Gods, didn’t start work on their screenplays until the COVID-19 pandemic was underway. Could the shifting of the superhero chaos of the Ant-Man franchise to the Quantum Realm have been, at least in part, inspired by a desire to not have to acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic? Kang does a lot of evil things in that microscope domain, but global pandemics don’t appear to be one of them. Meanwhile, the version of Philadelphia seen in Fury of the Gods is too busy being overwhelmed by a magical barrier and an influx of mystical creatures to think about real-world horrors.

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The onslaught of massive CGI spectacle in this subgenre could be seen as a misadvised way of sidestepping the brutalities of reality that we’ve all been dealing with in the last three years. While superhero blockbusters don’t need to be 180-minute grim meditations on mortality, this emphasis on endlessly gargantuan digital threats has just made the subgenre feel detached from reality in all the worst ways. It isn’t just the lingering effects of COVID-19 titles like Quantumania have left behind, it’s also a discernible sense of humanity.

Then there’s the fact that “bigger” when it comes to modern superhero movies doesn’t just mean more explosions. Bigger in 2023 also means connecting to multimedia franchises, which allow studios to thrive in both movie theaters and on streaming. Half of the credit scenes on both of 2023’s first two superhero movies directly tie into streaming programs, with Quantumania’s post-credits scene being basically incomprehensible unless you’ve seen Loki. Bigger now means these productions have to feel obligated to connect the dots between TV and film, which often just makes for motion pictures that feel like they’re being pulled all over the place. The demands of satisfying modern streaming and entertainment conglomerate norms are further adversely informing the ballooning scope of superhero movies.

Finally, it's important to remember that this recent slew of excessively big superhero movies suffers from problems that have long existed in the subgenre. Criticisms that these kinds of blockbusters suffering from too much CGI and bloated storytelling has existed for decades and the 2010s saw several movies (like X-Men: Apocalypse or Suicide Squad) that seemed like the poster children for superhero films being all scope and no substance. These flaws have often existed within superhero fare, they're just becoming more prominent and noticeable now. We've always had lackluster superhero projects full of CGI, but no heart like Thor: The Dark World, it's just that much stronger titles like the original Guardians of the Galaxy that could counterbalance those weaker entries are becoming scarcer and scarcer.

Is There Hope for Superhero Movies to Go Smaller?

We haven’t really had a major superhero blockbuster that cost under $100 million since the pandemic started save for, amusingly, Morbius. However, one recent DC Comics blockbuster may just provide a handy blueprint, or at least creative inspiration, for how these titles can get “smaller” without sacrificing excitement in the process. The Batman is an expansive movie with a massive cast, but it’s also not packed with endless CG-laden fight scenes nor is it constantly trying to connect to other DC blockbusters. Instead, it’s a standalone mystery thriller intrigued by the murky alleyways and dark corners of Gotham City. It’s a great detective yarn that proves that sharp storytelling, not scope for the sake of scope, is what draws you into superhero stories.

The Batman provides some hope that modern entries in the superhero movie genre don’t all have to end with CGI ships crashing down to the ground or massive light beams shooting up into the sky. Unfortunately, it’s not the current default norm for the subgenre. Given that the rest of this year’s superhero entries involve things like Ezra Miller’s Flash crossing the timeline to interact with Michael Keaton’s Batman or a crossover between an assortment of lady Marvel superheroes, it’s doubtful we’ll be seeing much in the way of low-key storytelling from this subgenre soon. Though all the spectacle is meant to be sweeping, projects like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Shazam! Fury of the Gods are proving that relentlessly massive superhero adventures are more exhausting than anything else.

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