A few years ago, I was on a panel at DragonCon for “The State of Superhero Cinema,” and a question we got asked more than once was, “Is the superhero bubble going to burst?” Superhero movies have been raking in the dough, especially in the last eight years, and naturally fans are a little worried that what they’re witnessing isn’t the emergence of a new cornerstone of blockbuster cinema but a short-lived fad.
The thinking seems to be that if there are enough bad movies in the genre then the bubble will burst. However, what 2016 showed us is that the genre will remain popular even if every film isn’t a homerun. Furthermore, 2016 showed us that studios can find success both by playing it safe and by taking chances. There’s no single answer for how to make the genre thrive.
While Deadpool wasn’t the biggest superhero movie of 2016 (that distinction goes to Captain America: Civil War), it was the biggest success story. The film had languished in development hell for years as Fox didn’t quite know what do with it despite fans adoring Ryan Reynolds’ take on the character and the leaked screenplay from writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Eventually, the studio took a chance on the character, giving him a moderate budget and then pursuing one of the smartest marketing campaigns in recent memory. They took the R-rating and turned it into an asset.
Although Deadpool isn’t a “great” film, it’s a game-changer for the genre since it shows other studios that given the right material and the right campaign, they can have a huge success. The R-rating is no longer a kiss of death, but moreover, the superhero is established enough that films can start edging into satire. Although I wish Deadpool went a little further in making fun of the genre, it does get in some good jabs in between the cursing and the violence.
Deadpool may have been the biggest superhero success story of the year, but on the flipside, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was its biggest disappointment. The movie bore all the signs of what can go wrong when a studio decides to rush its universe building in favor of quick profit. Even those who weren’t offended by Batman v Superman would likely agree that nothing would have been harmed if we had gotten at least one more solo Superman film before Batman, Wonder Woman, and everyone else started charging in.
However, it’s tough to say what that Superman movie would be. It’s difficult to get a handle on what director Zack Snyder wants from the iconic hero. On the one hand, he wants the audience to know that the sign on Superman’s chest means “hope”, and yet on the other hand, he wants to depict Superman as an aloof god, tethered to humanity only by his love of Lois Lane and Ma Kent. Perhaps the character could have been better fleshed out if he had another movie where he was the primary focus, but in their haste to catch up to Marvel, Warner Bros. basically made Justice League 0.5: Dawn of Sadness.
Given the reaction to Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. will be course-correcting again when it comes to Justice League, and while it’s encouraging that the studio is listening to fans, they were also listening to fans post-Man of Steel, and the result was a film that diminished Batman and Superman. Perhaps with Geoff Johns taking on a larger role at the studio, they’ll figure out what they’re doing, but 2016 was not a great year for them.