Superheroes are and have been all the rage on the big screen for quite some time now. Ever since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men reinvented what a superhero movie could be, filmmakers and studios have been toying with different takes on the genre to varying degrees of success. If Spider-Man and X-Men were the first phase of superhero movies, and Christopher Nolan’s “gritty reboot” approach was the second, we’re currently living in the third phase: the Marvel Studios/Shared Universe era. Looking back, it’s surprising that Marvel’s first independent film, Iron Man, was released in theaters the same year as Nolan’s iconic The Dark Knight, but it was the former that would be a harbinger of things to come. Indeed, Marvel not only brought a colorful, joyous tone back to the superhero genre, but they invented something nearly every studio is doing nowadays: the interconnected universe.
2012’s The Avengers was a risky gamble that paid off in spades, jump-starting a plethora of imitators who wished to bring the “shared universe” aspect of comic books to the big screen. But this notion is almost ubiquitous at this point—Marvel proved it works, other studios are trying the same thing, so what’s next? I’d argue we’re actually at the tail-end of the third phase of the superhero genre, on the cusp of heading into an unknown new phase that could either continue the upward trend of the genre or start a slow fall back to the ground, and I have a feeling the turning point might be this year.
You’d be forgiven for assuming the past few years have seen a massive amount of superhero movies hit theaters, but in truth the post-Marvel era has only ever given us five major superhero movies in the same calendar year—last year had only three! But that all changes in 2016 where seven major superhero movies are slated for release (eight if you count the TMNT sequel). But more important than the number of superhero movies hitting theaters in 2016 is the kind of superhero movies that are headed to the screen. Most represent a major stepping-stone for the genre in one way or another; important foundation films whose success or failure will dictate how the various studios proceed with their properties going forward.
So why is it important? Well let’s break it down studio by studio, starting with where this whole “shared universe” shebang began: Marvel Studios. Marvel is set to release two films this year, the first of which is Captain America: Civil War in May. This film marks a fascinating departure for Marvel in that, having built up to The Avengers, broken off into standalones, and then built back up to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the studio doesn’t seem keen to rinse, wash, repeat. Civil War, therefore, is almost like another Avengers movie unto itself, featuring starring roles for Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Mackie, and Scarlett Johansson, with appearances by every other Avenger save for Thor and Hulk, as well as a slew of Marvel Cinematic Universe supporting players, from regulars like Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to long-forgotten characters like General Ross (William Hurt). If that wasn’t enough, the film also brings newly established characters like Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Vision (Paul Bettany) further into the fold, and introduces major MCU additions Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). That’s a lot of wheels for a Captain America movie to have in motion.
But therein lies the rub. Marvel is selling Civil War as a Captain America film, and it no doubt has its POV and focus squarely on Evans’ Cap, but to general audiences, this is a Marvel movie with Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye—it’s become much harder to delineate this as a standalone Captain America movie, and maybe that’s the point. Marvel seems keen on blurring the lines between narrative feature films and comic books even further by teaching audiences that a film called Captain America: Civil War is essentially the next episode of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with slightly more Cap than anyone else, not necessarily a splintered-off solo adventure of Captain America.
So how is this “make-or-break”? Well the question is, will audiences respond well to a superhero-filled ensemble so quickly after Avengers: Age of Ultron—and especially one not carrying the title Avengers—or will this formula shakeup devalue the Avengers proper films? In other words, does sharing the Avengers ensemble beyond simple cameos in standalone Marvel movies make an Avengers movie less of an event? Does it make the standalones less eventful? We already know that Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk is teaming up with Thor in Thor: Ragnarok, so this co-starring plan doesn’t seem to be a one-off. Will audiences respond with the same enthusiasm they’ve received the rest of the MCU films, or could we start seeing downward box office trends over the next couple of years, as single-character standalones (outside of setting up new characters) become the rarity?
Speaking of which, Marvel also has Doctor Strange on tap for release this November, which brings the MCU squarely into the realm of the mystic for the first time with a brand new set of characters. Although I’m less inclined to call that film a risky “make-or-break” prospect given that Guardians of the Galaxy proved Marvel’s brand-name recognition will put asses in seats regardless of how weird the subject matter is, assuming the film is enticing enough. Civil War, I’d say, is the real one to keep an eye on, and while I’ve no doubt its box office prospects will be huge, I’m incredibly curious to see how the response to the film impacts future MCU installments.
But before we see the release of Captain America or Doctor Strange, a superhero of a very different sort will be gracing our screens: Deadpool. This is perhaps the most important superhero film of the year, as the long-gestating adaptation will be our first major hard-R-rated superhero movie of the post-Nolan, post-Marvel era. Indeed, 20th Century Fox—a real, honest-to-goodness movie studio—made and is unleashing this foul-mouthed, fourth-wall-breaking character into the world, and as response to the film’s marketing materials has been promising, we wait to see if director Tim Miller and star Ryan Reynolds’ persistence and passion will be rewarded.
Made on a modest budget compared to other superhero efforts, Deadpool offers a very different flavor from what fans of superhero movies are used to seeing—although perhaps the somewhat edgier Guardians of the Galaxy (remember the Pollock joke?) primed audiences just enough for a very hard-R superhero pic. If Deadpool is a success, we could see the other major studios like Marvel or Warner Bros. dipping their toes in the R-rated territory, giving them a whole new set of colors to paint with. If it doesn’t hit, we can probably put to rest hopes for another R-rated superhero film for quite some time.
Not only is Deadpool important tonally, it’s also a key film for Fox in establishing its own inter-connected movie universe. The studio has confirmed plans to make clear that all of its superhero movies are taking place in the same world, and given that the X-Men franchise is still set in the past, the present day-set Deadpool will be the first to explicitly make clear that all of these superhero characters are inhabiting the same world, with the events of X-Men: Apocalypse having taken place in Deadpool’s past.
Speaking of which, Apocalypse itself is yet another potential turning point for the genre. Bryan Singer, one of the godfathers of the modern superhero pic, returned to his flagship franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past, but with Apocalypse he’s not only wrapping up the arcs of the already-rebooted original characters Charles (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), but Singer is rebooting even more original characters in the form of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). If these onscreen iterations hit, we could see the X-Men franchise move forward with a brand new character focus and a shared universe aspect. Moreover, it will mean Singer has successfully rebooted his own franchise 16 years after starting it in the first place.
Fox also has Gambit on its schedule for 2016, but seeing as how that film hasn’t started filming yet and it’s slated to open in October, it’s likely to be pushed to 2017. But still, Deadpool alone is a watershed moment for the superhero genre, so between the R-rated pic and Singer’s rebootquel Apocalypse, Fox has plenty riding on this year as a whole.
And then we have Warner Bros., which after years of false-starts and development is finally getting its own inter-connected universe off the ground in a massive way: with a long-promised Batman versus Superman movie. Zack Snyder’s aptly named Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will not only retroactively establish Man of Steel as the first film in the DC Cinematic Universe, it will introduce Warner Bros.’ stable of superheroes that it hopes find success on the big screen in the years to come with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and The Flash (Ezra Miller).
It cannot be overstated how hugely important Batman v Superman is to Warner Bros. This movie has to make clear to audiences that WB can rival Marvel Studios in the shared universe department and introduce a new Batman in the form of Ben Affleck and tee-up a two-part Justice League epic and tell a compelling story all its own. It sounds like it should be easy given that Warner Bros. has all the best toys in the toybox, so to speak, but the established, iconic nature of said characters makes them that much harder to flesh out as iterations specific to this movie universe. If for some reason Affleck’s Batman is a non-starter or Gadot turns out to have been miscast as Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. is faced with major problems seeing as how they already have the wheels firmly in motion to move forward. Man of Steel wasn’t the global phenomenon that Warner Bros. was hoping for, so it’s putting all of its chips on the table with Batman v Superman having already paid for a new house (filming dates for Justice League: Part One are being set) and a new car (the standalone Wonder Woman movie is already in the midst of production).
However, it’s entirely possible that Warner Bros.’ breakout superhero film of 2016 isn’t Batman v Superman, but is instead Suicide Squad. The David Ayer-helmed adaptation is a solid gamble on the studio’s part, telling a superhero story from the villains’ points of view instead of the heroes. Jared Leto’s iteration of The Joker has had people talking for a long while now, and the star-studded ensemble that includes Margot Robbie and Will Smith provides Warner Bros. with a marketing-friendly cast. While the film is rated PG-13, its tone certainly seems to be much more dire and dark than Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, and indeed if the aforementioned Deadpool is a hit with audiences in February, they may be itching for more adult-oriented superhero fare when Suicide Squad rolls around in August. If it’s a hit, it could provide Warner Bros. with an entirely new franchise and set of characters to play with.
Suicide Squad is at least something new to the genre, which in and of itself is impressive, and fan interest has definitely been piqued. When all is said and done, and despite Warner Bros.’ already-in-motion plans for Justice League and this or that standalone post-Batman v Superman, they could find themselves in the position of having their most popular franchise being the one that doesn’t already have sequel or spinoff plans in the works.
So as you can see, when it comes to the superhero films on tap for release in 2016, the success or failure of each could have major repercussions not only for the various studios, but for the genre as a whole. Whether it’s further blurring the lines between comic-book storytelling and traditional feature narratives, breaking new ground with an R-rated entry to the genre, or establishing a massive shared universe of iconic characters with big plans already in motion, 2016 is shaping up to be a very interesting year for the superhero film. And in a year or two’s time, we could very well be looking back on it and saying that’s when everything changed.