With Further Ado #297: Guest Columnist – Is Superhero Fatigue Real?

You might have heard (maybe from me?) that we had another outstanding ITHACON. As part of Promoting and Managing ITHACON, a class I teach at Ithaca College, each year we embrace this annual tradition with the With Further Ado column.

Each spring, I ask the students to submit a column on pop culture as if they were the author of this space. Our crack editorial staff pours over the submissions and selects a winner, and they get published on this website. (The fact that it gives me a little break right after ITHACON is of no concern to anyone but me.)

Anyway, we have several amazing columns to publish this year. Our first winner runner-up of this year’s fill-in columnist contest is Nina Amato and her thoughts on superhero fatigue. (Nina just got finished working on ITHACON, and was on our program team creating a fantastic publication.) Congrats and thanks for all the hard work, Nina!

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Is Superhero Fatigue Real?
By Nina Amato

Whether we like it or not, superheroes are ingrained in our everyday media. Today, more than ever, we can see superheroes all over our film, television, and even literature. In fact, movie and television studios introduce the public to a new superhero almost bimonthly. It makes sense for them too, as superhero movies have been proven to serve as box office decimators. But why? While we’re seeing these movies succeed, they’ve also been heavily scrutinized by critics, especially recently. So, are superhero stories getting worse, or are we just getting tired of them?

Superhero fatigue is an ever-emerging phenomenon; it is the belief that superhero stories are receiving worse reception because we as consumers are getting weary of seeing them in abundance. While this paradoxical problem makes sense on paper, it begs the question: is superhero fatigue real?

In order to answer this question, I want to begin by focusing on a time where the concept of superheroes was changing. Marvel had just released their first puzzle piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Iron Man, 2008. They hadn’t known that this film was to serve as the foundation for their universe to come, but the following success only made sense. The movie performed miraculously well at the box office, bringing in a solid $585.8 million worldwide. Many credit this success to the film coming out in the year it did. Not only was the 2008 recession weighing on the minds of millions of Americans looking for an escape from their reality, but it was also when CGI in film was progressing to a point where people wanted to witness what boundaries it can push. However, Iron Man was also critically acclaimed for having a new and refreshing superhero story take the spotlight.

After the success of Iron Man, not only did Marvel want to pursue more stories similar to it, but other studios also wanted to jump on the success. Throughout the years following, Marvel began releasing new superhero stories, some of which include Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Doctor Strange (2016), and Black Panther (2017): All triumphant films that break the boundary of what “superhero stories” can be. It’s no wonder they did so well.

Even yet, that leads us into the next section of this debate: What’s happening now? It’s no secret that superhero movies are underperforming in comparison to the 2010’s, both in box office numbers and critical reception. With DC deciding to begin their extended superhero universe in around 2013, their movies haven’t been quite hitting the mark. While Man of Steel (2013) performed well, DC has had some serious growing pains that never quite phased out. It started with films like Suicide Squad (2016) and Batman Vs Superman (2016) receiving harsh backlash from critics and crowds alike. However, their more recent projects, which focus on properties like Shazam and the Flash, are also underperforming to the studio’s standards.

However, it’s not just DC Studios who are struggling. Marvel Studios are also having trouble finding their footing in the cinema world post-Phase 3 of their MCU. While they’ve had some recent knockouts like Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 (2023), they’ve also had some shortcomings like Antman and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) and Thor: Love and Thunder (2022).

In addition to those films, studios aside from Marvel have also been struggling [ex, Sony’s Madame Web (2024)]. But these projects didn’t just slightly underperform: They’ve received some of the harshest discourses I’ve seen “superhero movies” receive in a while. When many critics and fans are asked why these studios aren’t succeeding with superheroes anymore, there’s a very common answer: oversaturation.

Many believe that the reason superhero movies are losing the interest of the public is because there’s simply too many of them today. But I digress. My personal belief when it comes to superhero fatigue is that we as an audience aren’t tired of superheroes themselves, but the archetypes that can come with their stories.

The thing is, we’ve already broken the box of what superhero movies are. The problem is, we’re staying in that broken box without trying to break the “even bigger box”. That’s where I’d like to present some recent superhero stories like The Boys (2019), Invincible (2021), and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023). Whether it be through story or medium, these are three examples of superheroes in the media that are destroying the boundaries of what superheroes are as we know it. They each have such unique premises and artistic directions that it’s easy to see why they aren’t lumped into the category of typical superhero franchises. They remind me of something like Watchmen (2009), a superhero story that was unfortunately ahead of its time. They each revolve around superheroes, but make sure to present them in a new kind of universe, each vastly different from the last. While there’s no promises as to what the superhero genre has in store for us going forward, we can only hope it’s something that goes far beyond what we can conceptualize.