The Coming Superhero Movie Collapse

Back in January, Charlie Jane Anders noted on io9 that there were more "superhero films coming in 2011 than in the past few years put together." Since then, two comic-book based films – Green Hornet and Thor – have already decked audiences with a super-powered punch. Additional superhero films slated for this summer include X-Men: First Class, The Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger, while on next year's horizon looms The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, along with the Amazing Spider-Man and Superman reboots. Add all these up and it's obvious Hollywood is betting its blockbuster future on the continued success of superhero films.

In that io9 article, Anders wondered if 2011 would be the year when "superheroes stretch out" and become more than the cliches Hollywood keeps throwing at us. If the early evidence from Green Hornet and Thor is any indication, the answer to this is a big "hell no!" But with so many superhero films coming out over the next year and a half, an even more important question is this:

Are audiences about to throw up their hands in disgust at too many mediocre superhero films?

I can already hear the laughs of derision rising from movie fans at my comment. After all, these superhero films are a perfect match for today's special effects driven blockbusters. When even The Green Hornet – which was panned by both critics and audiences – makes $228 million worldwide, how could I even suggest this trend might end?

Simple. The superhero film genre is a market-driven bubble, and all market bubbles eventually pop.

If your only exposure to superheroes is through Hollywood films, allow me to introduce  the collapse of the comic book market in the early 1990s, when two-thirds of all comic book stores closed. The collapse was caused by the greed of comic publishers and comic speculators, both of whom believed that millions of copies of "special first editions" and variant covers could be sold to an ever-growing audience. The problem is that while publishers flooded the market with cheap gimicks to enhance sales, they forgot that the main reason people read comic books is because of the compelling stories, art, and characters.

When you look at how the comic book market once collapsed, you can't help but see a similar storyline playing out with superhero movies. For example, here's one tale from a comic book seller who describes the 1990 comic book market collapse:

"The worm had turned, and comics fans were pissed off. Comics collectors were finally mad at Marvel for churning out garbage for the past few years. They were mad at Dark Horse for never making an issue #5; all of their movie comics were four-issue miniseries, the logic being that #1 issues sell better. They were mad at Image for producing comics based solely on their namesake – image."

Now obviously the market dynamics behind the comic book collapse and the current boom of superhero movies aren't exactly the same. However, the similarities are startling.

In that article, the anonymous "Noun" (who sold comics during the 1990s) describes how Marvel and other publishers used crossover events to boost sales – where stories from one comic crossed over into other titles, meaning you had to buy all those comics simply to follow the story.  Does that sound similar to what's going on with their current line of Marvel superhero movies as we build toward next year's much promoted Avengers film?

Other similarities include how "publishers abused the gimmicks." Think the same thing isn't happening today?  Can anyone say 3D films, or the rebooting of characters like Spider-Man who starred in a successful film series only a few years ago?

And the final similarity is Marvel Comics itself, the company which was one of the main culprits behind the collapse of the comic book market in the 1990s. Marvel was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1997 because it lost sight that the most important aspect of their "properties" was in the telling of stories which resonate with readers. 

A simple truth of any market-driven enterprise is that if you flood the market with crap then the market will collapse. That happened with comic books back during the 1990s and its happening today with superhero films.

Superhero films are a great art form when they focus on the compelling stories, characters and visuals which first attracted people to comic books in the first place. For evidence of this look no further than the last two Batman movies. But in the rush to exploit the demand for superhero films, Hollywood and companies like Marvel are flooding the market with too much mediocre crap.

Just as happened with comic books, the worm will eventually turn. And when it does, movie goers will turn away from the current boom market in superhero films.