The Golden Age of Superhero Movies Is Over

With the continued expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC properties, more and more superhero movie and television content is being pumped into screens almost non-stop. New genres and formats are being explored and countless characters are being brought into live-action. So, we should be at the peak of the age of superhero movies, right? Unfortunately, it seems we have sailed right on through the Golden Age of Superhero Movies that took place in the 2010s. 

This feature could not function without describing the massive and crucial impact that Marvel Studios and the MCU had on the superhero genre. However, other films began paving a path before 2008’s Iron Man. DC had been producing films, particularly based on Batman and Superman properties, for decades that had a clear cultural impact. Marvel, through Sony or Fox, had major hits like the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises. While the superhero movie genre had been present for some time, the MCU was the undeniable spark that caused the concept of the superhero movie to explode.

While Iron Man was the first of now many films in what became the MCU, the whole franchise did not pick up an insane amount of steam for several years. The early Phase One movies were—overall—OK. They existed as origin stories, but the superhero origin story had already been done nearly 3,333 times before. Everything changed when Avengers was released in 2012.

The crossover aspect is undeniably one of the key (if not the key) components that changed the way audiences engaged with the genre. While other superhero movies still trickled out around this time, no other franchise was combining four other franchises into one mega-franchise. The MCU was surely not the first to invoke the crossover strategy, but it certainly was the first to employ it on such a large scale. And luckily, Avengers was a smash hit and will remain one of the most culturally significant films of the early 21st century. Movies stopped becoming just movies—they were entire events and spectacles that transcended just a single film. At this point, “franchise” became the business term while “universe” because the one fans experienced.

The Infinity Saga experience, frankly, cannot be surpassed. The post-Avengers excitement leading the Avengers: Endgame was the definitive Golden Age of Superhero Movies. During this time, millions and millions of fans waited feverishly for the one or two movies the MCU dropped each year. Easter eggs and cameos felt like invaluable treasures as people started to stitch together this rich, magical fictional universe that entertained them like no other. The promise of some ultimate “finale” to the saga being lived through buoyed even some of the weaker installments. And, boy, was that finale spectacular. 

At this point, there is no reason to overanalyze Avengers: Infinity War or Endgame anymore. Regardless of contemporary or retrospective reviews or criticisms, virtually everyone who was a fan during that time can tell you those films were the hype of all hype. The iconic moments from those films we still conjure up frequently were the fruition of 11 years of storytelling, and every bit of the event was stylized as the definitive and ultimate moment of the unprecedented sensation that was the MCU. 

Of course, the MCU did not stop. In fact, it is producing content at a rate that would even a 2018 fan would never believe. More characters that comic book fans never thought would ever make it to live-action are now here, living amongst the universe we feel we grew up or grew old in. There is something to be said, though, about the onslaught of content. The ever-warned-of “superhero fatigue” that some spoke of a decade ago may actually be creeping in. With often little to no chance to take a breath between MCU projects, each one has the potential to feel less and less special. The anticipation for the next project has weaned. Now, it is difficult to take in the entire MCU given how many hours of content exist. A casual fan may very well be overwhelmed, and new fans may have no idea how to actually get involved. Old fans may have had to abandon their annual MCU rewatch. 

But Phase Four—and beyond—content has also produced some phenomenal projects. Many would agree that Spider-Man: No Way Home, Werewolf By Night, and She-Hulk are all gifts in their respective formats. But even with quality new projects, the expectations are clearly higher than they once were. Part of it is the high of Infinity Saga that so many keep chasing. However, the toxic online culture surrounding film discourse—particularly in the comic book genre—has felt out of hand since Phase Four began. Surely the Golden Age would not include thousands of people trash-talking every frame of a film, leading robust campaigns centered around hating women, and whining, complaining, and arguing about rumored post-credits scenes for much more important films that have not been released yet.

And while the MCU can now tell bigger and more fantastic stories with an increasing range of characters, it is almost inevitable that the overarching plot will be Marvel Studios’ answer to: “How do we go bigger and better than Endgame?” The infinite possibilities, cameos, and combinations of Avengers: Secret Wars will almost certainly be a proper answer to that question and the payoff will almost certainly be astronomical. But it will not be able to live up to the Infinity Saga finale. While the story is presumably unique and the cheer-worthy moments will be plenty, at the end of the day the MCU has already taken us through that journey. The build-up and surprises are expected, and the energy will never match that of 2018 and 2019.

This article focuses on the MCU for obvious reasons, but DC and the DCEU shot their own shots, though it was generally fumbled. So far in the post-Endgame time period, we have seen a DC that is fractured, confused, disorganized, chaotic, repetitive, and often mediocre. There are no doubt some standouts, including The Suicide Squad, Joker, and The Batman. But the fact that they remain as separate isolated incidents keep the DC Universe from thriving in the way that it could. Black Adam’s insistence that this is all set to change is empty until it happens. To be fair, the recent news that James Gunn and Peter Safran will lead a new “DC Studios” is something to keep an eye on. But either way, DC really missed the Golden Age boat at this point, unless they can turn it around and do something extraordinarily special.

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