2016: The Year the Superheroes Fell?

Superhero films have typically been box office gold; Marvel have completely monopolised the blockbuster state in recent years, with the Avengers series (Assemble and Age of Ultron sitting in the top ten films of all time, alongside Iron Man 3) dominating, as well as Fox's X-Men series and DC's Dark Knight trilogy, which have both also had their fair share of the riches. It seemed unstoppable. Until 2016? To say the road has been rocky in an understatement, and while they are still insanely profitable ventures, it seems the superhero game is not bringing the riches it once did. Take a look over this year's box office slate and see how one could come to this conclusion...

It all started very well in February; Deadpool (or the Merc With The Mouth) broke a multitude of records in its opening weekend and won critics over with the off-beat and unconventional superhero choice. Loosely connected to the X-Men series and slapped with an unusual R-rating, the team over at Fox won audiences with their unorthodox marketing, making it the highest-grossing X-Men instalment ($782.6 million) to date, despite the smaller budget ($58 million) and audience restrictions. Whilst I struggled to love the film personally, one has to applaud Fox's creative decisions and success they wholly deserve with a film that should have had everything stacked against it. So far, so good for 2016s superheroes (and Fox)....

Things get a little more difficult in March. DC attempt to launch their Extended Universe with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Acting as a follow up to the middling Man of Steel three years earlier and performing as the pilot launch for the Justice League, a lot rested on its shoulders; and unfortunately, it collapsed. Despite the critical panning, it launched with a record-breaking weekend, only to bomb from that point on, earning over half of its domestic receipts in its first three days, showing terrible holding power and legs, and falling to play much beyond the target audience. Yes, we are still talking about a $872.7 million total gross, which most films could only dream about, but it is somewhat underwhelming, considering the factors involved (a MASSIVE $250 million production budget and huge marketing costs, two of the biggest superheroes of all time in an intriguing 'showdown' premise and a popular super villain). To put things into perspective, BvS had almost five times Deadpool's budget and far more in marketing piggy bank, as well as brand, franchise and star power, and an audience-friendly PG-13 rating, yet it couldn't even manage to scrape an extra $100 million in receipts. With what should be their victory lap, eyes are on Suicide Squad in August not to continue the success of the DCEU's launch, but to save face and restore faith in the venture.

April rolled around and brought in Captain America: Civil War, which quickly became the highest-grossing film of the year worldwide (a title it still holds), as well as the twelfth highest-grossing film of all time, as well as Marvel's fourth highest, with over $1.152 billion to date and still a little left in the tank. Not only was it a commercial success but critics and, more importantly, fans loved it. Unlike the DCEU, MCU had nothing to prove and this was viewed simply a victory lap for the Captain America franchise, yet it still succeeded in setting up the next Avengers film (without jeopardising the current offering - something Dawn of Justice failed to balance) and witnessed substantial growth from The Winter's Soldier. One could argue that it should have earned closer to Age of Ultron than Iron Man 3, but these are small grumblings and I'm pretty sure Marvel aren't crying too much over it. Another easy success in the bank for Marvel.

Falling into their typical weekend, May saw X-Men: Apocalypse launch into the world with more of a whimper than a bang. Following the critical and commercial success of Days of Future Past in 2014, many thought Apocalypse would improve on the numbers and demonstrate significant growth in the franchise, particularly following heightened interest of the series through the box office win with Deadpool just months earlier. Instead, it opened with largely negative reviews and failed to outgross even the very first X-Men film in America - despite 16 years of inflation and the 3D bump. Overseas 'saved' the film somewhat, earning $534 million worldwide, but we are still talking about a $200 million+ comedown which puts the entire franchise in a very precarious position indeed. Its smaller production budget helps soften the blow a little bit and while it will still turn a profit at the end of the day, another drop like this with the next instalment won't. It's quite the conundrum for the mutant series and straddles the middle ground between success and failure.

At the turn of August, Suicide Squad dropped in. Many - myself included - expected this entry to give the DCEU the shot in the arm it so desperately needed, but critics were even less kind, with the anti-hero film registering an even smaller Rotten Tomatoes acclaim score than BvS, shocking pretty much everyone after a pretty faultless marketing campaign. Critics aren't the be-all-and-end-all of box office success though and it did register a record-breaking weekend upon release. General audiences took it to their heart more so Dawn of Justice, earning $744 million despite no release in China, but this is a film that could very easily could have reached higher, if a more satisfying end product was delivered. It did not instil hope in the DCEU for critics and general audiences and continues to put the franchise in a very precarious position - just how long can they keep delievering mediocre-to-poor superhero films before audiences give up and they stop becoming profitable?  Warner Brothers now have an uphill battle to convince audiences otherwise, with the weigh of the whole franchise resting on Wonder Woman next year.

Rounding out the genre conveyer-belt in October-November was Marvel's Doctor Strange, the smaller release of their two offerings and a stab at another origin story, setting up another Avenger to take the mantle after Infinity War. While it was never destined to reach the opening numbers of the more established superheroes, it would still hope to perform well in the slot given previously to Ant-Man one year prior. Opening with around $85 million with good, if not spectacular reviews (it registers a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes but with a more lukewarm 7.3/10 average rating) it is already a hit and continues Marvel (and Disney's) solid run, even if the similar complaints were still around - poor villain, lack of narrative originality and formulas - and begging for an injection of uniqueness. It will look at finishing with around $650-$750 million at the end of its run on a worldwide scale, with around $225-$250 of that coming from domestic receipts alone. It's a film that does its job - keeps momentum running for the studio in the short-term while moulding a new Avenger recruits in the long-run - if little more, judging by audience word-of-mouth and more general reception. More updates for this section will come as the film plays out over the world, so do keep an eye out.

I'm going to throw another name into the ring too; June's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of The Shadows features similar tonal and narrative beats to the genre, despite not being a typical superhero film. It too saw a massive downturn in both overseas and domestic receipts and looks unlike to turn a profit when all is said and done.

As you can see, the genre has been a little bit of a storm in a tea-cup this year; superhero films are not the box office guarantee one may perceive them to be, while all somehow avoiding a complete disaster. The majority of these releases are still more than likely to make the year-end top ten grosses and earn a fair bit of money, but the entire superhero genre has taken a little bit of a beating this year. They have fallen from the box office pinnacle (arguably passing the title to animations which have had a glorious year with Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, Finding Dory etc.) and whilst they may pull it back next year with a plethora of new releases (new Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Guardians 2), is this the beginning of the end for the superheroes?