After The Marvels and Aquaman 2, Can Deadpool 3 and Joker 2 Save Superhero Movies?

Over the past year, superhero movies encountered a new kind of kryptonite: audience indifference. Can they rebound in a New Year with only one foul-mouthed Marvel Studios movie leading the pack?

Superhero fatigue in The Marvels Aquaman 2 and Deadpool 3
Photo: Marvel / 20th Century Studios / Warner Bros. Pictures

For more than a decade, there seemed to be three absolutes in Hollywood: death, taxes, and superhero movies doing big business. The genre of capes and cowls looked as invincible as many of its protagonists, soaring above the rest of the industry’s slings and arrows, and always landing on its feet in a heroic pose. This status quo arguably goes back nearly a quarter century, to when Hugh Jackman first donned a pair of claws and Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire made you believe a boy could swing.

Still, for most moviegoers, the genre has long been synonymous with one production house: Marvel Studios, which for the last 15 years would at least hit a single when it went up to bat (albeit 2021’s The Eternals might have been more a walk to base). That perception changed dramatically in 2023, though, when not one, not two, not three, but six superhero movies underperformed or outright flopped, including two Marvel Studios joints. More dramatically still, the final two superhero flicks of the year—The Marvels and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom—were sequels to well-liked billion-dollar-grossers. Neither of them crossed $50 million in their opening weekend. And as of press time, The Marvels has barely managed to cross $200 million worldwide while finishing its domestic run at $84.4 million. Aquaman 2, meanwhile, might be lucky to reach those numbers given its even bleaker opening weekend.

On social media, fandoms have already descended into internecine squabbling, pointing out how The Marvels received more negative headlines from the trades and certain comic book movie YouTubers. Anecdotally, this is true, although noting a double standard in how the films were received risks splitting hairs over a larger fact: neither film was received at all by a majority of the audiences who turned out for Arthur Curry and Carol Danvers in droves a few years ago. In fact, the genre as a whole seems to be withering on both the big and small screen, with DC’s much more hyped The Flash and Marvel Studios’ Secret Invasion floundering this past summer.

When taken together, the litany of misfires in the past 12 months paint a picture of definite superhero fatigue and perhaps something grimmer. Are we on the precipice of seismic change in the industry, similar to that moment in the late 1960s when generational churn caused younger audiences to forsake the genres beloved by their parents? After all, there was also a time when musicals and Westerns were ubiquitous in Hollywood, and go look for them now. They’re there, sometimes—even making money as this Christmas’ The Color Purple proves. But whole presidential terms might come and go between hit Oaters.

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It appears likely we’re going to get our next test of this phenomenon in 2024 since it will be the first year since 2012 that Marvel Studios has released only one new movie in cinemas (with the exception of the pandemic delaying all films in 2020). That 2012 film was The Avengers, and next year’s movie will be Deadpool 3. Similarly, Warner Brothers’ DC Universe is taking 2024 off altogether, with no new theatrical hero films until Superman: Legacy in 2025.

A longer gap between superhero films seems appropriate for this moment. As even Disney CEO Bob Iger conceded last month, “Quality needs attention to deliver quality. It doesn’t happen by accident. And quantity, in our case, diluted quality, and Marvel has suffered greatly from that.” In the race to build up the library of Disney’s brand new streaming service in 2019, Disney+, the Mouse House required Marvel to produce as many streaming series as films for the last four years. The result is a lot more Marvel content, but of the kind that oversaturated the marketplace with what could charitably be called a lot of time-filler on television, which in turn made the movies seem more disposable as a result.

WB has suffered an even greater degree of quality control. While we would contend when it produced a film that worked, it really worked—be it Patty Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman movie, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad redo, or just letting filmmakers like Matt Reeves and Todd Phillips do whatever they want in the margins with Batman characters—that kitchen sink mentality of doing everything proved anathema to replicating the Marvel Studios method of making each film a covert commercial for the next few, thereby driving up audience interest in all of the above.

When The Batman has nothing to do with the multiple Batmen who showed up in The Flash, audiences tuned out… and it didn’t help that The Flash also followed DCEU films that didn’t work for many audiences, including Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Black Adam. Another way of looking at the end of 2023, then, is The Marvels flopping for Disney after the first one made $1 billion felt like the dams breaking; Aquaman 2 flopping after the DCEU’s past couple of years seemed like it was “all part of the plan.”

Be that as it may, the genre is in a precarious place in 2024. Audience exhaustion is now a demonstrable phenomenon, with demographic breakdowns from the latest superhero movies showing audiences are skewing increasingly male and older—or the movies are becoming more niche.

In this context, Deadpool 3 should be a much needed boost of adrenaline. Like the two superhero movie success stories of ’23, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Deadpool 3 is a sequel to a genuinely popular superhero movie that has left an impact on pop culture, and is built around a character audiences love. It was the strength of Ryan Reynolds’ own curated viral marketing of the first 2016 Deadpool movie, not to mention his performance, that powered that R-rated, foulmouthed comedy to be a surprise blockbuster. Deadpool even grossed more than more typical, all-ages superhero fare that year like Marvel’s Doctor Strange and DC/WB’s first Suicide Squad movie.

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While the Merc with a Mouth has been away from cinemas longer than Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Deadpool appears to be a character like Spider-Man or Rocket Raccoon: a protagonist audiences like to see from time to time. And Guardians 3 also endured a six-year gap between films. When Deadpool 3 finally gets here, it also will bring a character audiences turned up for time and again during a span of nearly 20 years: Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. The movie will also have the novelty of being able to make fun of the trends in superhero movies over the past half-decade.

However, it should be noted Deadpool 3 isn’t the only superhero-related movie coming in the New Year. While it is the only official DC or Marvel proper release, Sony Pictures is releasing three(!) more Spider-Man villain spinoffs. So more Spidey movies without Spidey. It’s worked for the studio twice via Tom Hardy’s campy interpretation of Venom becoming a regular fall season box office champ, and indeed the untitled Venom 3 is currently slated for Nov. 8, 2024. Elsewhere Sony is trying to see if general audiences care to learn who Madame Web (out Feb. 14) or Kraven the Hunter (Aug. 30) are. It’s far too early to judge either of those movies, but they have their work cut out for them after Sony’s Morbius tanked in 2022.

Meanwhile Warner may not have a DC superhero movie out next year, but it does have something: a sequel to its ostensible villain origin story (but which was really a 1970s-flavored character study of a man with mental illness going on a killing spree). Indeed, Joker: Folie à Deux is 2024’s biggest comic book-adjacent question mark as it is not only a sequel to an Oscar-winning crime drama that shockingly grossed $1 billion, but it is also a musical which promises to see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker breaking into song with Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn.

A case could be made that Joker 2 is the more interesting bellwether for comic book adaptations in 2024 and beyond. Deadpool 3 looks like one of the last few sure things of “the old way.” But if 2023 is any indication, the genre is going to need to evolve and diversify its approach to storytelling if it’s going to keep audiences interested—which we suppose makes the more prototypical-seeming Kraven the Hunter and Madame Web also interesting test-runs, given they’re origin films that nevertheless look strangely familiar. Conversely,  Joker: Folie à Deux, like The Marvels and Aquaman 2, is a sequel to a comic book adaptation that came out during the giddy highs of the late 2010s when everything seemed ready to cross $1 billion. But unlike those movies, Joker 2 looks like it might be something new, even when compared to its 2019 predecessor.

Can a potentially new approach that arguably uses comic book IP as a pretext to lure audiences in still become a box office smash? If the answer is yes, it might show the inherent opportunities of taking greater risks within the genre. Because at the moment, just doing the same thing every time is beginning to wear thin. Perhaps a long gap before Marvel and DC attempt to hit a reset in 2025—be it with a full-on reboot via Superman: Legacy or simply just “new” IPs like Thunderbolts and Fantastic Four—will make the heart grow fonder. But we suspect bolder moves than “the same thing but different” are going to be needed if superhero movies hope to avoid the 2020s becoming what the late ‘60s/early ‘70s were to the musical and Western.