2016: The Year of the Post-Superhero Superhero Movie

By  · Published on January 5th, 2016

“The comic book movie bubble is going to burst soon.”

We’ve all heard that prediction uttered by one of our decidedly non-geeky friends, probably multiple times in the last few years. It’s generally packaged with a tone of vicious glee, and more than a hint of snobbery – you know the people I’m talking about. We all have them in our lives. You may even be that person.

But I have to just as gleefully disagree.

The bubble isn’t about to burst; 2016 is the year that we’ll really move into what I call the “post-superhero superhero era.” The thing is, the people that predict audiences will get tired of superhero movies aren’t essentially wrong – it’s just that they’re looking at comic book movies through a very specific and narrow lens. If studios were to continue to churn out only capes and cowls movies, with big, white, musclebound guys punching bigger, scary villains while keeping it to a PG-13 rating, then yes, audiences would grow tired and demand for the genre would dry up.

The problem with that logic is that this year, studios aren’t just releasing this sort of comic book movie. Instead, the genre is evolving. The stories are getting deeper and more complex, the characters are getting weirder, and the ratings are getting more adult. By now, audiences have accepted the once niche idea of superheroes. There have always been comic book movies popping up here and there throughout the last few decades – all the Batman movies, the Blade trilogy, Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy – but since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and especially since the rise of the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superheroes have been on heavy rotation on our screens, both big and small. The moviegoing public has been immersed in the genre long enough to understand whatever implausible comic book plot a studio throws at us. We get it; we’re on board. But now we’re ready for something more, and studios are finally giving it to us.

We could look to last year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service from Fox as the forerunner to this evolution of comic book movies, particularly those with niche or unknown characters and a much more adult tone. Granted, it wasn’t a movie that revolved around superpowered people or mutants, but human spies who used gadgets and fighting skills to beat the bad guys – but then, one could say the same of Batman or Black Widow. But it was a comic book adaptation, and one that would have seemed unlikely to be adapted into a movie, and a movie with a hard R rating at that. Yet it went on to be a surprise hit at the box office, raking in $414 million, a generous haul considering it was modestly budgeted for a blockbuster at $81 million.

The success of Kingsman paved the way for Fox’s even weirder, harder R comic book movie coming in February: Deadpool. This will not be your anesthetized Marvel or DC film, with their violence accompanied by suspicious lack of bloodshed and (mostly) squeaky-clean language. Deadpool is a new breed of superhero altogether, a psychotic antihero who only loves Mexican food as much as he loves killing. From the first trailer, with its joke that Deadpool looks like he “face-fucked a topographical map of Utah” and its already iconic, graphic, three-head shot, it was clear that this movie would earn every bit of the R rating for which it fought so hard to get.

With Deadpool, Fox has established that it will be taking the anti-”Big 2" approach to its comic book movies to complement its already established X-Men franchise. The unfortunate failure of Fantastic Four showed that audiences won’t automatically embrace a big-budget superhero movie with well-known characters if that movie is a confused mess. Instead, Fox is taking smaller, lesser-known properties – some might say the weird ones – and turning them into modestly budgeted, highly-stylized genre films. Same goes for its upcoming Gambit, which is (supposedly) to be released in October. Though Remy LeBeau/Gambit is part of the X-Men, his standalone film will be vastly different than what we’ve come to expect from the larger X-Men franchise, less a superhero movie and more a “sexy thriller” and heist movie, according to producer Simon Kinberg.

Yet the “Big 2” – Marvel and DC – are also getting in on the evolution action. It’s already well-established that each of Marvel’s movies and franchises have their own genre flavor: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a political spy thriller, Ant-Man was a heist film, Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera, etc. But the major criticisms of Marvel’s films have been that their villains are two-dimensional and the McGuffin-centric plots are getting old.

Enter May’s Captain America: Civil War, which will elevate the movie end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to more complex, adult ideas. A cosmic or Earthbound villain won’t be the focus, nor will the Avengers spend most of their time chasing a magical object of great power before it falls into the hands of that villain. Instead, the Avengers will be dealing with the very real world concept of civil liberties, censorship, and the balance between safety and the invasion of privacy. In fact, the Avengers as we know it are over, and rather than fighting a superpowered villain, they’ll be fighting one another. It’s a hard concept to grasp for young fans who came to know Marvel solely through its movies; the idea of two “good” guys turning on one another. But the reality is that sometimes, there is no “bad” guy; adults know that sometimes conflict simply boils down to two people having moral cores that clash and fundamentally opposing views from which they can’t and won’t budge.

Marvel’s fall offering in Doctor Strange will be another example of a “superhero” movie that has elevated itself above being a mere superhero movie. Its cast already reads like an Oscar contender lineup: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Amy Landecker, and Michael Stuhlbarg. It will be unlike anything Marvel has done before: dark, psychedelic, and skirting the edge of horror. We can expect it to deal with philosophical and cerebral themes on a level that we haven’t yet seen from a superhero film, and it may very well do away with the “good…for a superhero movie” caveat once and for all.

And DC is also getting into the post-superhero superhero movie action with its upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While admittedly behind Marvel in terms of output, DC has made a point to anchor its DC Extended Universe in grimdark, gritty realism, and Batman v Superman will also find its titular characters turning on one another before finally teaming up to defeat a common enemy. In both Civil War and Batman v Superman, the superheroes will finally be accountable for the destruction they’ve wrought in previous films, with the destruction of Age of Ultron being the final straw that pushes the Sokovia Accords onto the Avengers as an attempt to monitor and control their activities, and Superman finding public opinion suddenly turning against him after the destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel. He’ll also find an enemy in Batman, who has decided that Superman’s power is too dangerous to be left unchecked.

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And much like Deadpool, DC’s Suicide Squad is all about the antiheroes – except in this case, it’s not even about antiheroes, but DC’s villains. Though it’s holding down a PG-13 rating, it will still be dealing with some dark themes, and with director David Ayer at the helm, it will be anchored in the gritty, violent realism that is his trademark style. And violence there will be. It is, after all, about a bunch of incarcerated criminals with violent offenses on their records who are called into service by the government on a black ops mission with the understanding that it will take a team with few morals and a criminal mindset to accomplish the dirty work the government doesn’t want to do itself. Not exactly your kid-friendly, run of the mill superhero story.

Every single superhero movie being released this year (with the possible exception of X-Men: Apocalypse) will evolve the genre in some way. More complex, adult themes, darker concepts, less squeaky-clean heroes, more off-color humor, Oscar-worthy casts, and genre directors with specifically weird and wonderful visions for what they’re creating. We have moved past the origin stories and the good-guy-fights-bad-guy story arcs; 2016 is the year that this evolution will come to fruition. And Hollywood, and comic book movies, will be the better for it.

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Happy little nerd in a world made of words. | Editor-at-large: Moviepilot | Writer: Forbes, Marvel, and Film School Rejects | Contributor: Birth.Movies.Death.