The Moment Superhero Movies Disappeared Up Their Own Ass
An examination of why 'superhero fatigue' has finally settled in
DC’s long-troubled The Flash movie stumbled its way into theaters this weekend, and while I refuse to see it for any number of reasons – because the awful trailers made it look like one of the worst movies ever made, because star Ezra Miller’s long list of extremely recent offenses makes me deeply uncomfortably, because I generally have better things to do with my time – I have been reading up on it a lot, because the film is one of those once-in-a-generation failures that’s fascinating to try unpacking. The most offensive thing about the film, to me, might be its digital resuscitation of long-dead actors like original Superman stars George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, alongside Adam West as Batman, for quick, pointless cameos; it is so profoundly offensive for a studio to puppet the digitally reanimated corpses of dead movie stars who did not and could not consent to their appearance here that I probably don’t need to elaborate on why it is so awful, save to say this is the exact kind of bullshit that’s got the WGA and, soon, the SAG out on the picket lines.
What actually fascinates me most about the movie might be a different cameo, one that was consensual, given it involves a living actor: A quick shot of Nicolas Cage as Superman, fighting a big robot spider in space. And it fascinates me because this isn’t a reference to anything that’s ever actually happened on film before, but because it’s a reference to something that famously didn’t. The scene is a nod to the cancelled 1990s project Superman Lives, set to star Nicolas Cage and be directed by Tim Burton, coming off the success of Batman and Batman Returns. It would also involve a giant robot spider as a nemesis, as we learned from writer Kevin Smith, who has told the story of then-WB producer Jon Peters being obsessed with the idea of giant robot spiders (he eventually got it into the doomed Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West at the end of the decade).
Think about that for a second: 2023’s The Flash contains a big, blinking-neon-lights cameo referencing not a movie that ever existed, but one we only know about because those involved have told stories about it over the years. You could watch every single film Warner Bros. has ever produced featuring a DC character, from 1978’s Superman: The Movie through 2023’s Shazam: Fury of the Gods, and walk into the new Flash movie completely unaware of the context for the Nicolas Cage cameo. It is a purely extra-textual reference, completely divorced from the diegesis, a reference not to anything that has ever happened, but to a failed bit of 1990s corporate studio development. The snake is devouring its own tail.
The thing is, this moment probably wouldn’t bother me so much if it didn’t feel like a symptom of a larger disease afflicting the Hollywood superhero genre right now. In fact, it directly recalls a scene from a different production that I have referred to on multiple occasions as the moment superhero movies disappeared up their own ass, never to return. I’m talking about a scene from the fifth episode of 2021’s Marvel/Disney+ miniseries WandaVision, where protagonist Wanda Maximoff opens her front door expecting to see her brother Pietro – played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, the movie where Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda was introduced – only to see Evan Peters instead.
This moment is burned in my brain. I am obsessed with it. I think it might be the moment we lost this genre forever.
Allow me to explain: the scene, and the continued presence of Evan Peters as Pietro in the following episodes, is, like the Nicolas Cage cameo in The Flash, a ‘reference’ not to anything viewers of WandaVision or even the increasingly complicated MCU-at-large would inherently know, but to a complicated bit of mid-2010s corporate rights wrangling. Avengers: Age of Ultron came out one year after the X-Men film Days of Future Past; at the time, mainline Marvel Cinematic Universe movies like Avengers were produced by Disney, while the X-Men movies were made by 20th Century Fox – their continuities were separate, with the X-Men films stretching back far longer to the first Bryan Singer film from 2000. Both Age of Ultron and Days of Future Past wanted to use the character Quicksilver, who is a mutant in the Marvel comics; he and Wanda are siblings, and usually depicted as the children of X-Men antagonist Magneto. Days of Future Past, which cast Evan Peters in the role, wasn’t planning on using the Wanda character or the Magneto connection, while Age of Ultron, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the part, couldn’t call either character mutants or reference Magneto at all, because Disney didn’t own the rights to the X-Men, and those characters and concepts didn’t exist in the MCU. There were enough degrees of separation here that Disney and Fox were able to work out a deal where each could use the character Quicksilver, so long as neither otherwise encroached on the specific rights each had ownership of; that Quicksilver in Age of Ultron dies at the end of the film – leaving Wanda alone, and the overlap between Disney MCU and Fox X-Men movies limited to this single instance – certainly helped everybody swallow the pill. By the time of WandaVision’s debut in 2021, Disney had made the monopolistic move to buy 20th Century Fox outright – a deal that never should have passed even the slightest amount of anti-trust scrutiny, of course – and now owned all the X-Men characters previously held by their rival. Both Quicksilver incarnations were now theirs.
You got all that? In short, the Disney+ series WandaVision – the first work of streaming TV fully integrated with the ongoing MCU, intended to kick off a new ‘phase’ of the story and a new era of TV/movie synergy – builds the ending of one of its episodes, and an ongoing character/plot-point, around a reference that is completely divorced from the diegesis of this series or its predecessors, and instead relies on intricate knowledge of corporate wrangling from six years prior. The joke of the scene, and the point of all the uncanniness that follows with the Pietro character, is that something is ‘off’ about him; Wanda, of course, has no idea about Disney or Fox or her own corporate ownership. The viewer, meanwhile, is intended to point at the TV like Leonardo DiCaprio in the much-memed image from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, screaming “I GOT IT!” as they puzzle together the pieces that led to this very ‘clever’ use of actor Evan Peters.
You see what I mean about superhero movies disappearing up their own ass?
When it aired, this moment broke my brain. It got under my skin, and frankly it never left. The MCU had always been highly referential – that was part of the fun, after all. Marvel Studios could have characters and plot points carry over between films the way they did in the comic books, which is something superhero movies before the MCU had never done. It led to major successes like the Avengers movies, and to fun uses of characters like The Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok. Sure, you had to see all the MCU movies to know who everyone was, but that wasn’t so great a demand, and it was creatively rewarding more often than not, sort of like watching a long-running TV show.
But this was something different. This wasn’t the MCU bringing in a character we knew, one we had a relationship and wanted to see again. It wasn’t a reference to anything that happened in a prior MCU film – you could watch all 23 movies released under the Marvel Studios banner up to that point, from 2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, and still not really have the context for why Evan Peters was standing in Elizabeth Olsen’s doorway. Suddenly, Marvel wasn’t asking you to draw upon your history with and affection for the MCU, with the stories and characters that had presumably gotten you there in the first place, but to draw upon your knowledge of inter-corporation IP rights wrangling from 2015. The fourth wall was broken, and the series was now grasping at Hollywood Reporter headlines and Wikipedia factoids, not other pieces of the fictional diegesis in which the series existed.
The moment is, of course, indicative of a much larger trend, one not just contained to Marvel or to superhero films, but to all of Hollywood at this moment in time. Increasingly, the big studios are trying to entice viewers to come to the multiplexes or load up their streaming apps not through specific stories, but through celebrations of their own IP collections. Films from WB and Disney like The LEGO Movie, Ready Player One, Space-Jam: A New Legacy, and Ralph Breaks the Internet all are indicative examples of movies that exist to showcase how much content a conglomerate owns, stuffed to the gils with references and cameos that do nothing for the ‘stories’ being told (thin as they are), but instead serve as expensive display cases for all the human creativity these corporations have collected and thrown in their vault. As superhero films have become embroiled in ‘multiverse’ narratives, they too are becoming IP celebrations – The Flash isn’t really a movie about ‘The Flash,’ the classic comic-book character Barry Allen, but a film about how much superhero stuff WB has access to, up to and including the likenesses of long-dead actors. These movies aren’t really asking the audience to invest in their own stories, but to worship at the altar of corporate consolidation, to awe at how many things these companies own, and how many IPs they can shove into a single film.
It’s not about the characters or the worlds anymore, per se, but the ownership of them – Evan Peters appearing in WandaVision wasn’t just a wink and a nod to the complicated history of Quicksilver on screen, but a flex by the Walt Disney company, pissing on the grave of their longtime rival 20th Century Fox, who they vanquished by becoming so much bigger and richer they could buy the studio outright. The joke exists to extra-textually celebrate a monopoly's growing power, rather than to say or do anything important for the show, its story, its characters, or its themes. “This toy is ours now,” the moment seems to proclaim. “You lost, Fox. Get fucked.”
I don’t like any of this, in case you can’t tell. I don’t like that audiences are increasingly expected to keep up not just with dozens of movies and TV shows so they can follow the plot of the latest superhero movie, but with news of corporate mergers, brand management, and IP ownership. And I really don’t like that we are expected to celebrate these things, to laugh and chuckle along at jokes and references and stories that exist purely to show off how much ‘content’ these companies have bought and locked inside their exclusive corporate prison. It is gross, disgusting to its core, the excesses of late-stage capitalism and our increasingly monopolistic economy made manifest in our media, in the new opium of the masses.
That said, maybe we can take some solace in the fact that this strategy clearly is not working. As the superhero movie disappears up its own ass, it is also quickly losing all mainstream appeal. Creatively speaking, the superhero movie is effectively a dead genre, and increasingly so commercially as well. The only live-action superhero film so far this year to get anything resembling a warm reception was James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – not coincidentally, the only film Marvel has made in a long time that you can put the director’s name in front of and not feel like you’re lying about the film’s identity, given the anonymous corporate sludge most of these movies have melted into. And even as that film did well critically, commercially, and among fans, it is the fourth straight film in the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ to gross less than its predecessor – it, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Thor: Love & Thunder all grossed less than the preceding film in their series, something that has not happened for Marvel films up to now. Given that their next two releases are scheduled to be the Captain Marvel sequel The Marvels and new Captain America joint Brave New World (retitled to the Aldous Huxley reference after almost entering production with the title New World Order, a reference, unwittingly or not, to an anti-semitic conspiracy theory), that trend is likely to continue to six straight films. Meanwhile, DC is on fire, with Shazam: Fury of the Gods and this weekend’s The Flash providing back-to-back bombs, on the heels of last year’s failed Black Adam release. The only superhero movie that’s really made a mark recently is Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, a film that is markedly different than all the rest in a million ways, not least of which the fact that it is animated, not live-action. Even then, its studio, Sony, is struggling mightily when it comes to these films. It had a historic hit in the Marvel co-produced Spider-Man: No Way Home, and then faceplanted several times in a row with Venom: Let There Be Carnage and the legendarily meme-producing Morbius, with their solo Kraven the Hunter set to repeat that failure this fall.
In short: audiences don’t care anymore. I know it has become poor fashion to invoke the term ‘superhero fatigue’ these days, given how many times people have trotted out that phrase in the past twenty years only to sound like Chicken Little when the sky refused to fall, but I think at this point, you frankly look like a sap if you’re not looking at the data and seeing the very clear picture of a genre that is rapidly falling out of favor with mainstream audiences. And how could it not? The budgets of these movies and TV shows are getting bigger and bigger, but they are increasingly narrowcasting their content at smaller and smaller subsets of fandom, towards the kind of people who remember all the steps, across multiple film studios and film franchises, that led us to Evan Peters showing up when we expect Aaron Taylor-Johnson, to the extremely-online nerds who know Nicolas Cage was supposed to be Superman once upon a time, and that a very weird producer wanted him to fight a giant robot spider. I say this with love, because I am one of those extremely online nerds – but the fact of the matter is, most people do not possess this knowledge. They do not care about these properties in this kind of granular detail. And these movies are not being made for them anymore – they are being made for the ever-shrinking subset of the public that is willing to do the massive amounts of homework required to follow whatever the MCU or DC is pumping out. It is an inherently self-defeating strategy – and I say let it burn. Maybe the fire will at least provide some warmth.
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