Wonder Woman's super-strength and Black Widow's formidable fighting skills are great for beating up bad guys. But even the super-est superhero couldn't fight 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic shut movie theaters and wiped box office calendars around the world. Not even surefire blockbusters from Marvel and DC were safe. For the first time in a decade, we lived in a world without big-screen superheroes.
With vaccines on the horizon, it seemed until a week ago that movie studios had held off the pandemic-induced seismic shift fans had hoped for: blockbuster streaming.
Streaming releases for the likes of Mulan, Soul, and Bill and Ted Face the Music were clearly marked as rare exceptions as the movie industry fiercely guarded their profitable theatrical openings. Then in December, Warner Bros. said screw it. Starting with Wonder Woman 1984, probably the biggest blockbuster to actually arrive in 2020, all Warner's new blockbusters will stream on HBO Max on the same day they hit theaters. That's a simultaneous home release for WB's entire 2021 slate, including DC supervillain sequel The Suicide Squad, Space Jam: A New Legacy and Keanu Reeves' return in The Matrix 4.
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Fantastic for regular folk who'd prefer to stay on the sofa rather than pay the price of movie tickets (or coronavirus). Not quite so dandy for cinema chains like AMC. It's also a shock for Legendary, the production company behind Godzilla Vs. Kong and Denis Villeneuve's spectacular Dune, originally intended to hit theaters this month. Legendary financed a majority of these blockbusters' budgets and is accordingly expecting the sort of payday you only get from a successful theatrical release.
Big names are also unimpressed. Christopher Nolan, who directed several blockbusters for Warner Bros., from The Dark Knight movies to Inception, Dunkirk and Tenet, called HBO Max "the worst streaming service." It seems nobody in the industry is happy their artistic visions and/or profit margins are being undercut so Warner Bros. can shore up its underperforming streaming service.
The banner year
Pandemic aside, 2020 was never going to be a banner year. Cultural juggernauts The Avengers, Star Wars and Game of Thrones all ended in 2019, leaving 2020 propped up by a bunch of antiheroes, oddballs and second-tier franchises. Ghostbusters, Godzilla and Venom sequels? Bloodshot, Morbius and New Mutants? Those films could have gone either way in both quality and box office.
Even the mighty Marvel was planning something of a transitional year. Disney gambled the Marvel brand was all that's needed to guarantee success for first-time headliners Black Widow and Wanda, while the Eternals are a whole new set of characters from comic books the average filmgoer won't have heard of.
The question now is what kind of impact the enforced absence will have when those stories do arrive. There hasn't been this long a gap between Marvel movies since the MCU began a decade ago. That could make it tougher for viewers to re-engage. "It's certainly not ideal for Marvel to have a break at this moment," says industry journalist Ben Fritz, whose book The Big Picture lifts the lid on how Marvel/Disney/superheroes have shaken up the movie industry in recent years.
Has anything filled the gap? When lockdown kicked off, things were supposed to re-open with Tenet. The backwards blockbuster wasn't Nolan's best, but it was clever and ambitious and, most importantly, original. In other words, the type of film pushed out of theaters by superhero blockbusters; the type of film we're supposed to want. But there's no point looking at Tenet's box office results to prove whether this kind of movie is well and truly back -- it's fair to say there were extenuating circumstances.
TV to the rescue
We can, however, look at TV. The Mandalorian is a franchise TV show, The Crown came back, and The Haunting of Bly Manor was a semi-sequel. But with no Game of Thrones or Westworld, the months indoors were spent with exciting and often unexpected new shows. The Queen's Gambit, Lovecraft Country, The Undoing, Normal People, Euphoria and Schitt's Creek kept us company. Tiger King, The Last Dance and various other documentaries connected viewers to real life as life became unreal. And as video calls became a daily reality for people across the globe, a new Zoom-based genre in which the stars stare back at us was reflected in horror movie Host, comedy Staged, and Apple TV sitcom Mythic Quest.
Perhaps most tellingly, one of this year's most talked-about TV shows specifically targeted -- and eviscerated -- the superhero myth. Season 2 of Amazon Prime Video's brutally potty-mouthed and blood-soaked series The Boys deconstructed caped crusaders in a way that blockbuster movies can't.
Indeed, superhero fatigue has been predicted by naysayers for years now. Alan Moore, a towering figure in modern comics who wrote Watchmen, V for Vendetta and Batman: The Killing Joke (among many, many other things) told Deadline in an interview this year that superhero movies have "blighted cinema, and also blighted culture to a degree." He argues adults who love the power fantasy of superhero stories are seeking infantilized simplicity, even denying reality. "I have no interest in superheroes," Moore said. "They were a thing that was invented in the late 1930s for children, and they are perfectly good as children's entertainment... But if you try to make them for the adult world then I think it becomes kind of grotesque."
Moore is very much over the modern superhero blockbuster. "It's too early to make optimistic predictions but you might hope that the bigger interests will find it more difficult to maneuver in this new landscape," he suggested to Deadline. "These times might be an opportunity for genuinely radical and new voices to come to the fore."
Certainly on TV there was Ramy, Mrs America, Small Axe, Unorthodox, I May Destroy You: all vibrant, diverse, character-driven -- and original. But that's TV. It remains to be seen whether film fans, when given the choice, will opt for the magic of the big screen or the comfort of their couch, but if anyone can lure viewers to theaters it's Marvel and DC with the promise of another billion-dollar big-screen experience. Superhero movies are one of the few types of story that Netflix and other streaming services haven't managed to replicate
"I suspect there is a lot of pent-up demand among fanboys and fangirls," says Fritz. "Marvel fans have proven to be incredibly loyal -- maybe the most loyal in cinematic history. I would be shocked if Black Widow, Eternals, and the other upcoming Marvel films aren't big successes."
As the COVID-19 vaccine helps restore us to some semblance of normality, a trip to the movies will take on an even bigger significance for many filmgoers. "It's hard to imagine a stronger sign that we are back to normal than going to see a new Marvel or DC film," says Fritz.
And the scheduling pileup means an embarrassment of riches at 2021's box office, the sheer number of new releases likely to balance out any drop in ticket sales due to lingering safety fears. That's good news for everyone who loves the big-screen experience, and for everyone who works to make films or show them in theaters.
And if the collective excitement over a new superhero movie brings people together to celebrate the end of a dark chapter for the world, then that's their real (super)strength.