Death of the Superhero


George Udale (he/him) explores the box office decline of blockbuster superheroes

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Image by IMDb

By George Udale

Between 2008 and 2019, Marvel released 22 films that culminated in the spectacular end of the Infinity Saga in Avengers Endgame (2019), a film that marked the pinnacle of critical and commercial success of the superhero genre and seemingly marked its immortalisation as a cultural force that is here to stay. Fast forward just five years later and Marvel has produced 20 projects and have 24 more due by the end of the decade, expanding the fictional universe in a quantity detrimental to its quality. With the dramatic box office failure of late 2023’s The Marvels, the worst cinematic opening of any MCU film, and the disappointing critical reviews, vast production costs and low quality CGI of Secret Invasion and She-Hulk, Marvel’s superheroes have a become a collection of a money making formulas buckling under their own weight and seemingly destined for collapse.

Seeking to understand how the superhero has been pushed to its breaking point, I rewatched the last superhero film I truly enjoyed, James Mangold’s Logan (2017) and wanted to understand what sets it apart from films today. For a start its a gritty R-rated thriller that sees Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) navigate a harsh dystopian world to deliver a young child to safety, a stark difference to the high-octane, family-friendly superhero content that we recognise from Marvel today. However, its true power, is the way it references the Western genre and frames the tragic end of Jackman’s 17 year cinematic run as Wolverine as the looming death of the authentic superhero. Mangold has the characters watch clips from George Steven’s great Spaghetti Western Shane (1953) and embeds other recognisable Western motifs to align the modern superhero with the golden-era of cinematic cowboys, a cultural icon that soon became formulaic. Where it was between the 1960s to 1980s that the Spaghetti Western genre became an oversaturated and forgettable mass of stock characters and clichès, Superhero films have become so common that the roles of their heroes also cease to have any defining meaning.

Acquired by Disney in 2009 to be part of Bob Iger’s media conglomerate, Marvel and its heroes have become severed from their authentic origins as unique, hand-drawn stories and commodified into a product that, for the last 20 years, has grown to become the highest grossing film franchise. New characters might be introduced, as is true for The Marvels and Madame Web (2024) and new stories might be told, but by virtue of being superhero films, they can’t escape the clichés and character tropes that make them predictable. When public interest wanes, Marvel’s recent multiverse concept means that they can resort to bringing out alternate versions of the guaranteed sellers, allowing the most popular superheroes to cheat their permanent cinematic death and marking their immortalisation as just a financial formula to boost views and maintain relevance.

Whether it’s rebooting killed-off characters like 2021’s Black Widow or finished stories like Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s roles in 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, superheroes have sacrificed their authenticity to become products. Returning back to Mangold’s Logan, this death of authenticity, or the uniqueness and individuality of the superhero genre, is integral to its ending. Here, Jackman’s longest running superhero role is ended through his death at the hands of a younger and CGI enhanced clone of himself, an authentic hero dying at the hands of a soulless, duplicated version of himself that is reflective of how the authenticity of Marvel’s characters is being killed by the constant creation of newer versions.

Just like Logan’s cloned adversary, Marvel keep their characters unchanging in a cryochamber and immortalized as household products that are denied the chance to die. Jackman’s death, unlike that of his regenerating clone, has meaning because his sacrifice was permanent and his screen time at an end, a meaning that translated to its commercial success, bringing in $619.2 million at the box office worldwide. With the constant reliance on reviving stories about Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man that have already come to their end, the superhero has become a sales pitch, instantly recognisable on the screens we watch, games we play and products we buy, but missing meaning.

The result is that the superhero is increasingly becoming recognisable as a product with money rather than emotion at its core, an iconography that is everywhere but that leads to nothing. The irony is that for all Logan’s authenticity and uniqueness, Jackman is set to reprise his role as Wolverine in this year’s Deadpool & Wolverine, revived from the dead and another demonstration as to how even the best stories aren’t untouchable. Stripped of its magic and becoming increasingly formulaic, the superhero genre as we know faces the same fate as the Western and losing its most valuable asset: the viewer.