To the average American, Hollywood is a far away land – a foreign concept. We regard it as a superficial land of big money and broken dreams, far removed from the reality of everyday business. While Hollywood might be a bit glitzier than your average day job, from a purely economic perspective, it’s not all that different. Supply equals demand. As long as capitalism exists, so too will this principle apply to anything and everything trying to make money, films and Hollywood included.
Superhero movies make money. A lot of money. 18 of the top 100 grossing movies of all time are based on superhero comic adaptations, all of which came out in the 2000s. But it was not always this way. Prior to this century, the only superheroes you would catch in theaters were Batman and Superman, the titans of the industry. While this trend began to shift in the early 2000s, for every hit there was still a dud, a Spiderman for a Daredevil, an X-Men for an Elektra. Studios were beginning to recognize the economic possibilities that comic properties could offer, but by no means was there a shift in the industry.
That changed in 2008, with the release of Iron Man 3. While the movie was a hit in its own right, its real influence came from launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which created a shared space in which both larger and smaller characters could exist simultaneously. Eight years and two Avengers movies later, the superhero shift has turned cataclysmic. The Marvel label is all that is needed to turn a high budget production into a money making machine. The creation of a shared universe allows smaller characters to benefit immensely from being around larger ones, increasing the desire to see them in their own individual films. It was a genius business move that created an incentivize participation in the “movie going experience.” Someone who thought they were only interested in Ironman becomes invested in The Avengers, who then becomes interested in Thor because he needs to understand every aspect involved in the larger spectacle. Ten years ago, the Spidermans and Hulks of the world were risky propositions. Today, Marvel Studio’s genius business decisions have led to Guardians of the Galaxy (a superhero team only created in 2008) and Antman (a serious movie about a guy named Antman) becoming the highest grossing August release of all time and an actual, profitable thing.
All of these connections led to massive success. Marvel Studios crafted and nurtured a demand for movies about characters most people hadn’t even known existed; a demand so high that its supply would have to be enormous to equal it. As of now, that supply is enormous yet is still highly profitable. In the next five years, 15 films are scheduled for release under the MCU banner. In addition to those 15 are multiple X-Men movies in production. While these films are not a part of the MCU due to their rights belonging to another studio, they are still Marvel characters, and as a result benefit from the success of the brand as a whole. Those in control of the X-Men franchise (as well as the entirety of DC Comics, but that’s a story for another day) are attempting to take a page out of the MCU playbook, and in turn are creating spin off films for their own most interesting characters. This is how we arrive at Deadpool, the recently released, even more recently crowned highest grossing R-rated film of all time. It’s based on one of the more minor characters in the X-Men’s roster – one that the original trilogy of films didn’t even feel necessary to include. While this success is certainly due in large part to the demand Marvel has created as a whole, it’s also worth examining as a potential indicator of things to come in the movie industry as a whole.
Guardians of the Galaxy (and to a lesser extent Antman and Deadpool) is an example of counter-programming done right. While the Marvel Movies of recent memory have almost all been successful, they also have been by and large very formulaic. They value light comedy and world building, often at the expense of high stakes and developed villains. This has led to some criticism of their methods and bad reviews, but not a whole lot of angst or change out of studio higher ups. They’re sticking to what made them successful in the first place and offering up variations on the formula at a pace that is just drastic enough. Guardians and Antman came in on the more comedy leaning side of the action-comedy brand, riding quirk, bizarre set ups and general zaniness (see talking raccoons, a talking tree, and hero literally named Antman) to box office success. Deadpool, on the other hand, offered pure R-rated debauchery and vulgarity as well as a fourth wall breaking parody of the genre itself. This set it apart from almost any other superhero film ever released – another intelligent business decision. While the American public’s superhero fascination is certainly a huge phenomenon, at the end of the day it is still just a trend. Businesses are smart to take advantage of trends, but they must also prepare for when trends start to fade. As epic war movies and westerns have shown, genres go in and out of style. To help prevent or at least ease into this decline, movies like Deadpool switch up what may have threatened to become a stale formula. At the same time, Hollywood would do well to recognize that what made Deadpool successful was not just that it was raunchy – it was actually good. Simply attaching an R-rating to a superhero film will not immediately make it successful. Deadpool had a history as a foul mouthed anti-hero, one who subverted the genres conventions and blatantly poked fun at them. Recognizing the movie’s more clever aspects – rather than its raunchy ones – is key to understanding its success.
Hopefully the companies behind these movies will continue to break formula’s and keep things interesting in the future. If their past success is any indication, then there is not too much to worry about. Supply equals demand, and thankfully, there is still a demand for good movies.
By CHASE SPINELLI / Contributing Writer