The Year In Superhero Movies: To Infinity War… and Beyond

Leigh Singer
Movies Marvel
Movies Marvel Spider-Man MCU DC

Anyone out there sick and tired of superhero movies? Anyone? If you are, you’re apparently in the minority. Because the decade’s longest-running cinematic success story just keeps on growing.

A few stats: 2017 was the previous best year for big-screen superheroes (this feature isn’t even going to attempt to cover TV superheroes, a whole other multiple-ball game). Seven films were released, earning over $4 billion at the global box-office, the genre’s highest-ever annual total gross.

In 2018, nine superhero movies have been released, with Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse and Aquaman the most recent out of the gate (plus festive remix Once Upon A Deadpool, which we’re not counting). And these films, starting with Black Panther in February, followed by Avengers: Infinity War (April), Deadpool 2 (May), Incredibles 2 (June), Ant-Man and the Wasp, Teen Titans Go! To The Movies (both July) and Venom (October) currently account for $6.8 billion. That excludes earnings for Spider-Verse and Aquaman. And with the lucrative Christmas holidays still to come, 2018 is already at roughly a 72% increase on last year’s record-breaking total.

The Wakanda Effect

In a year in which even consistent franchises like Star Wars (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Harry Potter (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald), and proven auteurs like Steven Spielberg (Ready Player One) and Peter Jackson (co-writer/producer of Mortal Engines) underperformed, superhero movies could not be grounded. And 2018 attained lift-off in the most dynamic possible way.

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther premiered some fierce, funky trailers last year, but nothing prepared us for the full movie experience. The runaway critical hit just happens to be the year’s highest-grossing domestic movie. Panther is radical: nothing less than a progressively politicised, fully-fledged Afro-futuristic vision of a fictional African republic, Wakanda, which challenged not just the entire history of big-screen superheroics, but also real-life historical colonialism.

Fast and furious, black and proud (Hobbit stars Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis as the only noteworthy Caucasian cast members, were wittily rebranded as “the Tolkien white guys”), its action scenes matched the best Marvel has to offer. It also unleashed a villain, Michael B. Jordan’s ferocious Killmonger, complex and righteous enough to convince many of his cause, if not, ultimately, his methods. Almost a year on, Black Panther is a legitimate awards contender, and could well be the first-ever superhero movie to garner a well-deserved Best Picture Oscar nomination.

So Much Movie

So profound was the Wakanda effect that its citizens’ relatively minor role in Marvel’s all-stars Avengers: Infinity War suggested even the studio itself underestimated Black Panther’s appeal. Then again, trying to cram pretty much every MCU hero to date, to try and combat the galactic threat of Thanos, meant that many other characters, even major figures like Captain America, got short shrift here. Infinity War is so much movie. Perhaps too much. Still, its closing gambit, the villain succeeding in wiping out half of all living things, including many of our beloved do-gooders, with a snap of his fingers, was unprecedented. If you were in a packed cinema at the time, you can probably still recall the shocked, almost disbelieving, silence as heroes like T’Challa, Doctor Strange, all the Guardians and even young Peter Parker evaporated into dust.

Then, of course, you realised that Infinity War was only part one of a two-part finale; that the next Spider-Man sequel was already in production; and that new instalments of Doctor Strange and Black Panther are already greenlit. The reality that Marvel would never slaughter so many cash cows and therefore must resurrect many, if not all, of its fallen heroes, obviously lessens the power of those final scenes. Still, there’s no guarantee that all the good guys will ultimately make it (those core, still-standing Avengers, and their original actors, appear particularly vulnerable). All will be revealed in next spring’s Endgame. And, given that Infinity War is 2018’s global box-office champion by several hundred million dollars, honestly, who’s not going to go and see how it all plays out?

Comedy Reigns

So far, then, so Marvel. And, despite welcome flashes of humour, so serious. Which is where Fox’s Deadpool 2 came in, to pull another metaphorical wedgie in the superhero spandex. Ryan Reynolds’s trash-talking merc with a mouth basically reloads 2016’s hugely successful R-rated super-takedown, winking at the audience and sending up the genre’s defining tropes, capes and japes with abandon.

It’s basically a foul-mouthed action-comedy with heart, as the whole theme of family, despite being mocked for nearly two hours, actually pays off in genuinely touching, emotional style. Of course, Reynolds and co can’t possibly finish with a straight face, and the time-hopping coda, wiping Reynolds’ previous ill-fated hero vehicles (Green Lantern, his previous Deadpool incarnation) from existence, is borderline evil genius.

Getting Animated

Live-action domination of superhero movies is strange when you think how animation is actually the closest medium to its source comic books. For years, my default answer to ‘What’s the Greatest Superhero Movie Ever Made?’ was a no-brainer: Brad Bird’s The Incredibles, for my money one of Pixar’s, animation’s, even the 21st century’s, best. 14 years on, Bird finally released a follow-up, picking up exactly where the first film left off.

It’s an easy knock, but something about Incredibles 2, for all of its, well, incredible CGI advances and Bird’s brilliance at constructing kinetic action scenes, feels a little like leftovers. It’s a shame a story that once felt so ahead of its time feels a little behind the curve in its stereotypical working-mom-stay-at-home-dad dynamics.

The banned heroes and eminently guessable central villain’s scheme also seemed a little over-familiar. The only really exciting developments were baby Jack-Jack’s shape-shifting, multiple powers, finally revealed to the family themselves, and showcased in his standout fight with a bin-dipping raccoon. Bird is far too smart and accomplished to make a bad film (and, yes, I’ve seen Tomorrowland), but the sheer decent-ness of this belated sequel compared to its predecessor’s own sky-high standards, make it something of a letdown.

DC Too(n)

So where do DC Comics figure in all of this? Well, finally, came a feature released with their imprimatur: the big screen version of Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go! To The Movies. A bright, brisk, kid-friendly ‘tooniverse, full of infectious, Beastie Boys-style music numbers, fart and poop gags and out to mock as many superhero movies – and their effect on pop culture – as possible, it’s a cute, yet savvy blast.

There are some inspired jokes at Titan leader Robin’s expense (Batman sequels commissioned before his include Alfred, Batmobile, and even Utility Belt), as well as the entire DCEU. But the knowledge of, and affection for, the DC Comics’ mythology shines through too. If Teen Titans Go! is a riff on brand history, it’s kind of a love letter too.

Pre-Avengers Palate Cleanser

Nestling between these two animated outings came… yet another Marvel live-action extravaganza, Ant-Man and the Wasp. Effectively a palate cleanser before the second Avengers main course, it deliberately goes smaller scale, with the micro-adventures of the eponymous shrunken supers, Paul Rudd joined by Evangeline Lilly as Marvel’s first-ever title-billed heroine.

Basically a hybrid of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Honey, I Blew Up the Baby, the film is light on its feet and charmingly cast, with veterans Michael Douglas and now Michelle Pfeiffer adding some heavyweight gravitas amid the wacky capers. And for those a little overwhelmed by the parallel Infinity War storyline, perhaps less is more.

Dismal Superhero

Even if some of these titles didn’t quite live up to expectation, only a really churlish viewer would brand them as complete failures. The reality is, with so many technological resources and A-list talent thrown at each modern superhero movie, very few are actually bad. Generic, often predictable, usually overloaded with third-act destruction, sure, but rarely flat-out terrible. So we can thank Venom, at least, for reminding us what a truly dismal superhero looks like.

Of course, even considering the alien symbiote first introduced as a Spider-Man uber-villain as a hero is a stretch. He’s a twisted anti-hero at best, and much as Tom Hardy’s reporter/host Eddie Brock struggles to dominate his flesh-eating parasite, the film simply doesn’t know how to merge the two. Hardy’s obviously a fine actor, but despite his best physical and vocal contortions, Ruben Fleischer’s dull thriller just won’t gel.

Atrociously clunky or on-the-nose dialogue, lacklustre set pieces, a one-dimensional Elon Musk-y baddie (the usually reliable Riz Ahmed) and assorted underdeveloped supporting characters –­ why, Michelle Williams, WHY? – it’s either wholly forgettable, or memorable in all the wrong ways; to quote its own crappy script, like a turd in the wind. And yet even this mess cleaned up at the global box-office. Truly, superhero movies right now rarely come across their commercial Kryptonite.

Water, Water Everywhere

Which all neatly sets the stage for the long-touted solo outing for eternal superhero punchline Aquaman. Setting aside the VFX difficulty of a largely underwater-set quest, the half-man, half-Atlantean’s previous turn, in much-maligned Justice League, didn’t bode well. My full review is here, but basically, Aquaman is a step up: big, dumb, but rarely stupid, fun, with a powerful visual imagination and a winning Jason Momoa, both spoofing and waterproofing his title role.

Aquaman follows the trend of superhero movies being self-aware enough to mock their conventions, while simultaneously attempting to honour them. It’s a fine line and the risk of tripping over it runs higher each time. You wonder how much longer Deadpool will be able to break the fourth wall and not the audience’s goodwill. Aquaman is far less overt, yet you still have to, literally, go with the flow and immerse yourself in the larger-than-life lore and, yes, sharks with frickin’ laser beams. Subtle it ain’t, but sometimes a surfer-bro King Arthur war cry of “YEEEAAAA-UUHHHH!!!” can get the job done.

Late Contender

Black Panther’s position, then, as Superhero Movie of the Year seemed all but rubber-stamped. What precisely no one saw coming, is that T’Challa ended 2018 uncertain of even being the best black hero these past twelve months. Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse swung in out of nowhere to be acclaimed as one of the year’s best films, period. A gorgeous, glorious animation that infused its aesthetic with comic book panels, colours and effects, innovating a new blend of digital and hand-drawn animation.

Its combined multiverse storyline finally debuted Afro-Latino teenager Miles Morales as the web-slinger, while also bringing in other iterations from Marvel’s 2014 Spider-verse comics (and beyond); everything from Gwen Stacey’s woman wall-crawler, via a film noir, Nicolas Cage-voiced model and even Spider-Ham, a cartoon pig. It took a web-slinger to dust away the cobwebs on a genre that, for all its success, still usually plays things safe.

Diversity, Diversity, Diversity

An overview of 2018’s superheroes, then, shows that diversity has been the defining shift. 2017’s Wonder Woman broke down barriers, and Black Panther and co have continued to broaden gender and racial possibilities (even Momoa’s mixed-race Aquaman is refreshingly removed from the character’s blond sea god origins), in front of and behind the camera. That these films have succeeded at the box-office is the true test that studios needed to pass, and that can only embolden them to normalise superheroes that aren’t simply about, or made by, white males. Up next – Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, both in her own solo feature and then presumably helping save the day in Avengers: Endgame. And she doesn’t share title billing with anybody.

Stylistically too, people are taking greater gambles. Logan last year turned the Wolverine story into a noir-infused Western. Thor: Ragnarok massaged the stiffest Marvel series into a limber, day-glo buddy/road movie. Next year, Shazam! looks like a goofy kids’ comedy. James Gunn, relieved of Guardians of the Galaxy duties, is one of the forces behind Brightburn, whose trailer promises the first super-horror film, an amalgam of Superman and The Omen. There’s always the chance that the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame, the raft of ‘Untitled’ MCU Phase Four movies and the ongoing DCEU malaise will mark Peak Superhero Movie. But right now, it’s hard to look past the galaxy’s longest-running and safest blockbuster bet, and beyond.

Leigh Singer
UK-based film journalist, programmer and video essayist. VR avatar probably a combination of Roger Rabbit and Llewyn Davis. But hey, enough of my yakkin'; whaddaya say? Let's boogie!