Hollywood trend alert: Superheroes will fade, video game adaptations will rise

The Super Mario Bros. Movie, image courtesy 2022 Nintendo and Universal Studios
The Super Mario Bros. Movie, image courtesy 2022 Nintendo and Universal Studios /

In 2008, Marvel Studios released the movie Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the titular superhero, a second stringer from Marvel’s canon. The movie was well-reviewed and made over half a billion dollars at the box office, handily becoming the most successful superhero movie in years and beating out even worthy rivals like the X-Men franchise.

High in their tower in Burbank, the executives at Disney took notice. Disney purchased Marvel Studios in 2009 and set about bankrolling an expanding network of films: first came Thor, then Captain America: The First Avenger, and by the time of The Avengers, the situation was clear: this was going to be the most successful franchise in the history of film.

And so it came to pass. Of the 10 highest grossing movies of all time, four are set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; most recently, Avengers: Endgame made nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office. The Disney execs were swimming in $100 bills and sanitizing their paper cuts with Macallan 1926 Whiskey. Surely, the good times would last forever.

And they mostly have. The recent Marvel movie Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania made $466 million at the worldwide box office, which is nothing to sneeze at…except that this total is well short of the $623 million haul Ant-Man and the Wasp took in back in 2018, and even of the $518 million pile the original Ant-Man made in 2015.

Likewise, the latest Thor movie, Love and Thunder, made less than Thor: Ragnarok did back in 2017. On top of underperforming at the box office, recent Marvel films like Quantumania and Eternals also got drubbed by critics, which is rare for Marvel.

Marvel is far from the only studio working with superheroes, of course. Warner Bros. Discovery has had hits and misses with its films based on DC Comics, and some series have found audiences by subverting the traditional Marvel movie, like The Boys and Invincible, both on Amazon Prime Video.

But sooner or later, all roads lead back to Marvel. If Marvel is having a downturn, superheroes are having a downturn, and Marvel is having a downturn. Maybe they can turn things around and reclaim their title as the undisputed king atop the mountain, but speaking as someone who’s been watching these movies since the start, I doubt it. I think it’s more likely that people are just…tiring of superheroes a bit. I have no doubt that studios will still make movies and TV shows about superheroes, but they’ll no longer be guaranteed blockbusters. Superhero movies will become just another person in the conversation, rather than the only one talking.

And that’s in keeping with how trends have always worked in Hollywood. It may have happened before many of us were born, but there was a time when every other movie made was either a western or a musical. Westerns and musicals are both still around, but hardly ubiquitous. That will happen to superheroes soon enough.

And that’s the cycle of life: it’s inevitable and natural. But it also means a lack of certainty. For years, studios could throw money at superhero movies and be pretty certain of a healthy return. Now that’s becoming less of a sure thing and that is making them uncomfortable.

Ideally, Hollywood producers would thrive on creativity. They would seek out the best, boldest new ideas and trust that enough of them will make money to offset the ones that underperform. But producers like formula and dislike risk. They like doing things they know will work. As superheroes recede, producers are looking for a new trend to jump on, and it’s pretty clear what it’s gonna be.

We are about to be flooded with video game movies and TV shows

For years, movies based on video games had terrible reputations. That goes all the way back to the original Super Mario Bros. movie in 1993, which starred Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi, two Brooklyn plumbers who get sucked into a dinosaur-themed alternate dimension where they have to fight King Koopa, played by Dennis Hopper as a totally human guy with a silly haircut that kind of resembles scales.

Super Mario Bros. made around $20 million on a budget of $40 million. It was a massive bomb, and it set the tone for video game adaptations for the next couple decades. Assassin’s CreedDoomHitmanPrince of Persia: Sands of TimeDead or AliveMax PayneStreet FighterBloodrayneHouse of the DeadAlone in the Dark…this stuff was so consistently bad that the few pops of success — the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie, the Resident Evil films, Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider movie — were written off as exceptions to the rule, rather than a sign that things were turning a corner.

But as time moved on, that started to change. Although critics were mixed on them, films like Warcraft (2016), Detective Pikachu (2019) and the Sonic the Hedgehog movie (2020) did very respectably at the box office; the Sonic the Hedgehog sequel, which came out last year, performed even better than the original. On the TV side, shows like Arcane and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners have gained loyal followings. This is the corner fans were looking to turn.

And then came the biggee: The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a star-studded animated film about the most famous character in all of video games games that, as of this writing, has made over $700 at the box office. The original Super Mario Bros. movie told the world that video game adaptations were embarrassing failures. The new one is too big a success to ignore.

The new Mario movie came out in theaters soon after HBO aired The Last of Us, its adaptation of Naughty Dog’s zombie action game. In contrast to the Mario film, which got middling reviews but cleaned up at the box office, The Last of Us got terrific ratings as well as breathless applause from critics. If the Mario movie is the crowd-pleasing blockbuster that delights audiences and divides critics, then The Last of Us is the prestige vehicle that develops a devoted following and picks up awards. And they were both adapted from video games. That’s a kind of diversity you don’t usually see among superhero movies, which mostly fall on the crowd-pleasing blockbuster side of things, even when they bomb.

Mario will replace Batman, Pikachu will defeat Captain America

That potential for diversity is yet another reason why video game movies are becoming very attractive to producers. Another is name recognition. Although Hollywood mostly squandered these brands over the past few decades, people love series like Street FighterMortal Kombat, PokémonMetal Gear SolidFinal FantasyUncharted, and so on…and they will absolutely see adaptations of these properties provided those adaptations are good.

And they are getting much better, I suspect in part because a generation of producers who didn’t grow up on video games are being replaced by a generation who did. Will every video game adaptation be worth watching? Of course not, but enough will (and are) to keep this trend going for awhile.

And it’s already well on its way. Here’s an incomplete list of some of the video game projects in production right now:

And now that the Mario movie is a monster hit, we can probably expect adaptations of some of Nintendo’s other big franchises: a Zelda movie, a Metroid show, etc. The video game industry has been pumping out beloved content for decades, all of which can be picked over by Hollywood. We’re at the beginning of a gold rush.

The beginning of the video game movie boom doesn’t mean the end of the superhero movie boom, but I predict that one trend will wane and another wax. There’s plenty of room for everyone, but some take up more space than others.

As for what will replace video game movies down the line as the next trend, I dunno…viral TikToks turned into TV shows? Anything’s possible.

All 5 seasons of The Last Kingdom (and the movie), ranked worst to best. dark. Next

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