Have We Reached Peak Superhero? A Financial Breakdown of Comic Book Cinema

By James O Malley on at

2016 looks set to be one of the biggest years yet for superhero cinema. A glance at the movie release schedule shows that this year alone we’ve still got to look forward to at least five major film releases: Batman vs Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men Apocalypse, Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange. It’s a good time to be a geek.

But is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Is the constant slew of new superhero films really sustainable? If we take the release of X-Men in 2000 as a starting point - as the film is widely regarded what made Hollywood take superheroes seriously again - we’ve since seen two or three major releases a year. This number is only set to ramp up further. 2016’s busy release schedule isn’t just an anomaly, as both Marvel and DC (which are owned by Disney and Warner Bros respectively) have already announced slates for the rest of the decade that will see the long term rivals repeatedly face off as they expand their cinematic universes. This can’t last… can it?

The Western Comparison

This sustainability question has long been a big debate amongst box-office watchers. One popular hypothesis is that superhero films could go the way of the Western. In the early days of cinema cowboys were as ubiquitous as comic-book characters are today. There were many more more westerns than we tend to remember today. For every good film, there was a bad one… and probably an ugly one too.

Then in the late 70s, in a relative instant, audiences simply stopped responding to them, and Hollywood stopped making them. Could the fortunes of superhero films go the same way?

One indicator that has led some to speculate that superheroes could potentially go the same way is the comparison between Avengers Assemble and its sequel, Age of Ultron. While they were both two of the biggest films ever, earning $1.5bn and $1.4bn respectively, does this decline suggest that superheroes have peaked? Is it all downhill from here? Ultron fell short of (admittedly sky high) expectations and was even surprisingly beaten financially by Jurassic World… that can’t be good, can it?

Crunching the Numbers

So should we worry that this forthcoming glut of superhero films might hasten an inevitable crash? To find out, let’s look at the only language that matters to Hollywood: Money. Could there already been signs that the public are losing interest?

As a rule of thumb, a blockbuster film generally has to make back around three times its budget to be deemed a success return on investment by the studio, as this is enough to compensate not just for the camera crews and actors, but also the marketing spend - and is a large enough return to justify a movie studio taking a big multi-million dollar risk. (If a film only makes back 1.1 times as much as it cost, would it really be worth the risk of throwing the dice when the result could narrowly have been so different?)

So to answer this question, let’s take a look at the stats from three of the major superhero franchises of recent years: Sony’s Spider-Man films, Fox’s X-Men films, and Disney’s Avengers films.

I took the box office figures and budget numbers from the website Box Office Mojo, and did the maths to see loosely how profitable these films have been. The figures I used were the lifetime worldwide gross, and the reported budget on the website.

Spider-Man (Sony)

If X-Men established the modern superhero genre, Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man was perhaps the first megahit. But since, the series has been pretty much the definition of diminishing returns. The first Spider-Man grossed 5.91 times its budget, with that falling to a still healthy 3.45 times by the critically panned Spider-Man 3. The Andrew Garfield reboot caused things to slide even further to just a 3.3x return on investment, and the most recent disappointment only 2.78 times. It’s little wonder that Sony has now given up on the franchise in its own terms and has done a deal with Disney to have Spidey join the Avengers. It’ll be interesting to see if that can turn things around for the web-slinger.

X-Men (Fox)

Looking first at the X-Men franchise, the first two films did well - earning nearly four times their budget. This was followed by three films (The Last Stand, the terrible Wolverine origins film, and First Class) which didn’t do too great - but then the second Wolverine film helped get the franchise back into gear with Days of Future Past doing about as well as the first two films. (The Last Stand actually earned more than The Wolverine in actual box office numbers, but it’s budget was a monster $210m compared to Wolverine’s $120m). So it appears that Fox has managed to revive the series which was starting to look like a story of diminishing returns.

And of course, then there’s the most remarkable stat in here. Deadpool, which at the time of writing is still in cinemas, has earned over eight times as much as it cost to make (probably more by the time you read this). This surprised almost everyone - and perhaps suggests that even if audiences are growing tired of superheroes, if you give ‘em something even slightly different, they’ll come back in droves.

Marvel Cinematic Universe (Disney)

And finally… the big beast.

Even though Age of Ultron was outgrossed by the Avengers Assemble, It still took a massive $1.4bn (compared to the original’s $1.5bn), and is one of the highest grossing films ever… but surely one can’t help but wonder if the first Avengers represents the superhero high point? Is that the peak, and is it only downhill from here?

Fortunately for Disney CEO Bob Iger, looking at all of the Avengers-linked films as a whole paints a more reassuring picture.

The only real clunker amongst them is The Incredible Hulk, which only grossed 1.76 times its budget, and that was released before Disney even bought Marvel. Since, the series has been a soaraway success - with The Avengers grossing nearly seven times its massive $220m budget. Since the first Avengers too, the film appears to have positively impacted all of its constituent characters - boosting Thor and Captain America up from grossing three times budget on the first films to four times on their sequels. The first film after Avengers, Iron Man 3, earned a similarly huge six times its budget.

And though later films aren’t reaching the same heights as the first Avengers, Disney probably shouldn’t worry as even the two Avengers films that were not sure-things, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man managed to gross 4.6 and 4 times their budget, despite their characters previously being virtually unknown beyond hardcore comic fans (and, in the case of Ant-Man, despite a well-documented troubled development).

So will the bubble burst?

So what do we know? Is there really any indication that the bubble is about to burst? Is Hollywood likely to get sick of superheroes any time soon?

At risk of sounding like a Wall Street mortgage bond trader in 2007, it is hard to see superheroes going anywhere soon. Sure, nothing has yet to match the heights of the first Avengers film - but perhaps this anomaly (perhaps due to it being the first ever ‘team up’ event of its kind) is merely obscuring the continued and reliable success that superhero films have continued to achieve.

So fingers crossed, we’ll continue to have more superhero cinema for some time yet.

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