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Superhero movie hype is starting to drive studios’ creative decisions. It's a problem.

Suicide Squad is the worst-case scenario here. But many superhero movies are being changed by their hype.

Suicide Squad
Look out for the Suicide Squad.
Warner Bros.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The general public has offered its final verdict on Suicide Squad and it’s... not good.

The supervillain team-up film tumbled nearly 70 percent at the domestic box office in its second weekend, and experienced similar erosion at the international ticket counter.

Even with a decided lack of direct competition — the two biggest new releases of Suicide Squad’s second weekend were Sausage Party and Pete’s Dragon — the movie failed to become the gigantic breakout smash that might have retroactively saved an anemic summer for Hollywood.

But the problem is bigger than one movie’s disappointing second weekend. Suicide Squad’s 67 percent drop is just a touch behind Batman v Superman’s 69 percent nosedive in its second weekend. It’s just slightly above X-Men Apocalypse’s 65 percent fall and Captain America: Civil War’s 60 percent fall. (The year’s other superhero film, February’s Deadpool, sank 57 percent, which isn’t great but is at least better than all of the above.)

And don’t get me wrong. The amount of money these movies make is sufficiently large that it’s not like studios are turning up their noses at their ultimate hauls. But there was a time after The Avengers and Iron Man 3 when it looked like the genre could do no wrong.

Now, a new pattern seems to be emerging: The diehards go in week one, and there’s less interest from casual fans than there used to be. (In 2012, The Avengers fell a bare 50 percent in week two. In 2013, Iron Man 3 fell 58 percent in week two, but then had much softer falls every weekend thereafter, sometimes as small as 32 percent.)

There are many reasons for this — few of these movies have been all that great, for one — but let’s talk about hype.

The superhero movie hype cycle dominates online film conversation — for better or worse

If you’ve read any entertainment news site in the past five years — or even just sites that cover entertainment news alongside other things, like this one — you can surmise that following the ins and outs of the latest superhero films is a surefire way to post stuff that readers will be interested in. At times, it can seem like superhero news is the only thing these sites pay attention to (and, again, I include Vox in that equation).

There’s good reason for this. Take a look at this timeline of upcoming superhero movie releases from the good folks over at Comics Alliance:

superhero movies
Look at all those superhero movies.

That image is missing a few things. It doesn't include the many, many, many superhero TV shows on the air or in various stages of development. And it doesn't include other geek-friendly properties in active development as films, like new Star Wars movies, the upcoming Godzilla sequel, or Warner Brothers' new entries in the Harry Potter universe.

This is not an attempt to say, “All Hollywood makes anymore are superhero movies!” which is obviously not true. Hollywood makes more than 10 movies — the highest number of superhero movies scheduled for any single year on the graphic above — per year.

But the way the four major studios make superhero films — Disney (the characters connected to the Avengers), Warner Brothers (DC characters like Superman and Batman), Fox (the X-Men), and Sony (Spider-man and pals) — essentially posits every new superhero film as the latest episode of a TV show.

These films are announced with much fanfare at major press events. And though the studios sometimes postpone scheduled releases or swap release dates years in advance there’s a dutiful implication here: You’ll be seeing a lot about these movies, even if you don’t go see them.

Unlike a TV show, superhero movie franchises can’t count on you tuning into a new episode week after week. There’s lots of dead air between releases. So that means the hype cycle has to keep churning, endlessly, with new casting and new rumors and new trailers and new promotional gambits.

That leads to the feeling, in many cases, that superhero movies are the only movies Hollywood makes anymore — and that you’ve already seen said movies by the time they hit theaters, because there are so few surprises left.

Superhero movies have become too big to fail

Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War — though a much better film than Suicide Squad — was also produced due to some degree of corporate obligation.
Marvel Studios

Massive superhero franchises have so much money sunk into them and are so important to the future of the film studios that make them that said studios essentially can’t afford to let them fail. That means a steady drip of news, to keep the faithful in eager anticipation, so they’ll turn out for that monster opening weekend.

It also means these movies can feel more like corporate obligations than films. And the result is a world where the tail of upcoming releases is wagging the dog of the movie right in front of you.

Suicide Squad is a perfect case in point. This Hollywood Reporter story reveals that Warner Brothers panicked when the response to Batman v Superman was heavily critical of the film’s darkness. This was a superficial read of the criticism of the movie — the real problem was that the film’s darkness didn’t serve the story in any way — but the studio suddenly decided its already dark supervillain film needed to become happier and brighter, to match the pop music-driven trailers it had already released.

So, as per THR, Warner Bros. had the firm that cut the trailers do a cut of the film. The marketing became the movie, and director David Ayer ultimately produced a cut between his darker vision and the pop music-heavy trailer version. Which resulted in a fairly nonsensical story, as detailed in this very funny viral video:

But if Suicide Squad is a worst-case scenario, let’s not pretend that even the much more consistent Marvel Studios, which is the only one of these corporate entities to function more or less like a television production company, doesn’t have its own problems with letting the hype cycle (and the fear of getting drowned out) dictate creative decisions.

Turning Captain America 3 into Civil War (and thus a battle between Captain America and Iron Man) was, in part, inspired by the impending release of Batman v Superman and hopes of standing out in a crowded superhero landscape. That’s the best case scenario — because that film was really well done — but it’s still a situation where hype drove creative decisions.

This, I think, is what galls so many about comics-based mega-franchises. Nobody has ever pretended that all movies are made with artistic concerns as the first priority and economic concerns as the second. Hollywood has always chased trends and made sequels and even set up franchises. (If you doubt that, Universal’s horror movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s would like to have a word.)

But superhero franchises are different because they take up so much oxygen. They dominate the movie conversation of the moment, and whenever there’s a lull, Marvel or WB comes along with a new piece of news to drag the discussion back in that direction.

Increasingly, these big franchise superhero movies aren’t made to say anything, or even to just be good. They’re made to please as many fans as possible — and even in the best cases, that’s the enemy of the surprise that drives the best (or even just the most entertaining) films, whether they feature a superhero or not.

And in the worst cases, well, the hype becomes the whole reason the movies exist, so nobody even cares if they’re good.

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