clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Superhero movies are supposed to rule summer. Why were this year’s such a drag?

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On August 30, Russian astronomers announced they had detected a radio signal from HD 164595 — a star light-years away from Earth. The SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) Institute fired up upon hearing this news, this possibility for alien life. Scientists eventually determined it to be a "terrestrial disturbance."

I’d like to think that somewhere near HD 164595, aliens finally got their hands on a torrented copy of David Ayer’s majestic disaster Suicide Squad. And that after all these years of silence, the plot holes and poor writing in that movie finally moved the aliens to speak to us, beaming an "OMG. WTF was that?" in our general direction.

Suicide Squad was one of the worst superhero movies I’ve seen, so bad that it makes its studio’s upcoming films, Justice League and Wonder Woman, feel like a moribund threat.

But Suicide Squad wasn’t the only not-great superhero movie of the year. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was littered with flaws and an unpleasant tone. X-Men: Apocalypse was a different stripe of awful, in that it somehow managed to come off as bland despite an astonishing cast featuring Oscar Isaac, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and James McAvoy.

The overall effect is the feeling that 2016 is a down year for superhero movies and superhero fans, a glance at the worst-case scenario of what happens when superhero movies don’t live up to their hype. With another summer blockbuster season behind us, it’s as good a time as any to examine what went wrong with some of the bigger superhero disappointments of the year.

Critics and fans don’t always agree. But true box office success requires more than a big opening weekend.

When it comes to Warner Bros.’ recent superhero movies, there’s a tension between audience response and critical reception. The general consensus among critics who screened Batman v Superman (27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and Suicide Squad (26 percent) is that both films were aggressively awful. Among hardcore fans, the negative reviews of these movies is the result of either 1) a long-running vendetta against DC Comics’ heroes and the studio bringing them to life, or 2) critics’ struggle to understand what makes a good superhero movie.

Both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad enjoyed huge opening weekends at the box office, providing even more ammunition to fans who believed movie critics were out to "get" their movies. But the early success didn’t last.

As the opening weekends for the films rolled by, they each suffered gigantic drops at the box office in week two and beyond. According to Box Office Mojo, Suicide Squad fell 67 percent the week after its $133 million opening, followed by a 52 percent dip in week three and a 41 percent tumble in week four, when it brought in $12 million. That’s not great compared with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which made $17 million in its fourth week, $17 million in its fifth week, and then jumped to $22 million in its sixth.

Guardians maintained its longevity thanks to its strong word of mouth — something Suicide Squad didn’t have. Some might argue that the film’s die-hard fans weren’t vocal enough, but the box office numbers seem to indicate that the movie simply didn’t appeal to audiences and that critics weren’t so wrong after all.

The villains were a letdown

A common knock on Marvel’s superhero films is that aside from Tom HIddleston’s Loki, most of the studio’s villains — no matter how integral they are to the source material — tend to be disposable. Yet because Marvel’s movies are strong in other aspects and its heroes are charismatic, its villain issues have never truly hurt its films.

Superhero movies can get by with a less-than-memorable villain if their other elements are strong. Conversely, as we’ve seen in the Thor franchise, a good villain can make up for heroes and a story that aren’t as exciting or as thrilling as they could be.

This year’s crop of middling superhero movies weren’t good movies, nor did they have good villains.

In Batman v Superman, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was overacted and conceptually discordant with the comic book version of the character. Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress gyrated in front of a giant smoke machine for most of Suicide Squad, and Jared Leto’s off-brand, Scarface-ish Joker was so upsetting I’ve blocked him out of my mind.

Out of all the underwhelming villains, though, none was more disappointing than Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse. In the X-Men comic books, Apocalypse is a larger-than-life, fear-inducing figure. In X-Men: Apocalypse, he was silly — from his clunky appearance to his mutant powers (which involved absorbing knowledge from a television) to Isaac’s inability to emote through the layers of purple makeup and plastic.

Apocalypse was a mess.

And these lacking villains bring up a bigger point about all three of these movies. The stories they’re based on are compelling not only because of the charismatic superheroes but because the villains are important, magnetic, tragic figures too. The superhero comic book industry wouldn’t be an industry if the good guys won in every issue; the sooner superhero movies figure this out, the better.

There were massive plot holes

Suicide Squad shouldn’t even exist.

The idea that the government would need to assemble its own black ops crew of unwilling super soldiers is a good one; it opens up a world of allegory and builds the atmosphere of DC Comics and Warner Bros.' shared comic book universe. It also doesn’t make any sense.

The movie makes no attempt to explain why heroes like Batman or Wonder Woman or the Flash or Aquaman wouldn’t try to intervene in any given disaster instead of the Suicide Squad. The movie includes a brief cameo of the Flash stopping a robbery, but no mention of why he’s not going to show up when the Enchantress turns a skyscraper into a weapon of destruction. There’s no hint as to why Wonder Woman, who just saved the world from a gigantic monster in Batman v Superman, would just sit this disaster out.

You could make similar arguments about both Batman v Superman and X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s implausible that Batman would have such a quick change of heart and decide not to kill Superman just because his mom and Superman’s mom have the same name. It would have made more sense for Superman to just go find his mom instead of battling Batman.

And we weren’t given any reason why Apocalypse’s band of mutant horsemen would pledge allegiance to him and continue to remain by his side (which could have been explained with something as simple as a line about mind control), even when they appeared to be nothing more than human (okay, mutant) shields.

The result is that these movies feel more like contractual obligations and cash cows than interpretations of beloved art.

Marvel — which hasn’t struggled as much as Warner Bros. and Fox — isn’t exempt from this concern; the Avengers and the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe make so, so much money. But the studio clearly puts more effort and thought into its movies than its competitors, and does a better job of folding its marketing and business-minded plot developments into the story.

The past few superhero movies have left some fans feeling fatigued. But there’s still hope.

On the horizon for 2017, Fox is threatening us with another Wolverine movie starring Hugh Jackman, as well as a second film whose details are unknown but that exercises its Marvel film rights. And after Apocalypse, those are pretty difficult to get excited about.

But if there’s a bright spot to look forward to, it’s that Fox’s Kingman: The Golden Circle, a superhero-esque film whose premise feels much fresher than the studio’s X-Men and Wolverine films, is also coming out in 2017.

And despite Warner Bros.’ recent struggles, the studio is starting to turn things around.

There were salvageable bits in Suicide Squad. And the film did suggest that the studio wants to improve; it felt like an overcorrection by half to Batman v Superman. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman, which comes out in June 2017, and Justice League, which comes out later in the year, have both released trailers that feel like the studio might finally have found its groove.

If anything, the break from now until November (when Marvel’s Doctor Strange comes out) and then from November to Wonder Woman’s release in 2017 should allow fans to breathe a little and get excited for yet another round of superhero madness. Hopefully, they’ll be rewarded with movies worth getting excited about.