Superhero saturation: Why have Ant-Man and Shazam struggled at the box office?

As Disney and Warner Bros. go head-to-head, fans are questioning whether we're saturated with superhero movies

  • Superhero movies are facing disappointing box office returns in 2023

  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe is changing its Phase 5 slate to deal with complaints

  • Warner Bros could repeat the MCU's superhero saturation with the DC Universe

  • Are fans suffering superhero fatigue?

Ant-Man Quantumania and Shazam! Fury of the Gods have both hit cinemas in 2023. (Disney/Warner Bros.)
Ant-Man Quantumania and Shazam! Fury of the Gods have both hit cinemas in 2023. (Disney/Warner Bros.)

The once-booming genre of superhero movies is in a state of flux right now, with Disney’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Warner Bros’ Black Adam and Shazam! Fury of the Gods taking a critical and commercial battering at the box office.

With the MCU the world’s highest-grossing franchise, it’s no surprise that comic book movies mean big business. As franchises grow, there are new additions trying to squeeze in next to legacy characters, while post-credit scenes continue to tease sequels and crossovers galore.

Read more: Who are the Young Avengers?

While both sides sow the seeds for their potential futures, they’re in danger of being too busy living in the future to notice what’s happening right now.

But, where did things all go wrong, and is Hollywood officially saturated with superhero movies?

The boom of superhero movies

The first <em>X-Men </em>movie is one of the most iconic and laid the groundwork for many a comic book movie after. Impeccable casting is half of the film’s success with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen playing frenemies Professor X and Magneto, and of course Jackman as Logan, though it meant some of the side characters didn’t get enough of the spotlight. Still, <em>X-Men</em> is a testament to the comic books and delivered enough gut-punching action to prove Lauren Shuler Donner was right to buy the film rights to the superheroes. (Credit: 20th Century Fox)
Hugh Jackman, James Marsden, Halle Berry, and Patrick Stewart in Bryan Singer's X-Men. (20th Century Fox)

Given the box office bombing of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, it's tragic that many consider 1941’s Adventures of Captain Marvel (which followed Shazam's adventures) the first true superhero movie.

Despite superhero movies being around for decades, our current obsession can be traced back to Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002).

In a time before the MCU, superhero movies weren’t worried about shared universes, and although they could spin out into their own franchises, Peter Parker wasn’t visiting the Sanctum Sanctorum. Even then, the third Spider-Man and X-Men movies hit roadblocks when they tried to do too much, too quickly.

The MCU was born in 2008, with Phase One having a mere six movies that built toward Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. The number of projects has increased exponentially, meaning the recent Phase 4 had a whopping 11 movies, along with eight Disney+ TV series that you needed to watch to keep up.

The cast of Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon's Justice League.
The cast of Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon's Justice League. (Warner Bros.)

Although starting later with Man of Steel in 2013, the DCEU quickly released a slew of movies but struggled to match the brooding Snyderverse with the vision of other directors. This famously led to David Ayer championing the “Ayer Cut” of 2016’s Suicide Squad, saying he filmed a completely different version.

Following the failure of 2017's Justice League, the studio axed Ava DuVernay’s New Gods and the filmed Batgirl, while others like Chris McKay’s Nightwing and Gareth Evans’ Deathstroke never materialised.

Read more: Every upcoming DC movie and TV show

James Gunn — the director of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad — has been brought in to wrangle Warner Bros' comic book slate, with a handful of characters like Viola Davis' Amanda Waller making the transition between the DCEU and DCU.

Marvel is already taking stock

Jonathan Majors as Kang The Conqueror in Marvel Studios' ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.
Jonathan Majors as Kang The Conqueror in Marvel Studios' Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. (Marvel)

Before Quantumania was earning the dubious honour of being the MCU’s second “rotten” movie, there were critiques the franchise was saturated. Phase 4 was a mixed bag, with Disney+ shows including WandaVision and Loki outshining movies like Eternals and Thor: Love and Thunder.

Read more here: Quantumania sets unfortunate new Rotten Tomatoes milestone for Marvel (Independent, 2 min read)

Disney CEO Bob Iger recently suggested sequels might be put on the back burner, explaining, “What we have to look at at Marvel is not necessarily the volume of Marvel storytelling, but how many times we go back to the well on certain characters."

Although there’s been talk of Ant-Man 4, Iger’s words don’t sound too hopeful.

The official Disney+ site has pulled some Phase 5 release dates, meaning even the promised 2023 release of Samuel L Jackson-led Secret Invasion has been changed to “coming soon”.

Addressing issues head-on, MCU overlord Kevin Feige, told Entertainment Weekly, "The pace at which we're putting out the Disney+ shows will change so they can each get a chance to shine."

Spider-Man: No Way Home (Sony Pictures/Marvel Studios)
Green Goblin in Spider-Man: No Way Home. (Sony Pictures/Marvel Studios)

Spider-Man: No Way Home was the only Phase 4 movie to make more than $1bn at the box office, but that’s a joint venture with Sony that also tapped into the nostalgia factor of previous Spider-Men. The Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters doesn’t help, with Morbius being a critical and commercial failure and the studio still planning to release obscure movies like Madame Web.

Read more here: Shocker: Marvel Studios veteran Victoria Alonso exits (The Hollywood Reporter, 2 min read)

There’s also been the bombshell departure of Marvel exec Victoria Alonso, who worked on Iron Man and was a figurehead of the MCU since its inception. Although Quantumania had the biggest opening for an Ant-Man movie, it plummeted to have the largest second-week domestic drop-off of any MCU title.

Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is up next, and while it’s hard to see it following in Ant-Man’s footsteps, we’ll have to wait and see.

Will DC make the same mistakes as Marvel?

FILE - Writer-director James Gunn, appears at the premiere of
James Gunn and Peter Safran lead the new DCU. (AP Photo)

Where Disney seems to be pulling back on superheroes, Warner Bros. is going all in. The Chapter One: Gods and Monsters lineup is a prime example of superhero saturation in action thanks to everything from Superman: Legacy and The Brave and the Bold movies alongside Creature Commandos and Booster Gold TV series.

Before all of these, Andy Muschietti’s The Flash is supposed to reset things as the true end of the DCEU. Still, there’s no respite because Warner Bros. is pushing ahead with the Blue Beetle movie due out in August 2023. Even though the DCEU is finished, it still has more movies out this year than Marvel.

Read more: Everything we know about Blue Beetle

Worse, Gunn and DC Studios co-chairman Peter Safran say this is just the base slate, with the former saying "less than half" of Chapter One's projects being have announced.

Currently, the Elseworlds branch looks the most promising, with Phillips’ Joker: Folie à Deux and Matt Reeves’ The Batman 2 being unconnected to the new DCU canon.

Despite the DCEU seemingly being done, it's confusing that Fury of the Gods’ post-credit scenes set up Zachary Levi’s return to the wider DCU and a potential third movie. It's not the fresh start fans were pitched, while promises of a reinvigorated DCU being lost amid the controversy of losing Henry Cavill and The Wrap claiming Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson sabotaged Fury of the Gods.

The future of the franchises

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker. (Warner Bros.)
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker. (Warner Bros)

Martin Scorsese’s infamous anti-comic book movie rant of 2019 involved him saying the worldwide appeal of comic book movies and focus on financials is being used to "marginalise and even belittle the existence" of classic cinema. Logan's James Mangold said Scorsese was generalising with Marvel, but arguably, the years since have backed up Scorsese's argument.

Read more: Martin Scorsese says Marvel movies are 'not cinema'

Both Disney and Warner Bros. are accused of becoming too formulaic with a final act that usually involves a CGI-heavy battle with the big bad: a sin both Quantumania and Fury of the Gods are guilty of. The general consensus is that superhero movies need to innovate more.

Joker did something different, while the MCU’s Werewolf by Night Special Presentation got glowing reviews, suggesting these experimental projects are something viewers want more of.

Across the board, it’s not just comic book movies changing tack, Disney has taken a similarly hard stance to Star Wars and has axed a slew of movies in favour of focusing on its Disney+ shows. Following an influx of live-action video game adaptations, some think this will be the next genre destined to inflate and burst like a balloon of box office disappointments.

As for overstuffed superhero movies, these days, the spandex simply might not fit as it used to.

Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania are both in cinemas now.

Watch: The stars of Ant-Man 3 discuss possible fourth film