The Guide #127: Does the Madame Web mess mean the end of Hollywood’s superhero era?

<span>Dakota Johnson’s Madame Web has been a box office and critical flop</span><span>Photograph: Jessica Kourkounis</span>
Dakota Johnson’s Madame Web has been a box office and critical flopPhotograph: Jessica Kourkounis

There are few things more enjoyable than rubbernecking on a movie disaster. Granted, it’s probably not much fun for the people involved in making the thing, but for the rest of us, watching a film crash and burn critically and commercially is rarely anything less than delicious. So sadists everywhere were delivered manna from bad movie heaven this week with Sony’s latest Spider-Man spin-off, Madame Web, a box office bomb so devastating Christopher Nolan has probably already optioned the rights for its retelling.

This one had it all: a remarkably naff trailer that everyone cackled at and made memes of; a bizarre press tour where the star constantly trashed the film she was supposed to be promoting; a disastrous box office opening weekend; wall-to-wall critical garrottings; and juicy trade mag “what went wrong” pieces full of scathing insider details. (“You could actually watch advance purchase sales declining in real time as buyers were refunding their tickets.”)

There was a time when, if you covered popular culture, keeping across all the Marvel (and Marvel-adjacent) films felt obligatory. They were at the centre of the culture: breaking all the box office records; hoovering up all the Hollywood talent (wasn’t it great to see Robert Downey Jr actually acting again in Oppenheimer after a decade of quipping away in front of a green screen?); clogging up the movie calendar; not to mention taking up far too much brain space with their endless interlocking plots and characters.

Now, though, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is on its longest ever cold streak, and its rival DC is doing even worse. Fearing “superhero fatigue”, their parent companies –Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery – are adopting a less is more policy when it comes to upcoming films and TV shows. The results of this will be remarkable: after Madame Web, the next superhero release – Deadpool & Wolverine – isn’t until the end of July. Five whole months without even a flash of cape and spandex! Excluding 2020, when cinemas were shut and superhero movies were removed en masse from schedules, we haven’t really seen anything this superhero-free since the early 2010s, before the genre became the giant industrial complex we know today.

Let’s not be hasty here. This isn’t the end of the superhero movie. There will still be massive hits (it’s likely that either Deadpool & Wolverine or the forthcoming Joker sequel, above, will be the year’s highest grossing movie). But, for the time being at least, the era of total superhero movie domination feels over. The question is: what takes its place? Perhaps a clue comes from the five highest grossing films (in terms of US box office) of the year so far. In order, those are: Wonka; Mean Girls; Migration; The Beekeeper; and Anyone But You. Two musical comedies, one kids CGI film, a daft action film and a romcom (No 6 on the list, and likely to climb into the top five, is the Bob Marley biopic One Love). Quite a diverse range of genres there, even if the majority of those films aren’t terribly good.

For big upcoming releases in 2024 you get a similar sense of variety – or, rather, in the absence of superhero movies, a sense of studios throwing anything at the wall to see what will stick. There’s decades-old intellectual property being resurrected (a reboot of The Crow; sequels to Beetlejuice, Twister, Gladiator and The Karate Kid), a return of action movies (Ryan Gosling in The Fall Guy, Rami Malek’s spy thriller The Amateur, the extremely Guy Ritchie-sounding Guy Ritchie film The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare), a giant attempt to revive the western by Kevin Costner (the two-part Horizon: An American Saga), not to mention the usual barrage of kids films and horror films. Oh, and of course, the most blockbuster franchise in years in the form of Dune (part two comes out next week).

Listen, we’re hardly talking about some sort of 70s new Hollywood-style flourishing here. Most of these movies will be unoriginal and probably pretty dreadful. But the fact that Hollywood is at least having to cast its net a little further afield rather than relying on a never-ending production line of interlocking superhero movies, feels like a small victory. Though if they could throw out the occasional clunker like Madame Web for us to rubberneck at, that would be good, too.

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