On the same weekend, “Aquaman” crossed the $1 billion mark worldwide a month after release — becoming the first film in DC Comics' expanded universe, and the fourth superhero movie from last year, to hit that milestone.
Those January achievements are simply a capstone on a banner year for superheroes on the big screen. Even with the Oscar nominations still to come on Jan. 22, and “Aquaman” still to open in a major market like Japan, the verdict seems clear: Critically and commercially, 2018 is the greatest year in superhero cinema.
The art form continues to gain wider respect — winning over those who dimly viewed its roots as books ostensibly written for kids, and converting those who have discovered how its artful aesthetics and narratives can entertain and inspire.
Hollywood has wrestled in recent years with its growing reliance on superheroes to deliver big box office, as some detractors complained of “superhero movie fatigue” on America’s screens. Giving so much space over to comic-book heroes, as well as to dinosaur and disaster movies, has meant fewer slots for smaller films.
Yet over the past decade, superhero movies have proved to be the most reliably bankable. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance, has grossed $17.5 billion since its 2008 launch, with such franchises as Thor and Captain America. And the DC Extended Universe has grossed $4.8 billion since its 2013 kickoff with “Man of Steel.”
Still, last year’s degree of superhero dominance is unprecedented. Domestically, five of the top six films were superhero movies, led by three Disney-distributed releases: Marvel’s “Black Panther” ($700 million) and “Avengers: Infinity War” ($678.8 million) and Pixar’s “Incredibles 2” ($608.6 million). They’re followed by Fox’s “Deadpool 2” ($318.5 million) and Warner Bros./DC’s “Aquaman” ($287.9 million).
Globally, the appetite for superheroes is so strong — a feasting fostered by years of ever-expanding franchises — that even less-acclaimed releases can find a huge audience. “Aquaman,” for instance, scores only a “55” average score on Metacritic.com. And “Venom’s” massive appeal positively defies its critical drubbing. (Worth noting: “Black Panther,” “Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Verse” and another 2018 release, “Incredibles 2,” now rank as the best superhero movies ever, according to Rotten Tomatoes.)
Glen Weldon, pop-culture host for NPR, said that some of the dominant success in 2018 was actually set up by a smash DC release a year earlier. Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” expanded “the template of superhero cinema by allowing audiences besides the go-to nerd audience — white dudes — to see a version of themselves on-screen. The importance of that long overdue development can’t be overstated,” he said.
Four of 2018’s biggest superhero films — “Black Panther,” “Infinity War,” “Spider-Verse” and “Aquaman” — prominently featured characters of color, giving diverse audiences more ways to identify with the actors on screen.
Part of the year’s success is due to the brilliant branding of Marvel heroes adapted for the screen. Decades ago, Stan Lee dreamed the comic-book universe he began co-creating in the early ‘60s would be a natural fit for Hollywood.
In 2018 — the year that both of Spider-Man’s creative fathers (Lee and Steve Ditko) died — Lee’s dream may have just reached its zenith: Of the nine major superhero features released last year, six of them — including “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Deadpool 2” — featured characters from the Marvel universe.
The generations weaned on Marvel comics have been joined by the masses brought up on two decades of Marvel-character movies, luring them all to the movies. (Such success last year across several studios sets up Hollywood well for the superhero arrivals of “Captain Marvel,” “Shazam!” and “Avengers: Endgame.”)
Critical acclaim has been harder to come by than blockbuster popularity. Respect was first sparked by Richard Donner’s “Superman” in the ’70s and heightened by Tim Burton’s “Batman” in 1989, which featured strong performances and high technical craft for their eras. Things evolved even further in 2008 when Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe-launching “Iron Man” from Jon Favreau became game-changers in terms of how such movies were widely perceived — the two movies were nominated for a combined 10 Oscars, with “Dark Knight” winning two.
Still, these awards were mostly given for technical achievements. Only seven superhero movies have ever won an Oscar, and only one of those — 2008’s “The Dark Knight” — received a trophy in one of the “big six” categories (Heath Ledger’s posthumous supporting-actor Oscar).
Now, if superhero movies can receive their first-ever best picture Oscar nomination — say, for “Black Panther” — then 2018 should go down as the best year ever for capes-and-cowls cinema.