Whenever a new superhero movie or TV show comes out, the phrase ‘Superhero fatigue’ is thrown about a lot. It’s said in a way that makes it seem like this epidemic will be the end of all superhero films and, perhaps, for some studios it might be. But for the MCU, it seems that they are not effected by this ‘fatigue’ since 5 of their movies are sitting quite comfortably in the billion dollar club.
Despite it being such a widely used phrase amongst critiques and the online community, it is hard to find an exact definition of ‘superhero fatigue’, but the ever reliable and trustworthy source of Urban Dictionary tells me that ‘Superhero Fatigue is less about quantity and more about the kind of story being told vs. what audiences want to see. The problem is not that we have a handful of new superhero movies every year, but that they feel very similar to each other, and not in a good way.’ (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Superhero%20Fatigue). I like this definition as it makes it easy to explain how the MCU has managed to navigate it’s way around this ‘fatigue’ and into success.
One way that Marvel has skirted around this problem is the loyalty of it’s fans. Since RDJ’s first utterance of ‘I am Iron Man’, Marvel has had it’s fans gripped for ten years now through multiple phases of the franchise. The length of this franchise has a fidelity among fans that is akin to the weekly viewers of a TV show. With each new phase (the franchise is now at the end of phase 3) new heroes and new stories are introduced, creating a pattern that should fall into the trap of ‘fatigue’ but it’s possible to argue that the loyalty fans have developed throughout the years counteracts this. In instances like the 2nd Spider-Man reboot, Marvel has been smart enough to run on assumed knowledge. Marvel fans know who Peter Parker & Spider-Man are, they do not need another origin story and they did not give us one in the usual way. Instead, audiences were given a fresh faced hero and teased with his backstory with the line ‘when you can do things I can, and you don’t, then the bad things happen, they happen because of you’. They assume that their fanbase’s loyalty equals knowledge and this allows them to avoid the ‘fatigue’.
Through their end credit scenes they also give their fans a sense of pay-off for sticking with them for so long. To some casual viewers the latest villain of the MCU, Thanos, might seem random, but to those that have been waiting and catching every hint of his name from the first Avenger’s movie, his full debut has been eagerly awaited. However, catering to fan loyalty could a downfall for the franchise, but not necessarily though fatigue. (If you want to read more about this idea, here’s a great article that helped inspire me to write this: https://theculturalconversation.com/2018/04/30/marvel-gatekeeping-and-the-problem-with-avengers-infinity-war/ )
The introduction of new heroes into the universe should fall into the idea of ‘superhero fatigue’ as unlike Spider-Man, some lesser known heroes need origin stories. However, the MCU dances away from this repetition of the same story, different male lead, through it’s interconnectivity with other films. I’ve seen comparisons between Ant-Man and The Wasp , and Iron Man 2 (I’ve not seen the movie myself, but the internet said it so it must be true), some even going as far to say that they’re the same movie. People still have gone to see this film, and come out enjoying it due to how it links to the wider universe, again thanks to end credit scenes.
This interconnectivity also really drives home the idea that this is a world and a universe. If something happens in one movie then it will ripple through the rest of the franchise. For example, some of the dialogue in Black Panther refers to the events of Civil War. Or, in Spider-Man Homecoming, you can hear one of the teachers talking about the Sokovia Accords, once again recalling Civil War. The repetition of similar stories is accepted because there is an understanding that it is necessary rather than done simply because they lack ideas.
And the final way that the MCU avoids ‘superhero fatigue’ is through cultural relevance. The idea of ‘Superhero fatigue’ is very much what audiences want to see vs. what audiences are given. Now days the market is over-saturated with white male leads, Marvel itself is guilty of this. Since 2012 fans have been desperate for a Black Widow solo movie, but this has still not been fully delivered. However, the studio has started to get the idea since releasing Black Panther. Marvel studios finally took the overwhelming need for black representation on the big screen and rolled with it. A movie such as this has been long awaited and the figures that came back from the box office reflect as such due to a huge portion of cinema goers finally getting characters they can see themselves in. Marvel was once again able to dodge that bullet of ‘superhero fatigue’ and built up further anticipation for their third Avengers film since fans were excited to see this new hero grace screens once again.
In conclusion, I think Marvel Studios rely heavily on fan loyalty to dodge this bullet. People don’t want to say that they’re sick of the content because they’re sentimental about previous content, they’re attached to the characters so they’ll keep going even if the stories are filmsy and repetitive. However, I do think that if Marvel continues to release films like Black Panther and continues to cater to general cinema audiences want to see, as well as loyal fans, then I don’t think that this will even be an argument anymore.