Superhero Films, James Bond and the Avoidance of Franchise Fatigue

As those who have followed the scene are well aware the boom in superhero films is about two decades old, certainly if one goes by the then-surprising success of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in the summer of 2000. Naturally there has been considerable speculation about whether the audience is getting tired of superheroes — on which I have been getting my two cents for at least a decade now, with a piece by Brandon Katz in the Observer getting me thinking about it again, the more in as it cited former vice chairman of the motion picture group at Paramount Pictures Barr London’s remark that “Every franchise with the exception of James Bond gets people tired.”

The fact that almost six decades later the latest Bond movie looks like a hit — and indeed, a hit to which some are looking as at the very least a sign of the salvation of the whole industry — would seem to confirm London’s assessment of the situation. Still, I would argue that Bond has been no exception to the pattern — that a glance at his long history shows that, yes, it, too, has experienced fatigue over the years.

The enthusiasm for the franchise may be said to have peaked with Thunderball, with “Bondmania” starting to pass not too long after. You Only Live Twice cost more and, if still a huge hit by any measure, took in a lot less money. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a comparative letdown, after which The Man with the Golden Gun distinctly underperformed — while the increasing tendency to parody was, if not necessarily a barrier to decent earnings, not looked on happily by all, and many quick to declare the series weary, and the fans if not the mass market weary with it, though that too followed. The ’80s were a time of declining grosses in an increasingly crowded market, with A View to a Kill seen as at the least an artistic low point (to say nothing of uncompetitive with the likes of Rambo that same summer), while Licence to Kill proved a particular disappointment in the U.S., contributing to the fact that there was not another Bond film in theaters for six and a half long years.

All of this was in spite of the fact that big-budget action movies were comparatively few until the ’80s (by which time the franchise really was showing signs of fatigue), and that flamboyantly high-living, globetrotting spy-fi did not even begin to become a Hollywood staple for another decade after that (with True Lies, Mission: Impossible, etc.). It was also in spite of the fact that the series’ runners went to enormous lengths to keep audiences, shamelessly seizing on any and every fashionable trend, no matter how questionable (Blaxploitation, Star Wars), while constantly shifting tone and feel (more or less serious, more or less nostalgic or novel), and that the conditions were such that it was able to get away with this strategy (at least so far as the general audience was concerned) because, again, the action movie market was not so brutally competitive as it has since become.

In short, the makers of the Bond movies had things comparatively easy for most of the franchise’s history, while more recently it has probably helped that Hollywood puts out a good deal less spy-fi than it does superhero films, and that the output of Bond films has been limited. (Since 1989 we have had a grand total of only nine Bond films, and since 2002 just five of them — one every four years, on average.)

The superhero film has no such advantage today — and I would argue that this is less because of anything really special about it than the fact that the makers of the more successful such movies have gone to such lengths to fight off fatigue. There is the way in which Marvel got audiences wrapped up in a multimedia “Cinematic Universe.” There has been the late shift to edgier, antiheroic, often R-rated material (with Logan and Venom and above all Deadpool). And there has been the leveraging of cultural politics (with Wonder Woman, with Black Panther, with Captain Marvel). I myself have not been particularly impressed with the results as anything but “more of the same,” really, while not everyone found their tweaks to the familiar to their liking, myself included. (I found Deadpool’s metafictional aspects and flippancy and edgelordism all awfully stale stuff, while Wonder Woman was, for all its woke pretensions, awfully conventional and nationalistic in its treatment of World War I, among other things, etc..) But they did get people into theaters — for a while. The approach may still be working, to go by the earnings of Black Widow and Shang-Chi and Venom 2 (so far), perhaps helped by the long stretch in which people have been going to theaters less and so many big movies of the type have had their releases bumped, audiences are feeling less saturated, less worn out, than they would have felt at the same point had things proceeded normally. Still, I suspect that before much longer the industry will have to think up something else if it is to keep the boom from going bust.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.