Without superhero fatigue from the MCU and elsewhere, would more subversive adaptations like The Umbrella Academy and The Boys have been so successful? Whether you can’t get enough of live-action superhero adaptations or your name is James Cameron, there’s no denying that both the movie and television landscapes are saturated with capes and cowls. Both Marvel and DC maintain a strong presence on the big and small screen, with other studios such as Fox and Sony chipping in with their own franchises.
This has led many to coin the term “superhero fatigue,” a phenomenon where, regardless of quality, superhero stories begin to lose their impact simply because they’re released in such quantity. The thrill that used to come with seeing comic stories brought to life with expensive effects and A-list actors no longer exists, and superhero stories are having to rapidly become more sophisticated in order to stay ahead of the curve.
In 2019, both The Umbrella Academy and The Boys have achieved great success on Netflix and Amazon Prime, respectively, and both are extremely non-traditional concepts entirely detached from the worlds of Marvel and DC. But while both series rightfully enjoyed a raft of critical praise, was their popularity boosted by a general sense of fatigue towards more traditional superhero releases?
It’s somewhat difficult to talk about movie fans tiring of superheroes when Avengers: Endgame recently became the highest grossing film of all time. The MCU’s critical dominance is also impossible to ignore, and certainly as far as big screen output goes, it’s been years since Marvel delivered a dud. As long as Kevin Feige and the gang don’t let the quality slide, and fans still buy tickets, surely any notion of the MCU contributing to superhero fatigue is unwarranted?
Not entirely. Superheroes began their takeover of the world’s theaters at the turn of the millennium, with the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises lighting up the box office. The success of these series spurred the major movie studios into action. Christopher Nolan signed on to revive the Batman franchise, Fox began their ill-fated plan for a number of X-Men spinoffs set within the same universe (it’ll never work!) and Ang Lee made a Hulk movie. Even back then, when Tobey Maguire began awkwardly dancing down a New York street, questions were raised whether the superhero craze was beginning to wear thin.
The more recent advent of the MCU, and DC’s later attempts to mimic their rivals, has kicked the superhero game into an entirely new gear, now warranting its own genre, and the bar of quality has been set incredibly high. Filmmakers have evolved their approach in response to this (Logan in the 2000s would be near-unthinkable, for example) but essentially, much of the superhero fare released today follows similar tropes, themes and structures and superhero movies or TV shows that are just “good” can be lost in the deluge of others on offer.
Shazam is a case in point. Released back in March, Shazam was a popular movie that performed well at the box office, yet its lasting cultural impact was minimal, with Avengers: Endgame arriving the following month. This is a perfect example of superhero fatigue in action. With a conveyor belt of movies, Marvel’s various TV properties, DC’s Arrowverse and more, only the cream of the crop are truly appreciated, with anything fans don’t have the time or inclination to watch forming a level of noise just below that MCU-dominated surface.
Both The Umbrella Academy and The Boys break away from the mold of a typical superhero series in stunning fashion, but each do so in a very different way. Based on the comic books by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, The Umbrella Academy focuses on a team of adopted siblings with superhuman abilities who were trained as a crime-fighting unit. That’s essentially where the genre conventions end, as The Umbrella Academy quickly turns its focus towards a time-bending conspiracy, the relatable struggles of each sibling and a hairy giant losing his virginity while high as a kite on drugs.
Taking strong influence from Way’s past as the frontman of My Chemical Romance, The Umbrella Academy is drenched in a black humor that Tim Burton would get a kick out of and reaches into deliberately off-kilter territory, with a talking Chimpanzee, an assassination bureau posing as a generic office and a romance between a hired killer and a doughnut maker. These are elements that won’t be found in your average superhero blockbuster. The Umbrella Academy‘s foremost strength is being able to tell a fairly bleak story with such gleeful reverence that viewers genuinely feel every emotional beat.
The Boys takes quite a different approach. Adapted from the just-as-unflinching comics by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, The Boys takes an R-rated, uber-cynical look at both the concept of superheroes and their role as media icons in real life. Amazon’s live-action adaptation paints superheroes as immoral, corrupt criminals who are only interested in raising their profile and their bank balance. The solution to this problem? Remorseless violence.
The Boys provides a gritty and starkly realistic take on what superheroes might look like in the modern world and works on several levels: as a pastiche of the real-world superhero genre, a story of how power can corrupt absolutely and finally as a big middle finger to traditional superhero values. Showrunner, Eric Kripke, takes pleasure in lampooning both DC and Marvel, from loving jabs to satirical take-downs, and builds upon the gross-out humor that worked so well for Deadpool. Perhaps The Boys‘ most subversive quality, however, is to deliver genuinely uncomfortable viewing at appropriate moments, highlighting the moral dilemmas on screen.
Talk of adapting The Boys into live action first emerged in 2010, before the current level of superhero fever truly took hold, so there was evidently interest in the project at an early stage. It was only in 2015, however, that the series truly began to make progress, and Amazon decided to throw their considerable weight behind Butcher and his Boys in 2017. The Umbrella Academy followed an eerily similar path into existence. In 2011, the possibility of a movie adaptation was raised – a notion that once again failed to materialize – but by 2017, the property had been picked up by Netflix.
This might suggest, therefore, that while an informal interest was already in place before the MCU explosion, it wasn’t until 2017 that the world’s two leading streaming services decided to invest considerable amounts of money in two very unique takes on the superhero genre. Certainly, both The Boys and The Umbrella Academy might’ve received live-action adaptations even if the MCU never existed, but would they have been backed so strongly in terms in finances and distribution if there wasn’t a hunger for more original superhero stories?
Production process aside, it could also be argued that superhero fatigue contributed to the success of both shows. The Umbrella Academy was a huge hit for Netflix, proving more popular than the first season of Stranger Things. Meanwhile, The Boys has become one of Amazon’s most-watched shows of the year only weeks after release. This success is richly deserved in both cases, but given how far The Umbrella Academy and The Boys stray from the mainstream, it could be suggested that viewers are actively looking for superhero stories that intentionally defy convention, and this has pushed viewership far beyond what it might’ve been without the MCU and its contemporaries.
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The Boys and The Umbrella Academy have both been renewed for second seasons on Amazon Prime and Netflix, respectively.