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When Do We Reach ‘Maximum Superhero’ in Media? (And Does That Even Exist Anymore?)

You can often take the temperature of the American psyche by its media — historically, its films. Many movies of the 1960s tried to avoid the unrest outside, while the 1970s couldn’t shy away to the same extent. The movies of the 1980s got fat on the same sort of ideas that the market and politics did. In the 1990s, movies went for extremes in the form of budgets, ideas, comedy, action, violence… before the early, post-9/11 aughts ushered in a mix of blind patriotism and escapism in separate doses.

Since the late part of the last decade (when people increasingly felt like they needed saving from a global recession and threats at home and abroad) — and now continuing into the 2020s, we’ve increasingly inhabited the superhero age. What started out as some critically acclaimed Batman films and the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have morphed into an all-encompassing movement that owns the box office and the culture at large. One could argue the shift has killed off entire genres of films — romcoms, R-rated comedies — that were once a staple in theaters.

It all may seem like overkill, especially to those that aren’t fans of Marvel, DC Comics or both. But to the entertainment industry, it’s a goldmine that draws audiences, repeat viewers, merchandise and more. Naturally, the hydra-like growth of superhero media made its way to what’s arguably today’s most dynamic medium: Television.

While at one point, you could take the temperature of Americans at large via films alone, TV’s “Golden Age” has allowed it, too, to have a say in telling that story. It helps that shows are more like very long, broken up movies at this point. But nonetheless, TV’s evolved into something that’s perhaps far more cinematic than was ever intended or imagined.

Live-action superheroes inhabiting that space is nothing new. We’ve seen various attempts at it since the 1950s Superman, 1960s Adam West Batman and the Green Hornet, to the Incredible Hulk of the 1970s, 1990s’ Lois & Clark, and the early-00s with Smallville, among others. And then the superhero boom happened. And those shows were no longer just a fraction of what was on television.

What started as a handful of shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Marvel) and Arrow (DC Comics) has become a wave in recent years. DC has their own television universe on the CW, with additional properties on HBO, Syfy, FOX and its own streaming service, DC Universe. Though Marvel Television is officially done as are the shows it’s had on Netflix, Freeform and ABC, it’s going to be replaced by an expansive link to the MCU movies via Disney+.

Marvel’s already announced eight shows — Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, Loki, Hawkeye, What If?, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight — slated for the next couple years on Disney+, with plenty more rumored to keep audiences engaged on the new streaming service. DC, already all-in on keeping its TV universe alive, already has an order for Stargirl, while also developing streaming and linear shows like Green Arrow and the Canaries, Superman & Lois, DC’s Strange Adventures, Green Lantern, DC Superhero High and more.

For those sick of superheroes, you’re going to be seeing even more of them in the coming years, as they permeate primetime and streaming services en masse as content owners do everything they can to attract subscribers. And the emphasis on TV isn’t stopping movies from being made either.

So when do we reach “max capacity” at this point? Have we already sprinted right by it in a race to build more “theme parks,” per Martin Scorsese’s recent critique of Marvel’s movie success? Or could this all come crashing down when the American psyche inevitably shifts from needing/wanting a savior to its next focus?

I’m honestly curious to see if this thing is truly “too big to fail,” and what happens if it isn’t. Given how much has been invested in these properties, and how many careers are entirely built on it, the result of such a shift could completely rock everything we know about film and TV content alike.