So I work at a business school. More specifically, I work in the field of executive education, where mid-career professionals hone their leadership and decision-making skills by taking courses with MBA faculty. It’s not the sort of experience that everyone needs, but for a certain type of executive ‐ those who began in an engineering or technical field and have never no background in management ‐ it can open some eyes with its mixture of data-driven research and a dash of pop psychology.
It was probably natural, then, that some of my job should leak into my style of writing. Take the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Right now, AT THIS VERY MOMENT, two people are fighting over whether Captain America: Civil War proves that Marvel movies have jumped the shark. One person points to new characters like Black Panther and Spider-Man, offering this as evidence that the universe continues to expand and grow with each passing year. The other person, as a rebuttal, points to the breakout success of movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, loosely connected entries in the Marvel franchise that nevertheless broke away from the tried-and-true formula that the other films follow.
Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe doomed or is it just beginning to hit its stride? The answer, of course, is boring: yes to both. As much as we’d like to attribute only filmmaker autonomy or creative marketing to the success and failure of these movies, their impact on audiences adheres to a very well-established psychological phenomenon named hedonic adaptation. My favorite description of the condition comes from a 2015 article at Marketing Week, where author Nathalie Nahaï explains ‐ rather appropriately, I might add ‐ how best to vary your product so audiences won’t grow tired of what you have to offer. As she writes,
[Hedonic adaptation] refers to the phenomenon of becoming less sensitive to the same stimulus over time (whether good or bad) . . . Whatever our aspirations, it seems that no matter who we are, when we finally do achieve our goals, our psyches move the goal posts again, and again, in an endless rugged pursuit of the next big thing.
The idea that we might get tired of good things shouldn’t come as a shock, but it’s an important one to remember as we talk about superhero movies. Too many arguments treat superhero fandom or fatigue as some sort of value judgment on the viewer rather than the core tenant of human psychology it actually is. Movies like Captain America and The Avengers can maintain their quality or even improve over time and audiences will still grow tired of watching the same group of brightly colored costumed punch it out on flying aircraft carriers. Thanks to spongy train wreck that is the human brain, movies can get better and we will like them less.
What does that mean for blockbuster movie franchises? In the short-term, things still look pretty bright. The folks at Marvel have done an excellent job of upping the dosage with each subsequent film. Characters such as Natasha Romanova and Bruce Banner, who began at the periphery of the Marvel universe, were moved front-and-center in the second Avengers film. Meanwhile, the films are slowly and methodically pulling in fan favorites from the comic books. Much was made of the deal that allowed Spider-Man to join the Avengers lineup, but many fans are just as excited to see Black Panther get a chance to finally thrown down with the rest of the superheroes onscreen. Is it any wonder that everyone’s favorite moments from the final Captain America: Civil War trailer involved the characters we’ve never seen?
And Marvel has also showed a willingness to muck around a bit with its own formula. In addition to the aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel has tried going a big goofier with Ant-Man, a bit darker with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and, we assume, a bit scarier with this year’s release of Doctor Strange. For people who have already checked out of the superhero trend, this may seem like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but it at least shows that Marvel is no stranger to maintaining audience interest over a long period of time. As Nahaï explains in her article, the need to overcome hedonic adaptation explains why media companies put out “new, different versions of their same core message,” ensuring that they keep things fresh without losing sight of what made them popular to begin with.
This isn’t unique to blockbuster movies, either. Many filmmakers who refine their storytelling through reoccurring narrative themes or visual motifs get hit with the “plagiarizing themselves” tag; dig into the negative reviews of a movie like The Hateful Eight or Carol, for example, and you’ll find people accusing Haynes and Tarantino of delivering nothing more than variants on their previous films. Over a long enough period of time, our interest in any genre or subgenre of film is going to ebb and flow, causing us to enter long periods of abandonment and rediscovery. If people can find reasons to walk away from a Cate Blanchett or Kurt Russell performance unimpressed, then what makes you think Chris Evans or Sebastian Stan have a shot?
Marvel Studios has a vested interest in making movies that look and feel a certain way, but how many variations can you really offer on that “same core message”? I’ll admit that I am one of the people more excited for this fall’s Suicide Squad than any of the spring or summer superhero movies, despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, or even director David Ayer. There is no part of the film ‐ from its studio on down to the creative and casting decisions ‐ that leads me to believe that Suicide Squad will be better than Captain America: Civil War, but the former just feels like a fresh take, and no amount of cold hard logic can properly dispel my familiarity with the Marvel universe onscreen. The more movies Marvel makes, the harder it will be to find the balance between “new” and “core,” until eventually one or the other collapses entirely.
Short of a Marvel Cinematic Universe that discards all pretense of form ‐ it’s fun to imagine something like Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind but with a few random shots of Spider-Man swinging around in the background ‐ there will come a day when even the most ardent Marvel movie fan cannot sustain his or her appreciation for these films. And as much time as we’ve spent making this some kind of crusade either for against a type of audience member, the truth is considerably less malicious. It is human nature to get bored with our toys, even the most expensive and best looking toys we’ve arguably ever had.