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Superhero fatigue: Does Marvel still have audiences' attention with its 32nd film?

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For the last 15 years, Hollywood has been ruled by one thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) I am Iron Man.

CHRIS PRATT: (As Peter Quill) We're the guardians of the galaxy.

FOREST WHITAKER: (As Zuri) Prince T'Challa, the Black Panther.

CHRIS EVANS: (As Steve Rogers) Avengers, assemble.

SUMMERS: Since 2008's "Iron Man" jumpstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superhero films have been a dominant force in the industry. But is that starting to fade? Recent box office returns have some pundits whispering of superhero fatigue. We wanted to ask an expert, so we called NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour host and resident comic book fan Glen Weldon. He has already seen Marvel's 32nd film, "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3." It comes out today. Hey, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So you reviewed "Guardians Of The Galaxy 3" for NPR's website. And for those who have not read your review like I have - you are not so into it. Why?

WELDON: No, I mean, like, the reason "Guardians 3" didn't hit me is in its approach to its subject. So here, we're going to get the backstory of the character of Rocket Raccoon, who, for listeners who don't know, is this CGI critter who's voiced by Bradley Cooper doing a Brooklyn dese-and-dose (ph) kind of accent for precisely no reason. We've gotten hints that he has a tragic backstory and that he came to be who he was through sinister animal experimentation. So there's a reason here. You go into his thing. If you're expecting a wacky, escapist space romp like the previous two films, you're going to come out of that - you're going to be sitting in a lobby going, you know, there was a lot more vivisection in that film than I expected.

And there's a plot reason to dramatize that. You have to give the character's backstory. But the problem is how James Gunn, the writer/director, goes about it. He doesn't trust that we, the audience, have even a baseline empathy or humanity to know that people who are bad to animals are bad and that animal cruelty is bad. So he just overloads this thing with all kinds of mawkish, maudlin, super sentimental stuff. Yeah, it's kind of soured me on the whole thing.

SUMMERS: I mean, I get the sense from our conversation that you felt that James Gunn, the director, was practically begging for the viewer to care about what happens, which I think brings us to this bigger discussion about where Marvel and superhero movies are right now. I mean, we should just note that recent films like the last "Ant-Man," "The Eternals," "Thor 4," they haven't done as well as previous Marvel hits. What do you think these latest films say about the current direction that Marvel is going in?

WELDON: Well, I mean, superhero films, that's a genre, right? It's like any other genre. Genres have cycles, right? So gangster films had a heyday. Westerns had a heyday. Paranoid thrillers had a heyday in the '70s. It's not the genre itself. It's the execution. And one thing you can say about Marvel is that they have varied the approach in the very different movies. So if you want a sweeping space epic, you got one. If you want gritty street-level brawlers, if you want sitcom satire, if you want mystical mumbo jumbo, if you want whatever the hell "Eternals" was, you got it, you know? That's a way to combat it. And I think that's a smart approach that they're taking.

SUMMERS: I mean, even James Gunn himself has talked about this idea of superhero fatigue, though he says it's tied more to the way the stories were told, not necessarily the subgenre itself. But for you, are you feeling the fatigue? Are we - have we reached peak superhero?

WELDON: Well, what's happening is that in the first few phases of Marvel films, they could expect that an audience would understand that these films build on each other. And they'd expect you, the audience, to understand what was going on and have all these other films that came before it in mind. That is now over. We are now so far into this fragmentation with things, with all these movies happening and all these streaming series happening on Disney+, that that is not a reasonable expectation for them to have anymore. So what's going to happen, I think, is that these movies are going to have a bigger pressure to be standalone stories and stand on their own, not depending on an audience to have a wiki very handy that they can go in and consult while they're watching the movie.

Look what happened to westerns. I think that's a good example. Like, once people tired of the formula of westerns, then people started deconstructing the genre. So it started interrogating this whole notion of white hat, black hats. And so you started questioning this whole idea of what the Old West was. I think that's what we're due for, is for somebody to really tackle this notion, this monolithic notion of the superhero and unpack it.

SUMMERS: Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thanks, Glen.

WELDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL GIACCHINO'S "MARVEL OPENING THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.