Why Has the Superhero Genre Become So Toxic?

Column: Jonathan Majors’ arrest over alleged domestic violence is just the latest blow in Marvel and DC’s increasingly bad year

Like those Kang the Conqueror variants in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Marvel’s latest underperformer, the hits just keep on multiplying for Hollywood’s increasingly beleaguered superhero industrial complex.

This past weekend saw the arrest of Jonathan Majors, who portrays villain Kang in Quantumania, following what police labeled a “domestic dispute” in New York. His lawyer says it’s just a matter of time before the claim is disproven, but nevertheless. Majors was charged with assault and aggravated harassment of a woman and his team has yet to produce exonerating video evidence it claims to have, nor have the reps produced any proof to their claim that his victim “redacted” her allegations. More damning: two former colleagues came forward with accounts claiming Majors’ abusiveness has been an “open secret” in the entertainment industry.

Majors is (or was?) set to be one of the new anchoring villains in Phases 5 and 6 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Avengers: The Kang Dynasty is scheduled for release in 2025. Though as some have pointed out, given the genre, Kang could easily be reborn in a different form, or whatever.

An exciting new star associated in the media with violence against women is a bad look for any brand or franchise. The discourse around Majors, in the absence of any definitive information about the case, has already metastasized into a debate about systemic racism and misogyny, toxic masculinity, and protectionism of problematic star behavior. For Marvel Studios, the Majors bombshell dropped mere days after the company’s firing of executive Victoria Alonso, who, the Hollywood Reporter states had for years been “part of the holy trinity —along with Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige and co-president Louis D’Esposito—who led the Marvel Cinematic Universe to ever-greater heights.”

The company claimed Alonso breached her contract by working on a side project, Amazon’s Argentina, 1985. But her attorney pushed back on this claim, saying that “Victoria, a gay Latina who had the courage to criticize Disney, was silenced. Then she was terminated when she refused to do something she believed was reprehensible.” Details behind that claim surfaced soon, with THR reporting Alonso had pushed back against Disney’s edict to remove gay Pride references from a scene in Quantumania for the film’s distribution in Kuwait,; she’d also “publicly challenged then-CEO Bob Chapek to push back against Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill.” This was at the 2022 GLAAD awards, when Alonso, addressing Chapek, asked him to “please respect if we’re selling family, take a stand against all of these crazy outdated laws. Take a stand for the family.”

For a company not exactly known for its stellar portrayal of women on the screen, this particular behind-the-scenes controversy only dug Disney and Marvel into a hole.

Meanwhile, the DC Extended Universe continues with its many uphill battles. Much has already been said about Majors’ arrest for domestic violence versus the indulgent treatment given to DC’s The Flash star Ezra Miller, who despite having footage emerge of him physically attacking multiple women, has been given seemingly limitless do-overs from the company and whose latest Flash movie is set for release on June 16.

Erstwhile Batman portrayer Ben Affleck seems to be ready to abandon DC’s ship, saying in an interview with THR that “I got to a point where I found it creatively not satisfying.” If asked to direct for DC, he said, “I would not direct something for the [James] Gunn DC. Absolutely not. I have nothing against James Gunn. Nice guy, sure he’s going to do a great job. I just wouldn’t want to go in and direct in the way they’re doing that. I’m not interested in that.”

Affleck’s aversion to this style might reflect the ever-diminishing returns of and possibly audiences losing interest in superhero narratives overall. The past couple of years have seen one big-budget title after another flop at the box office and underwhelm even devoted fans of the genre. As the L.A. Times puts it, these movies “have a quality problem.” One self-professed superhero movie obsessive pointed out that crappy and ubiquitous CGI is making these movies exhausting to sit through. 

“For a while, fans were more likely to forgive things like Wonder Woman and so many others like it having a third act that’s largely CGI, but once the glut got bigger, it started to grate on audiences,” she writes. “Quantumania broke my heart because I loved the first two films, but the effects and background in the Quantum Realm were so awful (not at all helped by the way effects artists are treated these days) that it took me right out of it.”

If you’ve lost her interest, she concludes, “you’ve lost a whole lot of other people.”

Or perhaps, it’s time for a bit of “out with the old” and Disney is already on it. On Wednesday, the House of Mouse  laid off Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter after he spent 30 years at the company. “Perlmutter has been blamed for holding back the inclusion of women and people of color in the studio’s films,” The Verge reported, adding that “a memoir from Disney CEO Bob Iger revealed that he had to get past Perlmutter’s ‘roadblocks’ when getting movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel into production.” 

It’s a move that seems suspiciously well-timed to distract from the Alonso scandal. But it’s also an easy way to generate some goodwill for the brand, and the floundering superhero industry is going to need a lot more of that this year.

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