The superhero gene went up, up and away in 2018 finishing with the year’s three top domestic box office releases (Black Panther, The Incredibles 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, with combined box office of $2 billion) and three more tentpoles ranked in the Top 10 (Deadpool 2 at No. 5, Ant-Man and The Wasp at No. 8 and Venom at No. 10). More surprisingly, the genre closes out 2018 with as a surprisingly viable contender in the Oscar race for best picture.

That contender, of course, is the Disney/Marvel Studios film Black Panther, a popcorn crowd pleaser that grew into a full-blown cultural happening thanks to the unexpected profundity of its sci-fi tale of gleaming Wakanda, the fictitious African nation that cloaks its existence behind a veil of futuristic technology but cannot hide from the dark secrets in its own past.

Black Panther captured lightning in a bottle by blending its proud comic-book legacy (the character was the first black superhero when he was introduced by Marvel Comics in 1966) with civil rights history, sleek CG spectacle and of-the-moment music (Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack led Grammy nominations with eight nods, including album of the year).

Venom
Sony Pictures

It was a singular success, but Black Panther wasn’t the only 2018 hit that pushed the ambitions of the superhero genre or flew in the face of its traditions and expectations. Fox’s Deadpool 2, for instance, was the year’s highest-grossing R-rated film, flouting the entrenched Hollywood wisdom that superhero fare is a natural native of the PG-13 sector. Sony’s Venom also challenged the conventional concepts of comic-book adaptations by building a movie around a monstrous alien super villain (“Because the world has enough superheroes,” as the tagline explained) and the result was the biggest October opening weekend in domestic box office history. Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, meanwhile, became the year’s most acclaimed animation film with its game-changing meld of CG images with hand-drawn art (which the studio is now trying to patent) and a willingness to break with traditional portrayals of the wall-crawler.

“The idea was to break all the rules and do something that was, top-to-bottom, a new approach that started from scratch with the idea of what a superhero film should be made and how an animated film could be made,” said Peter Ramsey, one of the three directors of Spider-Verse. “After so many Spider-Man films and so many superhero films, the reinvention felt necessary and without it the question would have been: Why make another one?”

Innovation in the face of saturation — that might be the defining theme for the superhero genre as 2019 gets underway. Studios find a lot to love about the superhero genre, which leads itself to screen spectacle and opens up a lot more revenue streams (toys, T-shirts, theme park attractions, video games, etc.) than, say, your average romantic comedy or historical drama.

The first Hollywood superhero blockbuster arrived 40 years ago this month with the Warner Bros classic Superman, but the genre’s most explosive expansion came in the CG-effects era after Fox’s X-Men (2000) and Sony’s Spider-Man (2001) brought heroes to the screen in digitally enhanced epics that also showed a new level of respect to the source material.

In the past five years, the genre has become the linchpin for Hollywood, with superheroes increasingly dominating the domestic box office (see the chart below). For veterans of the industry the increasingly common question: Who is that masked man?

“There are so many superheroes out there now and that wasn’t the case when we did the first Incredibles, which came out in 2004 when there was a lull in superhero movies,” said Brad Bird, who returned to the franchise as the writer-director of The Incredibles 2. “When we were making the first one there was some concerns expressed that superhero movies might be gone by the time we got the movie out. Now coming back the anxiety I heard was whether there was any superhero stories left to tell.”

Aquaman
Warner Bros.

That anxiety may be premature. The superhero genre in 2018 seemed at times to be as bulletproof as its heroes. Negative reviews couldn’t slow down Sony’s Venom, and a heritage of ridicule didn’t sink Warner Bros’ Aquaman (which transformed its title character from a pop-culture punchline into a cinematic powerhouse).

The skies of Hollywood will again be filled with superheroes in 2019, but many of them present heroes that (like Black Panther‘s title hero or Spider-Verse‘s mixed-race protagonist Miles Morales) show the genre is no longer flying on automatic pilot as far as tone and representation.

More than a dozen major superhero or comic-book adaptations are on the way in the new year, which will be a robust one for all corners of Comic-Con culture, which encompasses sci-fi, fantasy, horror and animation. Among the key releases, franchise showdowns and genre trends:

The Avengers Vs. Jedi Knights

Which mega-franchise will have the final word in finale films? After 10 years and 20 films, Marvel Studios delivers its crescendo moment with the April 26 release of The Avengers: Endgame. It’s the major movie event of the year — well, at least until the December 20 release of Star Wars IX, the J.J. Abrams-directed epic that closes the book on the Skywalker family saga that has been swinging its lightsabers since May 1977.

The releases are separated by eight months so the competition isn’t a direct one but, really, is any one year big enough to hold both finales? Consider the global box office winner for the past four years: For 2018 it was Avengers: Infinity War ($2 billion); for 2017 it was Star Wars: The Last Jedi ($1.3 billion); for 2016 it was Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War ($1.1 billion); and for 2015 it was Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($2 billion). Who wins this time around? The answer is an easy one: The Walt Disney Co., which owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm. Speaking of Disney…

Fox And Mouse Games

Disney appears poised for its biggest year ever with Star Wars IX and The Avengers: Endgame flying in formation with Pixar’s Toy Story 4 (June 21), new photorealistic CG revamps of animated classics with Dumbo (March 29) and The Lion King (July 19), the sequel to Frozen (November 22), as well as Marvel’s latest franchise launcher Captain Marvel (March 8).

Deadpool 2
Fox

Disney’s Marvel Universe is the gold standard for screen superheroes, but it is poised for major changes in 2019 with dramatic expansion of its superhero citizenry. The shape of those changes will begin to emerge in upcoming weeks as Disney acquisition’s of Fox becomes a corporate reality and the emigration of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Deadpool and Wolverine and the new Marvel Unified Cinematic Universe is made official. How Disney will handle R-rated Fox endeavors like Deadpoool or Logan is one intriguing subplot, as is the advent of Disney+, the subscription streaming site that launches in 2019 with new demands placed on Marvel. The superhero specialist studio will need to kick into a new gear to handle its theatrical slate as well as its new role as pipeline for exclusive Disney+ productions (such as three miniseries productions spotlighting Loki, Scarlet Witch and the duo of the Falcon & Winter Soldier). It’s also unclear how the Marvel properties dropped by Netflix will fit into the new world order.

New Looks, Old Names

Here’s an unsurprising stat: The 10 top-grossing films of 2018 domestically were follow-up films of one kind or another with six sequels, one remake and three spinoffs (featuring screen characters introduced in previous films). The importance of opening-weekend grosses has never been higher so the value of known brand names has never been more valued, and 2019 has a deep roster of returning properties, prequels, sequels, remakes and reboots.

Among the familiar names: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (February 22), Men in Black: International (June 14), Hellboy (April 12), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (May 31), Spider-Man: Far From Home (July 1), The Fast and the Furious spinoff Hobbs and Shaw (July 26), Zombieland 2 (October 11) and an untitled new installment of The Terminator franchise (November 1).

Heroic Representation

Captain Marvel X-Men Dark Phoenix
Disney/20th Century Fox

The success of Warner Bros’ 2017 hit Wonder Woman and Hollywood’s response to the #MeToo movement have combined to propel a greater representation of women in title-worthy superhero roles. In 2019 the first part of the new wave arrives with Alita: Battle Angel (February 14), Captain Marvel (March 8) and Dark Phoenix (June 7).

Subversive Superheroes

Following the success of Venom and Deadpool, the superhero genre will push further into edgy, subversive interpretations of heroes who prove that, sometimes, with great power comes great irresponsibility. The dark portrayals of superhuman exploits include Glass (January 18), Hellboy (April 12), Dark Phoenix (June 7) and Joker (October 4), the latter starring Joaquin Phoenix as the most iconic villain in comic book history in the clown prince of crime’s first stand-alone film. Speaking of clowns, the sequel to the highest-grossing horror film of all time arrives in September with the release of It: Chapter 2, based on the Stephen King supernatural thriller.

Superhero Movies Gaining Super-Strength
(Top-grossing films at the domestic box office since 2012)

Rank title studio lifetime gross year
1 Star Wars: The Force Awakens BV $936.7M 2015
2 Black Panther BV $700.1M 2018
3 Avengers: Infinity War BV $678.8M 2018
4 Jurassic World Uni. $652.3M 2015
5 Marvel’s The Avengers BV $623.4M 2012
6 Star Wars: The Last Jedi BV $620.2M 2017
7 Incredibles 2 BV $608.6M 2018
8 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story BV $532.2M 2016
9 Beauty and the Beast (2017) BV $504.0M 2017
10 Finding Dory BV $486.3M 2016
11 Avengers: Age of Ultron BV $459.0M 2015
12 The Dark Knight Rises WB $448.1M 2012
13 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire LGF $424.7M 2013
14 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Uni. $416.8M 2018
15 Wonder Woman WB $412.6M 2017
16 Iron Man 3 BV $409.0M 2013
17 Captain America: Civil War BV $408.1M 2016
18 The Hunger Games LGF $408.0M 2012
19 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle Sony $404.5M 2017
20 Frozen BV $400.7M 2013
21 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 BV $389.8M 2017
22 Despicable Me 2 Uni. $368.1M 2013
23 The Jungle Book (2016) BV $364.0M 2016
24 Deadpool Fox $363.1M 2016
25 Inside Out BV $356.5M 2015
26 Furious 7 Uni. $353.0M 2015
27 American Sniper WB $350.1M 2014
28 Zootopia BV $341.3M 2016
29 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 LGF $337.1M 2014
30 Minions Uni. $336.0M 2015
31 Spider-Man: Homecoming Sony $334.2M 2017
32 Guardians of the Galaxy BV $333.2M 2014
33 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice WB $330.4M 2016
34 It WB (NL) $327.5M 2017
35 Suicide Squad WB $325.1M 2016
36 Deadpool 2 Fox $323.5M 2018
37 Thor: Ragnorak BV $315.1M 2017
38 Skyfall Sony $304.4M 2012
39 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey WB (NL) $303.0M 2012
40 The Twlight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 LG/S $292.3M 2012

Source: comScore