The Superhero Movie Is Dying. Its Replacement Is Waiting in the Wings.

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For more than a decade, blockbuster comic book adaptations reliably clobbered all competition at the box office. Disney and HBO Max built their streaming strategies around intellectual property from Marvel and DC Comics. The studios turned this pulpy source material into a profusion of interconnected films and series that consistently drove ticket sales and subscriptions—until they didn’t.

Lately, serious superhero fatigue seems to have set in. Comic book movies regularly tank these days, and not just the ones based on second-string characters like Blue Beetle and Madame Web. The recent Aquaman sequel made less than half of what the billion-plus-grossing original did in 2018, and last year’s Captain Marvel sequel earned less than a fifth of what the first flick scored back in 2019. Meanwhile, studios are scaling back and slowing down their endless comic book brand extensions, pruning their lineups of caped crusader content, and—holy tax write-off, Batman!—even axing completed superhero films. Amid plenty of hand-wringing, industry insiders, critics, and audience members seem to be wondering the same thing: As Slate’s Sam Adams asked in December, what comes next to fill the superhero-sized hole in Hollywood’s bottom line?

We may already have an answer. Just as superhero intellectual properties appear to be sundowning, the entertainment industry is tapping into a rich new wellspring of previously unexploited IP: video game franchises. Kid-friendly fare based on console mainstays like Sonic (the hedgehog), Pikachu (the Pokémon), and Mario (the Koopa Troopa–stomping plumber) has been offering Disney Animation some serious competition for several years. But a newer strain of darker, more adult-oriented game adaptations now seems to be giving Disney’s Marvel properties a run for their money. These buzzy adaptations, unlike earlier ones, are largely not kid-friendly, with PG-13 or even R-rated levels of violence, and they all share a decidedly bleak milieu.

For example, an eight-episode adaptation of Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout is out on Amazon Prime this week, made by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the husband-wife creative team behind HBO’s Westworld. And the couple’s new video game conversion seems to be garnering early praise, not unlike what they once received for their adaptation of an android Western franchise. The Fallout series, like the games it’s based on, tells an ultraviolent but tongue-in-cheek story set in a bombed-out postnuclear version of Southern California, with retrofuturist riffs on 1950s atomic age tropes.

But that’s not all. In August, a film version of Gearbox Software’s Borderlands hits theaters. The namesake game franchise is a cartoony take on the already hyperbolic Mad Max vision of barren wastelands full of blazing action set pieces. The blockbuster cinematic reimagining has wall-to-wall special effects and stars such names as Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Then, of course, there’s HBO’s highly acclaimed The Last of Us, which proved that video games can be peak TV fodder and score eight Emmys. A second season of that series—based on a PlayStation franchise about an Earth overrun by a zombie fungus—is due in 2025. Meanwhile, Peacock’s Twisted Metal, an action comedy reconceptualization of a more obscure old PlayStation franchise, also got greenlit for a second season. It’s set in a hellscape caused by some kind of gargantuan computer glitch, and though it’s not going to win a slew of Emmys, it got surprisingly decent reviews, by what used to be video-game adaptation standards.

If you haven’t noticed, one common theme unites these adaptations and their source material, along with a whole other slate of others in the works (Death Stranding, Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone, and Stray, to name a few). They are all set in postapocalyptic wastelands, whether that’s a destroyed cityscape or a dusty desert crawling with unnatural creatures unleashed by mankind’s hubris.

Why are the studios placing such big bets on this specific subset of video game properties? There’s the obvious fact that we all have Armageddon on the brain these days, inundated as we are with anxieties over environmental catastrophe, war, earthquakes, and what have you. In a world increasingly filled with preppers, powdered eggs, and tech moguls building their own end-times bunkers in New Zealand, of course Hollywood might see dollar signs in tapping into that ambient existential dread.

But I have another theory about why these game franchises are hot IP right now: They are built around a distinctive locale rather than the mythical, larger-than-life characters that superhero movies tend to center. Audiences are sick to death of being bombarded with origin stories and pantheons and multiverses that offer the promise of cameos from other actors who previously donned the mask. Comic book movies used to be escapism, but now keeping track of all the metatextual references and the various intersecting story arcs increasingly feels like homework.

The Fallout games have hundreds of characters that players can interact with, but the real focal point is always the ominous, demanding postnuclear environs. Players are greeted with desolate landscapes full of mutated flora and fauna and dynamic hazards like radiation storms. Empty wastelands are mixed with ruined versions of recognizable cities (Boston, Vegas, Washington) dotted with familiar landmarks and cultural artifacts that have been redeployed in a variety of interesting ways. For instance, the political mire that used to blight the Massachusetts State House in the before times has been replaced by the blight of giant mirelurks, ornery mutant crustaceans that stand between players and tons of hidden loot and weapons stashes.

“The environment is almost as much of a character in the games as any of the other characters,” Nolan, one of the TV series’ co-creators, told Looper in a recent interview. These postapocalyptic games offer their players a vast playground in a setting where the normal rules of civilization no longer apply; I think they offer a similar playground for filmmakers—and viewers—to explore.

And although there’s a risk of a glut of postapocalyptic narratives wending their way to us—how many exotic mutants and gorgeously ruined cityscapes can we encounter before they start to seem as humdrum as yet another superhero three-point landing?—for now there’s still enough variety in the kinds of worlds presented in these series and movies to seem novel. For instance, Nolan’s adaptation explores the warring factions of Fallout’s dystopia, following the exploits of a naïve vault dweller who’s just emerged from centuries of isolation in an underground nuclear-proof bunker, a supersoldier who’s a minion in a high-tech fascistic paramilitary organization, and an ageless ghoul who’s been rendered immortal by the initial radiation blast of the apocalypse. Borderlands offers an increasingly jokey and less satirical style of comedic action than Fallout, and focuses on more straightforward looting and shooting over getting embroiled in complex factional disputes. Meanwhile, The Last of Us is somber and Cormac McCarthy–esque, with a veneer of scientific authenticity that elevates it above standard zombie fare.

Other postapocalyptic game IPs have equally distinctive milieus. The Horizon Zero Dawn franchise is set in a sort of postsingularity Jurassic era, with robotic dinosaurs clomping around a wilderness that has reclaimed the entire world. Death Stranding is set in a Lynchian nightmare realm created by the game industry’s most distinctive auteurist, Hideo Kojima. Stray features a cute cat and its robot buddy in a decaying city with no surviving humans; it’s easy to see why this wryly comedic and virtually wordless scenario, reminiscent of WALL-E, is getting an animated movie version.

Will many—or any—of these upcoming game adaptations actually be good? Perhaps. Clearly, game companies are getting smarter and more hands-on with their IP extensions—particularly Sony, which is behind several of these dystopian properties. Its competitor Nintendo was just as closely involved with last year’s film adaptation of Super Mario Brothers, which scored the kind of billion-dollar box-office numbers that have eluded recent superhero flicks. (Its success stands in marked contrast to the stunning failure of the 1993 Super Mario Bros. with Dennis Hopper and Bob Hoskins; in a way, I feel as if we’re all just a ragtag band of survivors scratching out a meager existence in the aftermath of that aesthetic apocalypse.) You can bet there’s more on the horizon: Nintendo has announced that its other signature franchise, The Legend of Zelda, is also getting a film adaptation. I would argue that the series, although primarily known as an epic fantasy adventure, fits within the dystopian trend—after all, each iteration typically follows an archvillain who has unleashed some kind of curse or pestilence upon the kingdom, and it’s up to the player to restore balance to the land.

Maybe these game franchises have the juice to restore some balance to Tinseltown as well as its ailing balance sheets. Nolan has said that this idea of linear media-makers tapping into the success of interactive media was at least part of what the creative team behind Fallout had in mind when it chose to set the series in the bombed-out realm that used to be known as Los Angeles. “It really felt irresistible to us, given on a meta-level that, here we are, the Hollywood folks coming to adapt these games,” he told IGN. In the coming years, you can expect to see more content set in decimated badlands, and less set in comic book mainstays like Gotham, Metropolis, and Themyscira. After so long spent in the latter, this change of scenery will come as a relief to many of us, no matter how inhospitable and unwelcoming a monster-infested wasteland may look.