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Superheroes are shifting to streaming. That could change everything


It’s a big weekend for comic book fans with two highly anticipated superhero premieres debuting. However, instead of heading to the multiplex, viewers can stay in their pajamas to watch people in tights save the world.

Zack Snyder’s long-awaited director’s cut of “Justice League” made its streaming premiere on HBO Max, which like CNN is owned by WarnerMedia, on Thursday. If that wasn’t enough, Marvel Studios’ next big-budget Disney+ series, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” debuted on Friday.

Superhero content dominating a weekend is nothing new. Just look at the list of biggest opening weekends of all time at the box office. And watching superhero content on your TV is nothing special either since there’s been a ton of shows on the airwaves over the years from animated series to an interconnected DC universe on The CW, which is owned by WarnerMedia and CBS. (This isn’t even the first time Marvel TV shows and a DC blockbuster have made their way to streaming.)

Yet this weekend feels like an inflection point for the entertainment industry and its most lucrative genre.

For years there has been a distinction between a superhero show and a superhero movie. But as Hollywood makes streaming the focal point of its business and the lines continue to blur between what constitutes a film and TV, that contrast is vanishing quickly.

No longer is there a difference between a big-budget superhero cinematic extravaganza and what you watch at home. That was never more apparent than this weekend.

Snyder’s “Justice League” brings together DC’s biggest superheroes for a four-hour director’s cut of the 2017 film while” The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” comes with a reported price tag of $150 million — a hefty amount for anything that’s not a major film.

So, if more audiences get used to watching cinema’s caped crusaders from the comforts of their couches, what does that mean for the growing power of streaming and for a genre that’s been at the heart of the theater industry’s grosses for the last decade?

“A pillar of the box office”

To say that superheroes are important to theaters is an understatement.

“The global appeal of superhero franchises is near the center of the pulse that has driven mainstream moviegoer attendance for the past decade,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at, told CNN Business. “Those films and brands have been a pillar of the box office for quite some time now and they’ll be important toward long-term theatrical recovery as audiences come back to cinemas.”

The success of the box office and comic book movies have been intrinsically tied for years. For example, of the top 10 films at the domestic box office in 2019, four of them were superhero movies, according to Comscore. In 2018, the number was six. In 2017, it was five.

With “Justice League” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” putting the focus on streaming this weekend, it shows that “Hollywood is adapting,” according to Zak Shaikh, vice president of programming and entertainment at research firm Magid.

“It continues to solidify the importance of streaming as a platform for major releases,” Shaikh said.

However, he noted that the box office could evolve as streaming does.

“The box office may well develop into a place for the full movie experience, where movies that people want to see in a more communal setting taking priority,” he said. “The film industry is primarily driven by consumer demand, not necessarily where the movie is available, so I don’t think the types of movies made will change much. But what makes it to theaters will have to have a combination of theater-worthy qualities.”

Superheroes may not be flying away from theaters altogether anytime soon but streaming — like everything else in Hollywood — is likely to become a bigger home for the genre’s stories.

However, beyond how this weekend could impact theaters, the debuts of “Justice League” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” are also significant moments for the services that host them.

“Much less of a cannibalization and more of an expansion”

For HBO Max, releasing a reworked “Justice League” is a massive opportunity. DC fans have begged for Snyder’s version of the film after the director stepped away from the film following a family tragedy.

In a streaming world where content is king, exclusive content like “Justice League” serves two purposes: it pleases loyal fans and potentially boosts Max’s subscribers.

As for Disney+, the service is coming off the very successful “WandaVision,” which was Marvel’s first series for the streamer. “Falcon and Winter Soldier” hopes to keep the momentum going for the service as it builds on its subscriber base, which just surpassed 100 million users.

While fans stay home to watch the latest adventures of their favorite heroes this weekend, audiences may get used to a world where films and shows from DC and Marvel pop up as often on the small screen as they do on the big one.

However, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing for theaters if streaming becomes another home for superheroes as long as it continues to build demand for movies as well, according to Robbins.

“As long as the content itself is of high caliber, theatrical and streaming releases can fuel each other’s success,” Robbins said. “Marvel is the shining example with ‘WandaVision’ having already established the connective tissues to upcoming films like the Doctor Strange sequel.”

Robbins added that he believes that the future is “much less of a cannibalization and more of an expansion in terms of available content.”

“In my opinion, most comic book films unquestionably belong on the big screen,” he said. “But that’s not to say there isn’t room for strong storytelling across other mediums.”

Article Topic Follows: Money

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