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This question is mostly concerned with live-action theatrical films.

Here’s lists of Marvel and DC Comics films. I’ve made a graph of yearly distribution since 1966 (first Batman): Superhero films per year

As we can see, since around 2002 the number of films released per year grows significantly, mostly because of Marvel, though DC Comics releases films more often than before too.

Why? Notably many of the characters are decades old in comics. Did something prevent making so many films before the Millennium? Or did the general popularity of superhero-themed media (including comic books and animated series) grow? Do the movies target teenagers like animated series of 1980-1990s or those who were teenagers then?

Maybe there’s some publicly available market analysis discussing this.

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    Not an answer just an opinion, I think there is a market for it, because so many people feel like they need a hero and/or idealist mythology one way or another, because things are so polarizing and the future seems dire. With that said, some super hero films are non-traditional so, we're still celebrating the anti-hero or a non traditional approach to super heroes too! – Darth Locke Sep 28 at 0:52
  • This is an interesting question that might be hard to answer. Obviously they make huge amounts of money, as Darth Locke mentioned. Basically, franchises, old and new, are very popular these days. In the past it might have been that people would get bored or confused by too many movies set in the same universe with the same characters. Now, that’s clearly not a problem. What’s changed? I don’t know, but my guess is the Internet. It makes it possible to research and better understand complicated franchises like the MCU, and you can participate in a fandom, etc. – Todd Wilcox Sep 28 at 1:17
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    Money money money money – sanpaco Sep 28 at 8:15
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    One thing here is maturation of comics as medium and their getting to mainstream. Another thing is evolution of visual medium, from short stories fitting into two hours to complex structures and long storylines (still broken into parts though). – Mithoron Sep 28 at 21:48
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    I would say people have always enjoyed elements of the superhero movie. Captain America isn't too different than traditional action movie heroes, for example. Perhaps it's simply money, it costs more to come up with and advertise an original story than adapt a comic book character. – pboss3010 Sep 30 at 15:13
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The simplest answer is this - in the 20th century, superheroes were a thing for kids and "nerdy people living in the basement", so a blockbuster movie with such a topic would not appeal to the wider audience when the world was run by jocks and the mainstream "cool thing" was sports, military, and so on.

Now the "nerdy kids" took over the world in the 21st century with the internet revolution and the mainstream thing is to be into superheroes, tech, and other "nerdy/geeky" stuff. So now these movies appeal to the wide audience - the kids, and the adults which were into comics while being young in the 20th century.

Superheroes are just very popular right now, so studios make more movies about them to get more money. In earlier times these movies didn't sell that many tickets, so it was not a financially good idea to make them.

I believe that Nolan's first Batman and first Iron Man were the movies that have taken the niche of "superheroes in spandex" and turned them into gritty, realistic, mature stories in the mainstream.

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    I'm not sure the culture change is enough to explain it. Both Batman and Superman enjoyed success in the late 20th century thanks to being big budget & high quality productions. And I would say a large proportion of people who went to see (say) The Avengers had never heard of Thanos before the recent movies he appeared in. – colmde Sep 30 at 8:36
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    Yes, Superman was a success in 1978, but the next parts of that series went down in quality, the same with Batman, with Batman and Robin almost destroying the superhero genre for the whole generation. As I said, it required Nolan's first Batman and first Iron Man to change the perspective of the superhero movies from spandex/niche movies to gritty, realistic movies, which went to mainstream – TK-421 Sep 30 at 9:04
  • @TK-421 I think Keaton did a pretty decent job in his Batman role. yes, Nolan made it more mainstream. I read somewhere that even Clooney hated his role – Vishwa Oct 3 at 5:54
  • @Vishwa I think that was the main problem - previously, like with Clooney following Keaton and Superman III and IV - the sequels where made terrible. Nolan made a great sequel and Iron Man took sequels to the next level, making a cinematic universe, and maybe this is what helped this rise in popularity. – TK-421 Oct 3 at 6:14
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  • Advances in CGI have made it easier to render the visual effects of comic books. In the past, it might have looked cheap and cheesy to render something like Cyclops's optical plasma with practical effects. For example, look at the movies Spawn (1997) and The Mummy Returns (2001), which had notoriously poor CGI, and would have looked much better if produced today. It is also likely the case that these new comic book movies are not simply creating their CGI effects from scratch, but reusing and leveraging work from previous movies to the next. This offers cost savings and quality benefits.
  • The audiences who were children in the past are now adults. For instance, if an 8-year-old liked X-Men the animated series in the 90's, then they would now be in their 30's, and willing to spend their income to watch X-Men movies.
  • Comic book movies are objectively profitable. For example, Avengers: Endgame yielded $2.4 billion profit.
  • Hollywood studios are increasingly moving towards producing safe franchises that are already well-known, as opposed to independent films that have no established fame. Examples of safe, episodic film franchises include Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Fast and the Furious, Jurassic Park, James Bond, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Marvel comics movies, DC comics movies, Terminator, and Toy Story.
  • Similar to safe franchises, Hollywood also likes to make safe reboots / ports to film. For example, people are already familiar with the G.I. Joe brand, so make a G.I. Joe movie. People are already familiar with the Transformers brand, so make a Transformers movie. Other examples include the Star Trek reboot, the Ghostbusters remake, the Robocop remake, the Total Recall remake, the Aladdin remake, the Lion King remake, the Jungle Book remake, the Jumanji remake, the Pet Cemetery remake, the Power Rangers movie, the Nightmare On Elm Street remake, the Halloween remake, the Ninja Turtles reboot, the Winnie The Pooh port to film, the Where The Wild Things Are port to film, and so on.
  • Movies with dazzling special effects seem to be out-grossing movies with very plain visuals. Premises like super heroes, transformers, wizards, and jedis offer an excuse to load-up on robust CGI visual effects; and therefore gross lots of money.
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    The fact that those films proved to be profitable can not possibly be a reason they were made in the first place, right? It would be better to maybe change the example to one of the earlier films: 2002's Spider-Man broke the opening weekend record. Similarly, the fact they got franchised was arguably because they proved popular to begin with. – Joachim Oct 5 at 18:07
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I think that Marvel, and Kevin Feige's production team have done wonders to boost this genre. 1. They make excellent casting choices. 2. They choose writers and directors who are fans of the source material as well as having a fresh perspective to offer. 3. They are not afraid to make potentially controversial changes for the betterment of the overall MCU. 4. They're pretty good at producing decent sequels and not overdoing things just for the sake of money. Thor: Love and Thunder will be the first (maybe the only) character franchise in the MCU to have a 4th film.

Effects have become incredibly good in the past 15 years. The Hulk alone is vastly improved over 10 years ago.

TV networks have embraced more programs related to comics. The CW currently has Arrow, Batwoman, Black Lightning, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. With more DC shows to come. Multiple streaming services have their own superhero shows. The quality of shows like these gives people good stories that happen to focus around unusual characters. The Umbrella Academy, on Netflix, is a brilliant example.

The advent of R - rated comic book flicks opened up a whole new world. From Logan to Deadpool, it has been made clear that this isn't kid stuff. This has broadened audience appeal while also making people more open to other, PG-13 and PG superhero films with a reasonable expectation of quality.

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