Insights

Subverting superheroes: Finding ways to compete in a crowded space

22 July, 2021

With every new Marvel movie or TV show, there are questions about whether superhero fatigue has kicked in. Are people finally tired of these stories? 

It’s actually the complete opposite. Our data found that relative to the size of the genre, the average demand for superhero content in the US is incredibly in-demand. An undeniable reason for the discrepancy in the relatively low supply for the level of demand comes from the assumed associated costs. Superhero shows are expensive, with top level series demanding $25 million an episode and even smaller budget productions coming in around $10 million. 

Take three of the most recent superhero TV series: WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki. All three TV series rocketed to the most in-demand show globally within days or weeks of premiering. WandaVision became the most in-demand show after 14 days, with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier achieving the same momentum in just eight days and Loki in seven. 

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Loki, the most recent of Marvel Studios’ first three Disney+ shows, remained the most in-demand show globally after its finale on July 14th. In the time that it premiered on June 9th to the time that it ended, Loki maintained 80x the average demand of other TV shows globally, and peaked at 114x the average demand. The series is also the first Marvel Studios show to receive a second season. 

It’s not just Loki that was popular, though. The chart below outlines the average demand for Disney’s first three Marvel Studios shows — WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki — fared in comparison to demand for other superhero shows on streaming platforms during the time of their first season premiere.

The Marvel Studios series clearly outpace The Boys and The Umbrella Academy, but demand for both those series — each released as part of a binge-model as opposed to weekly — remained exceptional for six weeks after their release. 

Marvel Studios’ series becoming the most popular shows around the world near instantaneously is good news for Disney, even if it was expected because of the studio’s success on the film side. It’s not just Disney+ that is garnering demand from fans, though.

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Older shows made available on Hulu or Netflix (and other platforms globally) are still seeing high levels of audience demand years after they finished. Over the last 90 days, demand for Netflix’s Marvel universe (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders) was still good.

Daredevil retains 17x the average demand of other shows globally within the last 120 days, with Iron Fist and Jessica Jones sitting at 8.7x and 7.4x the average demand. Luke Cage maintains 6.5x the average demand, and even The Defenders is still 3.5x the average demand worldwide as seen below — and this demand comes years after the last installment in Netflix’s Marvel universe. More importantly, the continued upticks in demand for all five series reiterates that fans are still clamoring to revisit the series. 

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Demand for superhero content continues to grow, but outside of Disney (Marvel Studios) and WarnerMedia (DC Comics), figuring out what type of superhero content people actually want gets a little more difficult. Just because the two biggest comic book powerhouses, and therefore most recognizable supplier of superhero stories, are owned by two media conglomerates doesn’t mean others can’t join in on the opportunity, though. 

Netflix executives are trying to figure that out right now. Netflix signed a partnership deal with Mark Millar to bring several of his Millarworld creations to the streaming service, betting on the renowned comic book writer’s work and fanbase to bring with it a plethora of new franchises that could compete. Sweet Tooth was an optimistic take on a beloved graphic novel. And then there’s The Umbrella Academy. 

Some have fared better for Netflix than others. The graph below showcases demand for the first season of some of Netflix's biggest superhero bets. Umbrella Academy is a knockout, alongside Daredevil, but Jupiter's Legacy and Raising Dion struggle.

What’s become abundantly clear is throwing an extravagant amount of money at a number of projects in hopes something will stick doesn’t always work. It’s exceptionally harder to make work with increased competition in the space; two years ago, Netflix didn’t have to contend with a Disney+ or HBO Max, or the abundantly adored brands they carry.

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It’s not always apparent what show will become a hit and what won’t, but as Netflix starts contending with more competition that carries superhero franchises people already know and love, keeping an eye on the demand audiences have for their superhero stories is key. 

Three of the most in-demand superhero shows outside of Marvel and DC mainstays are Amazon’s The Boys, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, and HBO’s Watchmen. All three are based on pre-existing graphic novels, and while Watchmen is a widely celebrated comic, neither The Boys or The Umbrella Academy were as recognized as Marvel and DC characters. 

All three shows, however succeeded in being superhero antithesis series, leaning away from what Disney and WarnerMedia were doing. They subverted the superhero genre that consumers came to know inside and out, and found their own audiences in the process. Since their premiere, the shows have garnered sizable fanbases, and have remained in-demand.

Subverting the genre, now that people really understand what a traditional show encompasses, goes a long way with audiences looking for something new to watch within that same vein. It even works for the big companies: just look at DC Universe’s Doom Patrol in the graph below. 

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By the time The Umbrella Academy’s second season came out in July 2020, it peaked at the most in-demand show globally, and remains one of the hundred most in-demand shows today, a full year after the second season debuted. Similarly, The Boys peaked as the number one in-demand show when its second season was released in September 2020. It is currently ranked as the 21st most popular show globally, nearly one year after release. 

Both have succeeded and far outperformed more traditional superhero shows, including Netflix’s Jupiter's Legacy, which reportedly cost between $130 and $200 million, and was canceled after one season.

Whereas Jupiter’s Legacy peaked at #80 in demand rankings, and has since done nothing but trailed off. Unlike The Umbrella Academy and The Boys, Parrot Analytics data found that Jupiter’s Legacy had little reach and little franchiseability potential — both of which are key to Netflix’s plans for franchise building. 

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Jupiter’s Legacy was more in-line with a traditional superhero show, with a budget and look to match. The Boys and The Umbrella Academy were more action driven, comedies that offered a different take on the Marvel and DC worlds dominating film and television. 

Superhero as a genre is a wide umbrella, but partnered with other subgenres that are in high demand, like horror, neo-noir, mockumentary, or satire, there’s a way to break into one of the most popular content fields without trying to create a Marvel or DC knockoff.

Much like What We Do in the Shadows did for the horror genre, these can do for the superhero genre. What We Do in the Shadows peaked at 34.7x the demand of average TV shows in the United States - an Exceptional level of demand achieved by just the top 0.2% of all shows - and still maintains an outstanding 16.7x average demand a year after the second season premiered. 

Another aspect of creating superhero stories that streaming-first players can keep in mind is that a bigger budget doesn’t always translate to automatic success. Marvel’s Disney+ series work because they’re tied into more than a decade of Marvel storytelling.

One of the most successful superhero television franchises is Greg Berlanti’s Arrowverse on The CW. The interwoven universe — The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Batwoman, Black Lightning, Superman & Lois, and Stargirl — has led to some of the most popular superhero shows on television worldwide. The chart below showcases the most in-demand, non-Marvel live-action superhero shows globally. 80% are CW series that belong to the Arrowverse.

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The Flash, Arrow, and Supergirl also cost a fraction of what shows like Loki, Jupiter’s Legacy, The Boys, or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier cost. The CW leaned into creating a true comic book universe, spacing out its shows every single night and interweaving stories that incorporate both iconic characters (Superman, The Flash) and those who audiences might not know as well (Legends of Tomorrow).

The result is a universe where each show helps the other succeed. While the cost of The Flash and Arrow is relatively expensive for a network, the average reported cost per episode is much lower than budgets big digital players like Netflix and Amazon use.

Superhero shows don’t need to lean into the grandiose to work 


Netflix saw success with this in its Marvel universe, but there are other superhero series that don’t rely on DC and Marvel characters that can create a similar type of criss-cross universe without breaking the bank.

Black Hammer from Jeff Lemire (creator of Sweet Tooth) or Harbinger about outcast teenage superheroes may satiate a desire that traditional superhero stories don’t have for a much smaller cost. Black Hammer crosses over with horror and dystopian storytelling (two in-demand genres with lower supply) and Harbinger is teen-focused, something The CW does exceptionally well. 

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When it comes to superhero content, The CW regularly outperforms Netflix originals in demand as fans turn out season after season, nearly every day of the week, to watch their favorite characters. Daily demand for CW shows is around 4x more than Netflix every single month. 

Part of that has to do with the release format (CW’s Arrowverse exists Monday through Thursday when the Fall television season is running, while Netflix drops everything at once), but The CW has managed to create an entire world that fans want to immerse themselves in for a relatively low cost average across shows. An episode of Arrow isn’t $25 million (the cost per episode for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) or even $9 million (the reported cost for Jupiter’s Legacy). 

Finally, there’s one other obvious superhero category option that has found an incredible level of success over the years: animation.

These shows are typically much cheaper to make because animation is cheaper to produce, but demand for many of them remains particularly high. Like aforementioned shows, many of these series also subvert the typical superhero genre, providing a new take on storytelling audiences love for a significantly lesser cost.

Using animation, digital players can create two or three fantastic superhero series that draw in adults and younger viewers for the price of one live-action show. When it comes to building superhero franchises, animation is one way to go about it while not breaking the bank. 

Harley Quinn peaked at 40x the average demand, which categorizes it as exceptional. Even more than a year from the most recent season, however, the show maintains a 21.5x average demand compared to other shows in the United States, which is outstanding. Invincible, the new series on Amazon Prime Video, peaked at 20x the average demand of TV shows in the United States, putting it in the outstanding category. 

Pulling from comic books, including those that are lesser known to mainstream audiences, and incorporating those characters into animated series is one way to satiate audience’s clear demand for superhero series without the added costs of elaborate costumes or big sets.

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