The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the MCU, has been the face and the de facto image of "superhero" since its meteoric rise in the 2010s, but shows like "Invincible" and "The Boys" are challenging fans' perception of what superhero content can look like in 2023 and beyond.
Marvel had an unpredictable and unprecedented rise from nerdy comic books to one of the highest-grossing franchises ever after Disney bought the company in 2009 for $4 billion.
But recently, the franchise has fallen off both critically and in the box office.
"(The MCU) originally started out with passion projects from directors," said Jackson Parker, 19. "Then Marvel realized, 'Wait a second, all these movies can do really well. Let’s make it a shared universe.'"
Quickly, fans felt that initial passion was lost in the face of profit. But fans still enjoyed the franchise, and most movies were well-received. This changed after a climactic blockbuster became the second biggest movie of all time, "Avengers: Endgame."
"Those movies were really good and stuff, but once they beat (Thanos), it felt kind of aimless," said Akhil Kanakaraj, a sophomore studying film and media production. "Audiences were also burnt out from the amount of superhero movies they were pumping out."
From May 2008 to July 2019, there were 23 official MCU movies in the Infinity Saga, not counting any shows or other media. That's over two movies a year that viewers had to keep up with.
Paired with a similar peak and decline of the DC Expanded Universe, there was a void left in mainstream superhero entertainment for committed fans, opening the door for other superhero content.
"'The Boys' was such a drastically different type of superhero content than what people had seen," Parker said. "I think that's why it blew up initially."
"The Boys" follows a much more dystopian view of superheroes and features graphic violence that would never be seen on the big screen of the MCU. Its focus on Homelander, an egotistical and sociopathic antagonist, is unlike anything fans have seen before.
"'The Boys' with this subversion of expectations, creating a more dark and gritty storyline, I know fans like it because it’s different," said Kanakaraj. "It's interesting to see a more nihilistic view on superheroes."
Soon after came "Invincible," an animated series that offers a different style than "The Boys" but still is a break from the redundancy of the MCU. It starts as what looks like a traditional superhero story but quickly transitions into a much darker plotline with an unexpected twist involving the main character's father and superhero, Omni-Man.
"I know a lot of time goes into 'Invincible,' they draw it all out. To put all that time and effort into it, you've got to have a passion for it," said Abe Mogelson, a sophomore studying kinesiology. "These new shows are gruesome. They're everything you wanted to see as a kid but weren't allowed to watch by your parents. And now you have free reign."
This creative passion starkly contrasts the current state of the MCU, and fans can tell. Especially for college students, more mature content has become more appealing as they've grown older, and shows like "Invincible" and "The Boys" can satisfy that with a twist on stories that fans have always enjoyed.
"As people get older, they yearn for more complex narratives," Kanakaraj said. "And that's something that Marvel isn't really providing anymore, but shows like 'Invincible' and 'The Boys' are."
But adult appeals aren’t the only reason these shows are gaining popularity and acclaim. Fans are also impressed by the core of storytelling and overall quality.
"People can enjoy something without the R-rated, gruesome side of it, but it's not bad either," Parker said. "It's just a way to tell a story."
Mogelson said that "Invincible" and "The Boys" have replaced Marvel and DC in his content consumption and that both franchises haven't felt as exciting as these shows.
But these shows don’t have to compete or even try to compete with the Marvel giant. Fans of the shows came for the superheroes and stayed for the narrative. At the end of the day, that quality of storytelling is all that matters to the fans.
They aren't doing badly monetarily, either. With its second season's release this winter, "Invincible" has even gotten popular enough to make a cameo in the resurgence of Fortnite.
"I still do think of Marvel when I think superhero," Mogelson said. "I don't even think of 'The Boys' or 'Invincible.' I kind of categorize it as completely different."
However, the MCU isn't going anywhere and will stay culturally significant for the foreseeable future.
"I don’t really go to Homelander or Omni-Man when I think superhero," Kanakaraj said. "Marvel and DC created some really iconic superheroes, and I don’t think that can ever be taken away … I'm not sure if that standard will ever change."
Edited by Claire van Doren, Walker Smith, Alysa Horton and Caera Learmonth.