Combined stills from Wicked: Part One and X2: X-Men United

Musicals Are the 2000s Superhero Movies of the 2020s

Musicals and superhero movies don’t have a lot in common – or do they? As the marketing around Universal Picture’s Wicked: Part One gradually intensifies, I’m starting to see a lot of overlap between the two genres.

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Related: All Major Actors & Cast List for Wicked

No, not the colorful costumes. Or even the stylized visuals and overall sense of hyper-reality. Yes, song-and-dance features and cape-and-tights adventures are founded on both, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Instead, I’m hung up on how Hollywood markets musicals today, and how closely it mirrors the industry’s approach to superhero movies more than two decades ago.

In both cases, the tactic is the same: don’t tell the audience what you’re selling them. That way, they might actually turn up for a brand of entertainment they typically can’t stand. It’s deeply dishonest – and wildly effective. So, really, is it any surprise that musicals have become the superhero movies of the late ’90s and early 2000s?

The Secret to a Good Musical Trailer: No Singing

In the last 18 months alone, we’ve seen several high-profile examples of 2000s-era superhero movie marketing applied to musicals. 2023 Timothée Chalamet vehicle Wonka didn’t outright obscure its true nature, however, the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory prequel’s trailers didn’t foreground them either. Indeed, plenty of moviegoers didn’t realize they were buying tickets to a musical until Chalamet belted out his first tune (at least if the audible groans at my screening are any guide).

Meanwhile, the promotional campaign for Mean Girls took things to a new level. Nothing about the 2024 stage show adaptation’s marketing suggested that it was, in fact, based on a musical. Heck, the trailers didn’t feature a single song! The only clue Paramount Pictures supplied viewers was a small musical note in Mean Girls‘ logo – an easily missed detail. Paramount was clearly confident the Mean Girls IP could get folks through the door. But the musical bit? Not so much.

And then there’s Wicked: Part One. Here, Universal has adopted a middle-of-the-road stance. It’s virtually impossible to hide what Wicked is; the stage show is one of the longest-running (and most lucrative) in Broadway history. What’s more, Wicked‘s soundtrack is its major selling point. So, leaving songs out of Part One‘s trailer was obviously a non-starter. Yet the studio hasn’t completely given up on luring in the uninitiated. That’s almost certainly why the Wicked: Part One trailer doesn’t include any clear shots of its cast actually, y’know, singing.

Related: Wicked Already Changed Disney’s Fairy Tale Princesses, so Do We Need a Film?

Don’t Say ‘Superhero,’ Say ‘Sci-Fi’ or ‘Horror’

It’s all a bit sneaky – and very familiar to those of us who grew up before the current superhero movie boom. In the late 90s, ‘superhero’ was a dirty word in Tinseltown. The Superman and Batman franchises had both crashed and burned, along with the likes of The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, and Spawn. The knock-on effect was that if you wanted to get a superhero film off the ground, you had to repackage it as something else.

So, 1998’s Blade became a hybrid horror flick, 2000’s X-Men leaned more into its sci-fi elements, and so on. Even so, these movies (and others like them) were still recognizably superhero-oriented. M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable made room for entire monologues on comic book history, for crying out loud! Yet the advertising of these late ’90s/early ’00s superhero movies – not to mention that of 2002’s Blade II and 2003’s X2: X-Men United – was decidedly less honest.

On the contrary, if you were a horror, sci-fi, or thriller fan who fronted up for Blade, X-Men, or Unbreakable, you straight-up didn’t get what you paid for. You may have enjoyed these films, however, with the possible exception of Blade, they only vaguely aligned with the story you were promised. In Unbreakable‘s case, there’s a decent chance this disconnect even led to lukewarm reviews and lower-than-expected box office (a theory backed by no less than Quentin Tarantino!).

Indeed, it wasn’t until 2002’s Spider-Man – with its unmistakably spandex-clad protagonist – that superhero movie marketing started playing fair.

Related: How Many X-Men Movies Are There?

Eventually, Hollywood Will Be Honest About Its Musicals

Cynthia Erivo as Elphaba in Wicked

Fittingly, the Spider-Man seachange also hints there’s hope yet for musicals’ marketing. After all, the underlying reason for superhero movies embracing their source material more fully – on screen and in adverts – was a gradual shift in audience taste. As more and more people became comfortable with superhero-inspired fare (ironically, thanks to the dubious tactic I’ve railed against all article), studios worried less and less about disguising it. They didn’t need to anymore; moviegoers were finally in the market for what they were selling.

The same could happen with musicals. Wonka raked in over $600 million worldwide, and if Mean Girls faltered by comparison, it still more than doubled its budget. Plus, industry pundits are already pegging Wicked: Part One as one of 2024’s safe bets. Willingly or otherwise, it seems people are gradually vibing with big screen musicals – just like they did with superhero movies in the early 2000s. Perhaps someday soon, Hollywood will finally feel safe marketing their musicals as musicals. Now, wouldn’t that be super?

Wicked: Part One arrives in theaters on Nov. 27, 2024.

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Leon Miller
Leon is a freelance contributor at The Escapist, covering movies, TV, video games, and comics. Active in the industry since 2016, Leon's previous by-lines include articles for Polygon, Popverse, Screen Rant, CBR, Dexerto, Cultured Vultures, PanelxPanel, Taste of Cinema, and more.