By tapping into nostalgia and emphasizing violence and adult themes, superhero movies and TV shows have gone from being considered kiddy content to serving as Hollywood’s financial engine. The same approach has been used by toymakers to send merchandise sales skyrocketing over the last decade, with the market expanding far beyond the normal Toys “R” Us shoppers.
As we’ve seen during the marketing of the new Power Rangers reboot, millennial adults are the number one target for superhero movie merchandise, and they’re buying it more for themselves than for their children.
According to the NPD group the 2016 toy market was up 5 percent overall, but the collectibles sector was up by a whopping 33 percent. The collectibles are also expensive: adult-focused action figures for Batman v Superman, a largely panned superhero movie from last year, still had a value of as much as $125, the equivalent of about six Batman toys for the younger set.
The boost has been aided by the sheer number of superhero movies released over the last few years. In 2016 alone, juggernaut after juggernaut, with Deadpool, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: Apocalypse were all released in theaters. The Star Wars spin-off film Rogue One was also a major boon for merchandisers, and with these seven major releases alone, it’s not hard to see why the sales numbers are jumping.
The supply is finally meeting the demand, which is great for casual collectors and fans, but not so helpful to people who invest serious money in these things. According to collectibles authority and auctioneer Harry Rinker, those hoping to turn a profit on their superhero collectibles on the other end should be cautious, particularly as more and more franchises churn out toys.
“Items associated with ‘famous’ movie and music stars continues to attract strong collector interest,” he tells Inverse. “Collectors seem to forget that ‘fame is fleeting.’”
In 2015, sales of toys based on movies increased a full 9 percent, and adult men aren’t the only people driving the record high sales numbers. Women account for about 60 percent of superhero merchandise and a full 70 percent of apparel sales, a category that’s even bigger than toys. DC has responded successfully with the DC Super Hero Girls directed at the oft-forgotten young female superhero fans.
The majority of overall sales are made through licensing with major toymakers like Hasbro, Mattel and Jaks Pacific; according to 2015 and 2016 sales figures, licensing major superhero properties accounts for 40 to 45 percent of their success on toy shelves.
“It’s always a challenge when you have this many big films,” Marty Brochstein, senior vice president of industry relations and information for the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association, told The New York Times in 2015. “Everybody’s trying to stand out, and it’s a very tough thing.”
Last year’s Deadpool and Suicide Squad merchandise didn’t make a huge dent with kids, but that’s in part because they were marketed at teenagers and adults. While this would have been an unheard of approach 20 or 30 years ago, there are enough movies for marketers to prioritize which franchises belong to whom.
“The everyday consumer isn’t going to see every single movie, but the people buying expensive collectibles aren’t everyday people,” a representative from the Toy Industry Association told Inverse. “For superheroes in general, the market is more geared at the dads reliving their days seeing Batman, or whoever else, as a kid.”
There are two types of adult collectors: one has an attachment to a specific superhero or franchise and will use whatever disposable income they have to get the goods; the other is the more traditional collector with large amounts of resources who views something like a $125 figurine as a long-term investment. The first group is the main target of marketers.
And what of the children? While there’s no shortage of merchandise available, children aren’t targeted as the prime superhero audience anymore. In spite of the slew of releases in 2016, superheroes were nothing more than a blip on last year’s must-have toy lists, appearing only twice on Amazon’s forty-item list of most popular toys of the season. They’re being buried in the toy aisle by old favorites like Barbie, Furby and anything with a Star Wars connection, not to mention digital kids toys like a 3D drawing pen and hatching egg, the top seller of last season.
The one exception to this is the Lego. Since making its first licensing deal with Star Wars in 1999, Lego has been reaping the benefits of being associated with some of the biggest franchises of the last century, including Harry Potter, Batman, Star Wars.
Lego got into the superhero game just as the genre was becoming a cultural force of nature, hitting licensing deals with Spider-Man in 2003 and Batman in 2005 as they were being relaunched into the public consciousness by Marvel and DC. These licensing deals with both comics giants were later expanded, launched in earnest by 2011 to capitalize on what was anticipated to be a massive success with The Avengers in 2012. As it stands, the superhero’s relationship with Lego accounts for yet another section of the expansive superhero toy market, as this year’s The Lego Batman Movie has already grossed over $300 million worldwide. If the tell-tale brick-and-mortar Toys “R” Us displays are to be believed, DC Legos tied in with the film are outselling other emerging films like Power Rangers and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast live-action reboot.
While no figures were available for Lego Batman sales as of this writing, 2016 sales figures indicated that the Marvel superheroes accounted for 10 percent of the 50 top-selling Lego sets last year. In spite of their ostensible continued popularity, these figures are nothing in comparison to the brand’s two most profitable licensing tie-ins of the moment, Star Wars and the Minecraft franchise. It’s certainly a profitable deal for the company, but even with a feature film to promote, superheroes simply don’t have the same appeal with this younger set as they do with their parents.
“It’s funny to ask who’s buying superhero toys,” the TIA rep continued, “because it’s always the parents. But it’s who they’re buying them for that’s more interesting.” Conventional wisdom says to invest in the children, the parents and their memories are where the money is, and DC and Marvel are capitalizing on them until the bubble finally bursts.