Superhero Movies are Not Just a “Trend”

To say that we are living in the age of the superhero movie is not a fresh take. Truthfully, we are well into the second decade of an era in which films based upon superhero comics have been released by major studios with great frequency to enormous profits. But superhero movies are not a “trend,” they are a genre; a genre with its own set of tropes and expectations to be adhered to, subverted and reflected upon. A genre that has existed since, arguably, the 1920 release of The Mask of Zorro, and that took its modern form in 1978 with Richard Donner’s Superman. Yes, since studios began snapping up superhero properties following the massive success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), comic-book movies have been released at an unprecedented rate, and a certain level of genre-fatigue is understandable for those who are not positively predisposed to them. But to greet every new superhero with “Ugh, another superhero movie,” is overly dismissive and suggests a sameness that does not really exist. It also ignores the fact, suggested by the astounding box-office numbers, that superhero movies have not been forced down our throats. At this time in cinematic history, the superhero film is the genre we have chosen.

Genre films: westerns, noir, sci-fi, action, horror, etc., have long been the media by which filmgoers and audiences have engaged with current societal issues.  Classic noir dealt with the troubled American psyche brought on by World War II. Science-fiction films of the 50s often dealt with the fear of an enemy amongst us brought on by the “red scare” à la Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956). When unprecedentedly graphic footage from the Vietnam War was shown on the nightly news, horror films like Last House on the Left (1972) responded in kind. With disturbing reports from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib came the rise of the horror sub-genre that enthusiasts call “extreme cinema” and detractors have dubbed “torture porn,”, like Saw (2004). Genre movies allow audiences discourse with real-world issues from the safe distance of escapist entertainment. Superhero films are simply the most popular genre for experiencing that discourse at this moment in history.

From the beginning of the current spate of superhero films, the genre has been used as allegory. It is not difficult to read X-Men as slyly (bordering on overtly) pro-LGBTQ rights; it is, after all, about a teenager (Anna Paquin) who runs away from home upon discovering her powers (while kissing a boy), and finds a home amongst other super-powered people. The next two films in the series drive the allegory further; X2: X-Men United features a scene in which a mother (Jill Teed), upon learning of her son’s (Shawn Ashmore) mutant abilities, asks “Have you tried not being a mutant?”  A major plotline of X-Men: The Last Stand involves a controversial “cure” for mutation, and opens with a boy (Cayden Boyd) hiding his mutation from his conservative father. There is very real value in couching these big issues in splashy escapist fare; it is hard to get American audiences to watch a film explicitly about the struggles of LGBTQ youth, but bury those issues in the subtext (even slightly) of a movie about a man with ten inch claws that extend from his hands and they will come out in droves. The superhero movie is the heaping bowl of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Since the summer of 2008, which could be considered the beginning of the second chapter of the modern age of the superhero film, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, widely considered the artistic high-water mark for the genre, and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the first of Marvel’s expansive, multi-title, “shared universe,” the allegorical target for superhero films has been The War on Terror. The Dark Knight is concerned with the unpredictable actions of a terrorist, the price paid for refusing to negotiate with extremists, and the potential loss of liberty and privacy that may be required to combat them. Iron Man’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) must face the fact that the terrorists he is fighting have been armed with weapons manufactured by his own company, à la The United States’ supplying of the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Viewing the War on Terrorism through the lens of a summer action blockbuster has a depoliticizing effect that allows audiences to engage with the conflict’s attendant issues without concern for their real-world political loyalties.

In his review of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Scott Tobias writes

“With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan expands on a comprehensive nightmare of the early 21st century, again playing The Scarecrow to the many millions whose anxieties complete the illusion. He’s made a horror trilogy in the guise of summertime action-adventure, a mind-blowing pulp allegory for America’s worst case scenario: Terrorist networks, the surveillance state, loose nukes, kangaroo courts, all-out class warfare, the grim threat of fascism on one end and anarchy on the other.”

Superhero Movies

Tobias illustrates how superhero movies, while clearly created for their box-office potential, have artistic and allegorical value beyond the monetary. The Dark Knight Rises is not only a sequel to one of the most beloved superhero films (or, really, any kind of film) of all time, but it has more on its mind than its function as a work of profitable entertainment. The Dark Knight Rises was released the summer following the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement and it is centered upon the violent uprising of the disenfranchised and the rise of a fascist government following a financial catastrophe. The Dark Knight Rises grossed more than a billion dollars, despite its somewhat mixed reviews (mostly due to its not being as good as The Dark Knight), it is the fourth-highest grossing superhero film of all time, the sixteenth-highest grossing film of any kind. This is not in spite of its engagement with serious current events but because of it.

It is not a coincidence that this summer’s two major superhero-based “tent-pole” films, Zack Snyder’s (not-so-great) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Joe and Anthony Russo’s (really great) Captain America: Civil War both feature plots in which superheroes are pressured to become agents of the government out of concern for public safety at a time when, in the real world, many are calling for police officers to wear body cameras. The public is concerned with the level of autonomy we allow those we count upon to protect us and the creators of films intended to generate enormous profits are addressing that concern.

Dismissing any of these films as “another superhero movie” ignores that, on the whole, superhero movies are of relatively high quality when compared to other “trends” in popular filmmaking. A look at a list of the top-ten highest grossing superhero movies shows films directed by a number of directors known for making thoughtful, challenging, and ambitious entertainments: Joss Whedon of TV cult series Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was placed in charge of the two Avengers films; Christopher Nolan, prior to being given Batman Begins (2005) had made the experimental crime films Following (1998) and Memento (2000) and the murky detective film Insomnia (2002); Sam Raimi was known for the weird, over-the-top cult horror films of the Evil Dead series before his hiring for Spider-Man (2002); and Shane Black, known primarily as a writer of action comedies had only a single directorial credit, the hilarious, criminally under-seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), when he was placed at the helm of Iron Man 3. Certainly studios could hire journeyman directors to create safe, unchallenging box-office draws, but there seems to be recognition on the part of those on the business end of filmmaking that, generally, the highest-grossing films are those made by interesting filmmakers.

Further, saying “ugh, another superhero movie” suggests that all of these films are, fundamentally, the same. This is simply not true. There is a great range of tone and content within the genre, even between films in the same series, as demonstrated by Marvel’s “shared-universe.” Where the Russo Brothers’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is a paranoid conspiracy-thriller of the 70’s mold, a kind of Three Days of the Condor with superheroes, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man (2015) is an Ocean’s Eleven (2001) – style comedy heist film; The Dark Knight has as much in common with Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) as it does with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). One of wisest things that the late Roger Ebert had to say about film criticism (and he had a lot of wise things to say about film criticism} was “ It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.” Which is to say that simply dismissing a film about a superhero as one of a great many films about superhero is to ignore the tone and craft that goes into the creation of the individual films.

Superhero Movies

Those concerned that the creation of these superhero films is siphoning production dollars away from more overtly artistic endeavors need not worry. A rising tide lifts all boats; it is the profits from the big summer tent-pole picture that pays for the distribution rights to independent and foreign films. Paul Thomas Anderson and Kelly Reichardt are still making movies. Megan Ellison is still out there being the coolest person in Hollywood. There is room for great artistry within the blockbuster. Let’s not forget that superb films created the blockbuster model: Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), these are films of superior craft made by artists of great vision (mostly Steven Spielberg, perhaps the most gifted filmmaker of all time). Blockbusters are, by necessity and intent, accessible. Accessibility is the natural enemy of pretention, and pretention is a seductive instinct for the critic and the cinephile. It is important to recognize the difference between accessibility and dumbness and between dumbness and stupidity. A “dumb” movie can be very smart.

With Warner Brothers having just launched its own “shared universe” with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige’s announcement that the studio has films planned until 2028, the superhero film is not likely going away soon, nor should it. The genre will, as all genres do, have its highs and lows; still, each film should be judged upon its own merits, not upon the quality of other films within the same genre. Do not hold the Steven Spielbergs of the world responsible for the Michael Bays. Remember, you can vote with your money, these movies will be popular until they are not; no one is forcing you into the theater. There is a tendency amongst “sophisticated” critics and filmgoers to ghettoize genre films, dismissing them from serious consideration until sufficient time has passed to dub a film a “classic of the genre” if it has remained in the public eye. Superhero movies have captured the zeitgeist now and, no matter how fun, silly or escapist they might be they deserve serious consideration as works of art. Dismissing a genre out of hand is a kind of willful ignorance, anathema to the film lover.


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