Every couple of months or so, there comes yet another mass hysteria surrounding a new release in the superhero genre. Several years ago, I would do my best to keep up with the releases – not watching each and every one out there, considering that such flicks are not exactly my cup of tea, but at least trying to keep tabs on them. Nowadays, it doesn’t work anymore, either because I can’t really be bothered anymore as I don’t have the amount of free time that I had in high school, or because there’s simply too many superhero films out there. Probably a combination of both, to be honest. As I said, I’m not a fan – I did appreciate Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, and got a surprising amount of laughs out of the Deadpool movies (granted, though, they’re more of an anti-superhero sort of flick), but the rest, I just don’t get. Many others do, though, as demonstrated by the piles of cash accumulated by the producing studios after each release. So I decided to look into the genre this week, and find out more about why the general public seems to be so fond of it.
A brief history
Prompted by the success of superhero-themed comic books, films that were primarily aimed at children started to be rolled out in the early to mid 1940s, with some reference names such as Batman (1943), Captain America (1944) and Superman (1948) just a few of the multitude of titles. This emergence taking place during and just after WWII was likely not a coincidence, being used both as a distraction and a booster for heroic nationalism in the US. Interestingly or ironically enough, the concept of a man or woman with superhuman capabilities lies partly in Nietzsche’s theory of the Übermensch (superman), devoid of any political connotation but utilised by Hitler’s Master Race propaganda. Albeit with much less of an ideological angle, the concept gained quick popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, and aligned itself with the silent propaganda of the ensuing Cold War.
The popularity of superhero-themed films and series oversaw a decline in the following decades, until Star Wars made the sci-fi genre cool again in the late 70s. This prompted an avalanche of superhero-based films, particularly in the 80s and early 90s, with both the usual suspects and new, refreshing ideas coming into play. The general euphoria died down a bit afterward, but was quickly resurrected on the back of technological advancements and rising prominence of CGI, which opened up entirely new possibilities.
People love stories
Our fondness for stories cannot be denied. And with a superhero setting, it is easy to engineer a clear story structure that allows for facile understanding of the matters at hand and facilitates the supply of fast-paced entertainment. In such a context, the bad guys are clearly defined, and so are the good guys. The latter are expected to do battle against the former and win – whether they do it in the name of justice, for a loved one or for personal fame and honour, there will be plenty of fights, explosions, betrayals and special effects along the way. With a simple story which appeals to a wide audience, one that usually ends on a positive note and charges the viewers with positive energy and some degree of self-confidence, it’s easy to understand the success of such films. They’re essentially tales about people who can do things that we mere mortals never will, stories of right versus wrong, of triumph (and occasionally tragedy). A critical eye might frown at the too similar plot lines, lackluster writing and childish motivations of the characters, but the appeal to a low common denominator is undoubtedly high.
Escape from real life
Real life, for most of us, means one out of two constants: school or job. For a non-negligible number of people, it means both. So when a med student or a doctor comes home from his or her daily activity and tunes in to a House MD episode, does that constitute a real escape from real life? Maybe it does, at least to some extent, but something completely different might be a better choice for some. Something completely divorced from reality and mundane existence – superhero flicks, like it or not, excel at doing just that.
The more heroes the better
This has been a more recent phenomena, experimented with in the past, but perfected by Avengers back in 2012 – stacking up several superheroes in the same project. This was a fantastic idea (and still is, as evidenced by the sequels and tie-ins that ensued), because why have three separate production budgets for Iron Man, Thor and Superman, when you can have all of them in one movie? This makes marketing easier and less expensive, and combines a number of distinct fanbases into one, with a presumably lasting effect. Also, it’s easy to combine genres in a fictional setting with several superheroes: mythology, sci-fi, action, adventure, romance, comedy and drama all fit in seamlessly under such contexts.
Milking the cash cow
The sudden influx that has saturated the market with obnoxious me-too productions can potentially be traced back to two root causes. One is a rational decision to ride the wave of interest and excitement, as well as leniency to a lack of originality that today’s audiences are so far keen to show. But as every trend, it will sooner or later die out or at least slow down considerably. The second has to do with rights for the characters and the universes at hand – under the US laws, these expire after a set number of years and thus enter public domain. It will soon happen to iconic characters created in the 50s, such as Mickey Mouse (2024) and Winnie the Pooh (2022). And as the bulk of Marvel characters were created in the 60s and 70s, it does not take a genius to see why Disney is scrambling to make the most out of them while they’re the sole proprietors.