Richard Donner‘s 1978 Superman was the genesis of the modern superhero movie. At least, the popularisation of it. It made millions at the box office and is heralded as one of the most successful films of all time. It was even critically well received, even if they made the baffling decision of filming the sequel at the same time as the original. The superhero film captured the public’s attention. There were Superman toys everywhere, the media was full of speculations about Christopher Reeve‘s love life and movie executives looked at the profit figures and started paying attention.
However, the superhero craze never truly exploded back in those days. Some superhero movies released, but most were gaudy and awful. Tim Burton’s Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles performed well, but they were the only examples. Nothing really set the gears in motion to capture what Superman managed to achieve and even its own sequels were starting to make a mockery of its legacy. So superhero movies were never really a thing, even though the comics were still going strong.
However, during the 1990s and 2000s, things started to shift. While superhero movies weren’t exactly breaking down the doors, there was major movement in the mainstream. Movies such as Spiderman and The Dark Knight brought the genre to the attention of the masses once again. When Iron Man came into the scene, you could tell that something big was going to happen. Culminating in Marvel’s The Avengers, superhero movies upped their appeal and, seemingly overnight, exploded into the stratosphere. Superhero movies went from taking in millions to breaking the billion mark.
In our current day, superhero movies are undeniably the zeitgeist. We can’t seem to get enough of them and they headline major movies sites, including this one, on a daily basis. Marvel and DC’s release schedules are absolutely packed with new movies from origin films to major ensemble movies. So, what happened? How did superhero movies take over the world?
First off, they are blockbusters. Movies with big explosions, massive set pieces and pulse-pounding action. It’s instantly recognisable by any moviegoer and they’re simple to get into. Most follow a rigid storyline of “good guys triumph over the bad guys” and while the formula has become more and more complex, the end result still adheres to the same mantra. Non-confrontational, in other words. They are also character driven films. You start to have an admiration for Batman or any of the Avengers and that drives you to see them more in their inevitable sequels.
Another major part of their success is their diversification. The umbrella term “superhero movie” is a bit misleading because it encompasses many different styles of movies. You get your traditional Superman and Iron Man, but there are also movies such as Logan who show a much darker side to superheroes. The Dark Knight series gives us a more realistic portrayal of superheroes where the heroes don’t even necessarily have superpowers. The quirky and funny nature of Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy provide us with comedic relief. The Avengers and Justice League are massive epics that feature an ensemble of heroes taking on a massive evil. Suicide Squad is…. yeah. Point being, there isn’t a singular form of “superhero movie” because if there was, it would have grown stagnant a long time ago.
Then we have possibly the singular most important aspect of their success: they’re trendy. People are talking about the newest superhero movie, discussing the characters, the plot and whatever twists and turns may have happened. Our social media timelines are full of people showing their admiration or simply saying “that movie rocked!”. Superheroes dominate the toy market, people are buying merch, there are conventions happening all over. The zeitgeist.
They’re also our break from the contemporary. The world is confused and filled with horrors at every step. Thanks to our increased connectivity, we are more aware of it than ever. Superhero movies offer a reprieve from all of that, giving us a story of “good vs. evil” and providing a catharsis and an escape. Because of their profitability and the massive increase in public attention, they won’t be going anywhere soon. People are starting to really love these characters and they are being mended into our weave of public consciousness. If you don’t know who Batman is by now, then you have been living under one giant rock.
There might come a point where we become tired of superhero movies and for some, that’s even the case right now. They are growing more ambitious with every iteration and movies such as Wonder Woman are evidence of that, but you can only ride a train for so long until it has to stop. But right now, ride on.
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