The Evolution of The Superhero Movie

Superhero movies have been around for a very long time, and since the era of Superman in the 70s they have been growing in popularity with four of the top 10 (and 6 of the top 15) highest grossing movies being superhero films. In that time though, there have been somewhat legitimate claims about superhero movies being formulaic (along with other, less legitimate claims). Well, it doesn’t always have to be like that, and I know because I’ve seen it.

The Marvel Studios logo on a black background

I’m gonna preface this by saying that I am a very big fan of the superhero genre. Comic books, movies, TV series, the works. And as a fan, I’ve made it an unofficial mission of mine to convert as many people as I can. Why was I thinking about this? Well, I was watching 1917 the other day (I’ve got a piece on that coming soon), and it got me thinking about war movies. Certain war movies (like Dunkirk and 1917) seem to be better than other war movies (think Lone Survivor and such). There’s many reasons for that (WWI & II were more dramatic, etc.), but what I came down on was that those movies didn’t glorify the war. Instead, we are shown the horrors and brutality of those conflicts in crisp and clear HD. This got me thinking “you know what else is a war movie? Wonder Woman (2017).” And that is what led me down this road. Wonder Woman wasn’t a “superhero movie” (as some have come to use the term derisively), but a WWI movie that starred a superhero. And it carried all the inflections of a war movie along with it. The horrors of trench warfare (toned down to a PG-13 level), life in a different society, and all that. That (in my opinion) was what made it good, and a large part of what made WW84 (which I have not and will not watch) much less so. The latter is just another poorly written run of the mill superhero movie, while the former exists as more than that.

Diana and Steve Trevor from Wonder Woman (2017)

There are other examples of this. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a homage to the John Hughes “coming-of-age” movies of the 80s, Captain America: The First Avenger is a period piece set in the 40s, Thor: Ragnarok is a straight up action-comedy, and The Batman is a neo-noir detective movie a la Se7en. They all just happen to star superheroes/villains in important roles. This is it. The evolution of the Superhero movie. In this time when everyone with a camera is chomping at the bit to tell us about superhero fatigue, and the “quality” of these movies as cinema (looking at you, Villeneuve), these movies need to be about more than the person with the cape/mask/secret identity. Luckily, this trend has been gaining traction (if WB can get their heads out of their collective asses), and it does look like more superhero movies are headed in this direction.

Now this isn’t to say that superhero movies that are “formulaic” aren’t or can’t be successful. Avengers: Endgame is no. 2 on the all-time list and is about as formulaic as a superhero movie can get. Deadpool is a basic origin story/revenge plot and it was the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time (for a time). I guess beyond changing cinematic conventions and all, the basic truths of movies remain the same: if the writing is good, people will watch it.

Superhero movies have existed for a very long time. And for much of that time, they (and their fans) have been fighting to be treated seriously. This is my contribution to that fight.

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