Superheroes have captured the American psyche since they emerged in comic books in the 1930s, and were very quickly adapted to the screen. Long before the special effects and modern technology that make superhero films what they are today, the subjects of these films appeared in serials, short films of generally 30 minutes, that were shown in parts to tell a larger sequential story. While it may sound like it was just a TV show, back in the 1930s, you could only watch them in theater. A lot of well-known clichés began with these serials, most notably, the ever-so-suspenseful (and occasionally very annoying) plot device of cliffhangers. Imagine watching your favorite superhero dangling from a building by their fingertips, and instead of just pressing ‘Continue Watching’, or popping in the next disc, you have to wait an entire week until next Saturday when the next episode of the serial would be shown. Netflix sounds pretty great now, huh?
Superman: the Movie (1978), brought a new tone to superhero films, and with it mainstream popularity. It was the most expensive film in history up to that point, with a budget of $55 million. The film made over $300 million and was held in high regard on a critical level. What made this movie so successful was the more serious tone of the science fiction/fantasy storytelling (being written by Mario Puzo, who also wrote The Godfather) that superhero movies had rarely taken on, generally being directed at children. Superman: the Movie showed that superheroes weren’t just for kids any more, and they could be molded into a brand for all ages, while at the same time utilizing the fantasy elements that make them so special.
The most obvious change that enticed audiences and put them right into the world of the modern superhero film are the special effects and CGI that made the supernatural look so real. Beginning with X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), these franchises launched huge blockbusters with very realistic special effects. The visuals of superhero films had suddenly gone from only being truly believable by a child, to epic and life-like proportions. Marvel saw the traction that their characters were generating for other studios, such as Fox (who produced the X-Men franchise) and Sony (producers of the Spider-Man franchise), and began to reclaim some of their most prominent properties. With the release of Iron Man (2008), this new studio released the first in what would be many self-produced movies by the company. Just over a month later, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man’s Tony Stark appeared in the Incredible Hulk (2008). This was the first step in what became the creation of the “Marvel Universe,” the connected storylines of different franchises under that company’s control. The Avengers (2012) really proved how far this concept could go, bringing together four characters, and their respective actors (excluding Edward Norton as the Incredible Hulk) from previous films. The Avengers now sits as the fifth highest grossing film of all time.
While the connected storylines have created massive popularity for Marvel, I think that after a while it may inadvertently cause the downfall of, not superhero films in their entirety, but at least the success of Marvel. As the stories of each of these characters develops, such as previous meetings with other superheroes, and major story arcs that end up playing a role in the later films, the connected nature of the “Marvel Universe” inadvertently adds a complexity to superhero movies that the common viewer may just not be interested in dealing with. Superhero movies don’t feel like stand-alone projects anymore, and with story being something that drives the success of these films, it is likely that after a while, the collective storyline of these characters will simply just be too played out and have too complex of a history.
So where do superhero movies as a whole go from here? Considering the huge amounts of money they make and the fact that they have caught on like wildfire, it doesn’t seem like blockbuster superhero movies are going away any time soon. However, Steven Spielberg and analysts within the industry have suggested that superhero movies will see a similar fate to that of the Western. The Western genre, packed with gunslingers and lots of action, was by far the most popular of the 1950s and 1960s, with hundreds of films created during that time period. Despite how popular the genre was, so many Westerns were pumped out of Hollywood that people eventually lost interest.
As an optimist and an avid fan of superhero movies, I think it is much less likely that superhero movies share that outcome. Despite many superhero movies coming out in the past couple of years, this paled in comparison to the rate at which Westerns were created during the 50s and 60s. Secondly, the science-fiction aspect of superhero movies lends itself much more to an ability to evolve and adapt as times change. Westerns took place for the most part in one area of the world during one time period, the American Midwest and South in the later half of the 19th century. And while it is a fun and interesting period to explore, it is a concept limited by time. World War II movies, movies on the Vietnam War, and other types of period films have all seen their peak and decline, mostly because after a while, people want to learn about and delve into a new world or historical time period, or futuristic sci-fi concept for that matter. The science fiction characteristics of superhero movies mean that as the world changes and develops new technology and discoveries, these can be integrated into the lives of superheroes.
If there is one thing that is spectacular about superhero films, it’s that they are, in a sense, bigger than life. What if our world had people who could do these miraculous things? What if it was me? It is an outlandish concept to believe that there are people among us bigger than life, bigger than the limitations of gravity, the human body, and the mind. For a moment, more accurately about two and a half hours, we can blur the lines between what we want to see, what we want to be able to do, and what is really there. Regardless of age, special effects and story allow us to visualize something that previously was impossible. Marvel may well have killed the comic book, but in the process have sparked a new age in the blockbuster movie experience for years to come.