Superhero movies get a bad rap. I’m pretty tired of critics dismissing movies based on comic books as a genre-wide waste of time, and film industry personalities on award shows sniffling about how superheroes have dumbed down their artistic pretensions. I can understand the point that there can be too much of a good thing, but the relentless bashing of anything and everything with a costumed protagonist reflects an apparent lack of comprehension as to both comic books and superhero movies.
What I think the haters miss is how to categorize and evaluate comic book movies: as a sub-genre of science fiction.
First off, the haters seem to have only a dim understanding of what comic books are all about. The perception is that they’re aimed at a younger audience, and hence must be formulaic and remedial. If that was ever true, it hasn’t been for a long time. You could as well say rock-n-roll is primitive in structure and juvenile in theme, but if you dismiss the impact on popular culture in those terms you’re making a normative error, not an aesthetic judgment. Pixar movies are aimed at youngsters, but they’re critical darlings and loved by all. There’s good reason why Hollywood is mining a rich vein of comic book source material. It is a rich vein.
Regarding movies particularly, super-hero movies get dissed in a way that science fiction movies generally do not. What are the hallmarks of a science fiction movie? Some twist on existing or accepted science, often with a lot of action sequences and preferably featuring mind-blowing special effects. That is, of course, also what you see in most superhero films: an enhanced character by accident or design, in a world characterized by a shift in science, progressing through action scenes with mind-blowing special effects.
You expect debates on the merits of the latest Star Wars or Star Trek offerings, but you don’t see the same kind of finger-wagging, tongue-clucking pronouncements that culture is evaporating because of science fiction films, not like with comic book adaptations. That’s because the “science” part connotes intelligence, and the “fiction” side is full of imagination and a vision of alternative or future realities. The same is true of superhero movies, which often start with a science hook like radioactive spiders or robot suits or alien visitors, and spin off into a creative fantasy on what can happen in a world where such things are possible.
The point is not that every sci fi flick is a gem, or every rendition of comic book property. For every Ridley Scott there’s a Michael Bay, and for every Days of Future Past there’s a Fantastic Four. But each effort should be judged on its own quality, not disregarded categorically simply by reference to genre. In both contexts, it’s just ignorant to say they’re all alike. If, for example, you assigned a hundred filmmakers to make a movie featuring crime in New York City, you’d get a hundred different takes on the subject and wouldn’t begin to exhaust the potential. The scope of comic books, like the possibilities in science fiction, are vast by comparison. After all, every New York crime story could be tackled by any of a hundred different costumed crime-fighters.
If superhero movies are lumped together, the best fit is as a subcategory of science fiction. But that, too, is an oversimplification, as the subject matter lends itself to cross-genre blending. Emphasize the crime-solving and its detective fiction, focus on the cosmic and it’s a space opera. Marvel has famously weaved in elements of fantasy, political intrigue, period pieces, heist films, psychological thrillers, any number of companion themes and motifs to add a unique spin to a superhero vehicle. Yes, they are all action films with special effects and depictions of heroism. They are not, however, susceptible to reduction into a blanket devaluation as merely another superhero movie like all the rest.
You don’t have to be a comic book reader to enjoy superhero movies. There are a lot of fanboys like me who grew up on comics, haven’t bought a new one in decades, and yet regard the current wave of depictions as a golden era providing what we craved from way back. Judging by the dollars, a lot of people agree. Box office isn’t everything, but if you insist the wildly popular is utterly deficient in creative content it may be you who is missing something.