They can fly. They can fight. They can leap tall buildings in a single bound. They're superheroes and right now, they're the hottest thing in Hollywood. Some would say that the movie theater's superhero honeymoon may soon come to an end. I beg to differ.
In a 2013 interview, director and film legend Steven Spielberg warned of what he called a coming “implosion” for summer blockbuster films, namely superhero movies. He believed that blockbusters would have to undergo drastic price changes to keep them number one at the box office. He reiterated his concerns as recently as last year while promoting his Cold War-era thriller, Bridge of Spies. To his credit, studios are becoming much more reluctant to fund anything without a flashy cape in it. After all, Lincoln was nearly made as an HBO film. He has since related the rise and fall of comic book movies to that of the Western.
“We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn’t mean there won’t be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I’m only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture.”
The comparison of superhero movies to the Western isn't unjustified. Even Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder shares some of Spielberg's misgivings about the future of superhero blockbusters – and he of all people should know. The superhero genre grew to tremendous popularity and influence before its untimely demise. That superhero movies should share the same fate is something I can simply not accept – nor can Hollywood.
Superhero movies are making way too much money to stop now
To be fair, Spielberg never predicted the "implosion" of the film industry per se. His concerns about the monopoly that superhero movies have over the summer box office season and beyond, however, is not unfounded. The year of 2016 will see no fewer than six superhero movies released in just under twelve months, from February's Deadpool to November's Doctor Strange. The sheer volume of superhero media is mind-boggling to a kid of the '90s like myself, whose favorite superheroes were animated. There's only so much money to go around and superhero movies could very well kill each other off.
Superhero movies make up five of the highest-grossing movies of all time with at least one or two more in store for this year. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has made a whopping $3.5 billion to date, while DC's Dark Knight Trilogy made nearly $2 billion on its own. But will success be their downfall? If it is, then they really would be taking America's film industry with it if the last twenty years' U.S. box office reports are anything to go by. People want to see spectacle when they drive all the way out to the movie theater and that's exactly what superhero movies give them to near-perfection. People are more than willing to see every superhero movie if they're exciting and none of them if they're not.
Superhero movies are always producing Hollywood's latest, greatest technology
To that end, superhero movies provide the best spectacle money can buy in Hollywood today. Yet how come these superheroes – who have been around for decades – have suddenly planted their flag at the box office so suddenly over the past ten years? The simple fact that we now have the special effects to bring more and more superheroes to life is what's giving superheroes such a shot in the arm. Superhero movies are using the best tools available to them and frequently to great effect. Moreover, they're the reason much of Hollywood's technology exists.
Practical effects may be the next big thing following Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but in truth, neither film exist without CGI to complement them. Superhero movies are often accused of relying on it to a fault – and that's a problem caused by budgetary constraints and poor directorial choices as opposed to mere faulty concept. When superhero effects work, they work terrifically. It's hard to imagine people like the Hulk fighting Iron Man without a little CGI magic. Like some of you, I love it when it's done right.
Superhero movies are introducing us to different kinds of superheroes
The underlying cynicism regarding the superhero genre is that it's purely – and simply – nostalgia. People love what they already know and superheroes have been a part of our world for a long time. After all, the customer is always right and there's no denying that people get a thrill from two of their favorite childhood brands – Marvel and DC. There's a blueprint for everything as far as Hollywood's dream machine is concerned and superhero movies should be no different, right? That would be true if superheroes themselves were all the same person.
It was household names like John Wayne, Paul Newman, and Clint Eastwood that popularized the Western as much as real-life folktales. When the Western died, its stars were already retired from playing the same characters over and over again. Superhero movies have more than enough characters to choose from. You can hardly compare Tony Stark to Wolverine as much as you can compare Deadpool to Green Lantern. Every superhero has at least a dozen different incarnations, each with their own rich histories to interpret onscreen. While the Western was limited to the world of rural America, superheroes have made the transition to modern interests in style.
Superhero movies are always breaking new ground
Moreover, superheroes have grown and evolved to face the modern threats we have today. New characters are being introduced every year, giving these stories new room to grow. The superhero film genre is more than just that – it’s a shared universe between the fans and the characters. Although 'superheroes' are considered a drama unto themselves, the most successful superhero movies borrow tones and tropes from various other genres. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller taking on Big Brother. The Dark Knight is an action crime drama that puts the definition of the antihero to the test. Iron Man 3 questions the world's role in fighting terrorism. Superheroes have no limits on what they can do or what they can say.
Better still, superheroes are becoming everyone's characters. In an era of #OscarsSoWhite, superhero movies are breaking barriers that their peers have yet to take on. Last year saw the rise of no fewer than three heroines on the small screen with Marvel's Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, and Supergirl. This year will see the debut of the MCU's third black superhero, Black Panther, while 2017 will see DC's most beloved heroine, Wonder Woman, star in her own film. Like the rest of the film industry, superhero movies are slowly, but surely, making social progress at a pace that sometimes seems too slow. But it's happening and we wouldn't be seeing it in Hollywood without them.
Superheroes represent the ultimate battle between good and evil
A fan would say that superhero movies are so much more than action scenes and flashy effects. They would argue that superheroes are relatable characters who serve as conduits for escapism. They do, however, represent the human condition on a grander, more theatrical scale. Comic books themselves have been around for just as long as the Western, and while some characters fade in and out of popularity, it's the ideal of the superhero that never falls out of style.
Superheroes are the modern-day gods of page and screen. They illuminate our struggle between good and evil and navigating the line between them. The Joker isn't just the cartoonish clown he was in his debut nor is Wolverine just another spandex-clad rival of the Hulk. These characters change with the times they live in and they exist in as many shades of grey as we give them.
Fear not, oh ye of little faith. Superheroes aren't just here to stay – they're a part of us. Understanding superheroes will never be so simple because the people that create them are surely not.