The superhero genre has existed since Marvel Comics and DC Comics started creating heroes and villains in their comic book in the late 1930s. The genre has always been popular, being immortalized in film and TV every few years. However, in the last five to ten years, the the genre has sky-rocketed, raking in millions in box office figures, dozens of games and thousands of comic books being sold. Currently, no less than three or four superhero films are being released every year, with the most popular of them rocketing to the top of the box office.
So why is the superhero genre so popular?
Before we can figure out why the genre is so popular, we need to decide what defies the genre. Typical conventions of the superhero genre are extraordinary protagonists, supernatural powers, a mix of light-hearted humour and darker themes, crime, and a strong theme of morality.
Popular Superhero Films
The most popular superhero films to date are The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight (2008). These are arguably their production company's most popular heroes and so it makes sense that these two films grossed the most worldwide.
Despite being in the same genre, both films were very different. The Avengers was very bright and humorous, bringing together six of Marvel's most famous superheroes to defeat one of the most notorious villains. Despite the film's fluffy exterior, it carried strong underlying themes of death, morality, secrecy and fear. The film had a star-studded cast, featuring big names such as Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson. The film is, to date, the highest grossing film in the superhero genre and appealed to older and younger audiences alike, drawing in a wide mix of viewers.
The Dark Knight, however, took a very different approach. A very dark film that pitted Batman against The Joker (his greatest nemesis), the film relied heavily on dark settings, themes and a strong tone of despair. At the same time, the late Heath Ledger gave chilling performance as The Joker in order to bring a sense of twisted comedy to the darkly themed film. Although arguably not as famous as the cast of The Avengers, The Dark Knight featured big names such as Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Michael Caine. Although the film was primarily aimed at older audiences due to its mature themes, it also attracted younger viewers because of the idolisation of Batman.
Although these films didn't have a lot in common, there are several reasons why they were both so popular. With wide audiences, they drew in a large viewership of comic book fans and newcomers alike. Both had big names in their cast, drawing in fans of those actors/actresses, and both had previous films about the same heroes that were also popular. However, this applies to a lot of popular films. So what specifically about the superhero genre is attracting millions of new and old fans?
Does the superhero genre reflect social changes?
What's popular in culture often serves to reflect social and economical problems, such as films like Double Indemnity (1944) reflecting women's growing power in the 1940s.
At the moment (especially in western culture), there are lots of violence-related problems that people wish they had the power to stop. Shootings, terrorism, street crimes and even political problems are common at the moment. The main message behind superhero films is that an ordinary person can make a difference and save the world. This is a reflection of how people in modern society want to help change the world for the better. The overwhelming theme of morality and moral decision in the superhero genre really drives this point home.
This genre hasn't just been popular on the big screen- over the last ten to fifteen years, loads of superhero games have surfaced, giving gamers a chance to really be the hero. The most popular of these games is Lego Batman and the Batman: Arkham series. This makes sense, Batman being one of DC's most famous vigilantes. These games bring the heroes and villains to life in a new and creative way- the voice acting performances really bring a new face to old characters and bring new fans to older franchises.
Where it all started
Of course, there's also the comic books, that have been thriving since the 1930s. One of the most popular forms of superhero media, the continual release of dozens upon dozens of comics does the genre credit and gives the genre a much more grounded feel, whilst keeping original characters and stories. Other forms of media have deviated in characterization and their choice of storyline, but to many fans the comics stay true to the genre. With the increased popularity of the films, more people are likely to buy the comics, craving more of the superheroes' storylines and backstories.
What other factors make the genre so popular?
The massive budgets for superhero films and games probably helps to excel their popularity. With millions at their disposal, producers can afford the best actors, special effects, rights, and equipment. The Avengers, for example, uses lots of expensive CGI technology, but this makes the characters and events seem very realistic and gives them a big Hollywood A-List tone. Even one of the film's heroes, The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is primarily CGI. Much like the action genre, the superhero genre works to make the film very visually pleasing, with things like storylines and characterization often coming as a close second.
The superhero genre is almost like a hybrid, containing conventions of the action, romance, science fiction and comedy genres, making it appealing to a much wider audience. Instead of attracting fans of one or another, it attracts fans of all different genres, to make something that is enjoyable for most viewers. As well as this, age ratings aren't usually above a 12 (with Deadpool (2016) being the biggest exception), meaning that the film is appropriate for both younger and older audience. While initially targeted at an older audience, the genre has drawn in a much younger fanbase recently as young fans idolize and look up to the heroes, and enjoy the action and cool special effects.
It's so popular because...
In conclusion, we can assume that the superhero genre has become so popular due to the wide target audience, large budgets, great stories and characters, and the way they reflect current social problems. Since it's probably the most popular genre at the moment, on a multitude of different platforms, we can expect many more great superhero films in the coming years!