Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Enduring Superhero Boom

Again and again I have been struck by the staying power of the boom in superhero movies--up to eight movies a year, with this looking like the norm through 2020 if the production schedules of the big studios over the next four years are anything to go by.

Of course, there are those who would slight the significance of such numbers--like Scott Mendleson at Forbes. And perhaps it would not seem so significant if this were a matter of one year, or two, or three--but we got started well along this trend way back at the turn of the century, and it has just gone on getting stronger and stronger. Already we have amassed over three dozen major live-action feature films based on the best-known characters from Marvel and DC--as well as dozens more such films based on properties less well-known to the mainstream (like the works of Alan Moore, Hellboy, Wanted and Jonah Hex), and atop that, dozens more original creations based on the superhero concept (like Sky High, Hancock and the film version of the Green Hornet TV show).

Moreover, the profile of these films has gone far beyond the large number of movies made. One reason is their consistently high financial grosses.

Consider the list of top twenty all-time earners at the American box office. Of the fourteen that have come out in this century, six are superhero films--just shy of half the total.1

Naturally this has reflected and been reflected in their prominence at key moviegoing times of the year, Gitesh Pandya recently remarking that "This is the tenth straight year that Marvel super heroes dominated the first weekend of May." (Ten years of that strategic weekend dominated not just by superheroes, but by the Marvel brand specifically! Think about that.)

In fairness, no other trend of recent decades can really compare with this.

Inevitably I have wondered "Why?" audience interest has been so consistent, and the answer seems to me the genre's not just affording a basis for the kind of flashy, action-adventure spectacle that only science fiction and fantasy can offer, but one more accessible than high fantasy, space opera or even contemporary science fiction of a more intellectually rigorous type (like the recent trickle of movies dealing with artificial intelligence). The audience does not have to cope with sophisticated premises (even The Avengers a slightly plotted film with an astonishingly generic MacGuffin), or with elaborate world-building (everyone lives in New York City). It is required to process much less information, and cope with much less in the way of the "alienation effects" Darko Suvin recognized as a significant feature of the genre--especially given how familiar the superhero concept (and many of the characters appearing in these movies again and again) have become.

Part of its appeal would also seem to lie in the intensely individualistic aspect of the genre, again at odds with so much of the rest of science fiction. Our attention is fixed on a single character with a distinctive appearance and powers rather than an intricately connected cast of less visually distinct types in the manner of so many disaster films--and still less, the fate of the world, much more often referenced as a reason for the goings-on than explored. (And of course, that individualism carries over to superhero teams like the Avengers, X-Men and Justice League--typically agglomerations of spiky personalities rather than harmonious groups.) And if anything, this is reaffirmed by the record of those ambitious films that have been less well-received (like Watchmen, a much more demanding, estranging film).

In short, the films give audiences what they usually find most engaging about science fiction (flashy FX), minus the brain-work. And if anything, the fact that the more successful among them are so concept-light--that the concept is relatively marginal to their appeal--may be helping to make the inevitable repetition of the broader ideas more palatable than they otherwise would be.

1. This list is, of course, not adjusted for inflation--but this is perfectly appropriate in this case as this is all about how large they have loomed at the box office in recent years, rather than a discussion of their all-time standing.

My Posts on Superhero Movies
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