The Era of Superheroes
With Avengers: Infinity War raking in the big bucks at the box office, The Incredibles characters making a comeback after 14 years, Wonder Woman’s success representing women power in the entertainment industry, Black Panther smashing box-office records; and the upcoming Aquaman, Captain Marvel and Avengers 4 being the most anticipated films of 2018 and 2019, the age of superheroes well and truly is here.
Over the past decade, the world has seen a drastic increase in the number of superhero films made. The genre originally belonging to comic books, has been picked up by major studios with A-list actors, directors and crews attached to such projects, which in turn generates billions in revenue.
Go back a decade when the first Iron Man was released. Marvel had just put in motion their elaborate, decade long plan that would eventually culminate with Thanos snapping his fingers. Who would’ve imagined the number of superhero films being released in a year would go from one to six, and that characters like Groot, Doctor Strange and T’Challa would sell out theatres, break box-office records and sell truckloads of merchandise? We have come a long way in the genre and the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing, with Marvel gearing up for their new wave of superhero films and DC just entering the playground with the likes of Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman and Superman.
Let’s back up a little and look at the origins of the genre. Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), was the first major, big-budget superhero film to gain commercial and critical success. Several films followed thereafter, such as Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980), Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997) and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (2002). The success of the superhero genre in the 90s, propelled studios to invest more in the future.
However, Wayne Borg, CEO and Managing Director at Fox Studios Australia, believes it was the X-Men film series which set the trend and became the turning point for superhero films.
“Earlier when these films were made, there wasn’t much of a story or character depth, whereas now there is a real sort of frailty and a sense of shock and awe on the screen. The level and scale of visual effects that accompanies these films is spectacular and as the momentum has picked up in this genre, it has given studios the confidence to invest in them and keep building on this genre. The X-Men films, had superhero characters with human frailties and drawbacks and that is when audiences started to relate to them,” he said.
Personally, I feel it was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, especially The Dark Knight, that embedded the genre’s position in popular culture and in the audience’s minds. Nolan’s dark and gritty execution of The Dark Knight has been attempted many times thereafter and gradually, the predictable, childish and all good superhero characters have been given more depth, emotional layers and grittiness. For example, James Mangold’s Logan reminded the audience that superheroes are human as well and they exist in the same fabric of society that we mortals exist in. They need to play by the same societal rules and pressures as ‘ordinary’ people do.
“There is also the factor of technological advancements that has changed production capabilities and enabled studios to create visually appealing realistic films. With today’s technology and CGI capabilities, filmmakers can create nearly anything they can imagine, and this has increased opportunities and flexibility for filmmakers,” says John Hughes, Client Services Manager at Fox Studios Australia.
In an interview with FilmInk, Michael Shannon – who played the role General Zod in Man of Steel, said, “It’s a very delicate time right now on Earth, and there’s a lot going on that is pretty frightening. It would be nice to believe or think that there was somebody that could protect us from that”. Shannon is not alone in this observation. Ana Tiwary, a Sydney based independent producer and director, attributes the popularity of and increased demand for superhero films to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “In the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, there was a general atmosphere of fear and a strong sense of nationalism. Superhero films tapped into this with their ‘Good versus Evil’ narratives, and people accepted it as these films transported them to a world where justice prevails above all else,” she says. In a world plagued with threats – terrorism, religious fanaticism, over-population, economic meltdowns, global-warming, killer viruses, rising crime rates, etc., people want to escape to a world where superheroes can single handedly tackle these and emerge victorious. It’s a form of escapism that we need for survival, simply because it ignites one of the purest emotions – hope.
Another factor that has contributed immensely towards the rise of superhero films is the fact that their makers are essentially comic book fan boys. Comics pre-date their movies by several decades, meaning most of the filmmakers who helm on the role of reproducing these comics on screen, grew up reading them and understand the characters. Whether it be James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman), Kevin Feige (President of Marvel Studios), Joss Whedon (Avengers) or the Russo brothers (Captain America: Winter Soldier and Avengers: Infinity War), they are all big comic book nerds who understand the superhero genre and the need for them. As a result, you get smart, intelligent films with strong and well-established characters with a story that doesn’t seem ludicrous.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Kevin Feige said, “I don’t believe in the superhero-movie genre. With Guardians of the Galaxy, we wanted to do a big space movie; with Ant-Man, we wanted to do a heist movie; Winter Soldier, we wanted to do a political thriller. I’m more entertained by all those kinds of movies when there’s superheroes in the middle of them, so that works out for me.”
With Hollywood blockbusters taking over cinemas, home entertainment platforms such as Netflix and Stan offer a more stable home for independent filmmakers and alternative genre types. However, with the success of television series on the rise it won’t be long until we are flooded with superhero-based shows similar to The Flash, Supergirl, Arrow and Daredevil.
Steven Spielberg predicted that superhero films will implode if too many of these big-budget “tent-pole” films flop at the box-office. With more than 10 massive blockbuster studio films scheduled to be released in 2019 and dozens of other superhero films scheduled up to 2020, it will be interesting to see what happens next year. 2019 might be the year where the superhero genre implodes due to franchise fatigue and films cannibalizing each other’s revenues. Or it might just be one of the most successful years in the history of cinema, if the films get their narratives, plots and characters right. All we can do is simply wait and watch.