Why do we love superhero movies?

Growing up, I was introduced to the world of superheroes through films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Tim Burton’s Batman, and even Ang Lee’s Hulk. I later went beyond the screen and became an avid reader of Spider-Man, Wolverine, and the Flash comics. I loved all of those and more, but now I get to indulge in the great superhero films of today. 

Image from IMDb

It’s crazy to think that just a few years ago, we were lucky if we had at least one superhero film a year. Currently, we are seeing upwards of eight superhero films a year. From the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Extended Universe, and all of the Sony Spider-Man properties, we are being treated to what feels like a new insurgence of superhero movies with one coming out every other month. Comic book-based films are also some of the highest-grossing films each year. In 2019 alone, we’ve seen three comic book films (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Joker) reach the billion dollar mark, and even one (Avengers: Endgame) hitting that glamorous two billion dollar mark and going on to become the highest-grossing film of all time.

Superhero films have not always been what they are today. The superhero craze didn’t start until 1998’s Blade, which helped show that superhero movies could be made for adults and be taken seriously. Even though Blade was the first to kick off the superhero craze, 2000’s X-Men really paved the way by showing the potential for success for superhero movies. The popularity of the movie helped launch other movie adaptations of superheroes, such as Daredevil, Hulk, and Spider-Man, since studios saw the cash cow these movies could become. While the box office success of these movies show that audiences are attracted to this genre, it doesn’t really explain the continued popularity of these types of movies years later since movies, like other trends, reach a peak and then plummet to a hard and fast death.

The basic foundation of comic book movies is not new. Having the good versus evil plot line has been used countless times in movies, most notably in Westerns. Arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Stephen Spielberg, once compared superhero movies to Westerns. 

“We were around when the Western died, and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western.” Spielberg continued, “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.” 

Like Spielberg said, superhero films aren’t going away any time soon, but there will be a time when they decline—similar to what happened with Westerns. Taking the Western genre and comparing it to the superhero genre, we see many similarities. Both Western and superhero movies have a central hero trying to do good. There’s always a contrast between good and evil—a central villain challenging the hero. They both also provide a character for people to look up to and aspire to be. We have also seen both of the genres provide movies that go beyond the cookie-cutter basic plot lines, and use their story as a way to give a message or idea to the audience. 

In an article by The Guardian Taylor Sheridan, famous for writing the screenplays for Sicario and Wind River, talked about the Western genre. 

“The holy grail is putting ideas into a movie that also entertains. The Western allows you to put sugar on the capsule to make the ideas go down easy,” said Sheridan.

We have seen many superhero films take this similar approach. Films like Joker, Logan, X-Men, The Dark Knight, Black Panther, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Captain America: Civil War have all broken out of the normal compounds of superhero movies to be something more. The Dark Knight and both Captain America films went beyond the superhero genre to make more political thrillers. Joker, Black Panther, and the X-Men movies used superheroes to make comments about our society as a whole. Logan ditched the “save the world” trope and went for a deeper, darker, small-scale movie that tackles multiple topics including loss, hopelessness, regret, pain, family, and hope. The movies took these topics and threw superheroes into the mix to create something that would appeal to a wider audience. 

An article on the New York Public Library talks about TV Westerns in the ’50s and ’60s: 

“Westerns sought to teach the good values of honesty and integrity, of hard work, of racial tolerance, of determination to succeed, and of justice for all. They were, in a sense, modern morality plays where heroes—strong, reliable, clear-headed and decent—fought their adversaries in the name of justice. At the show’s end, moral lessons had been taught and learned.” 

Tying this comment with the last one, we see that superhero films have basically become the Westerns of this generation. Audiences have always loved a story about good versus evil, dating all the way back to the ’50s with Westerns. Superhero films have filled a void that has been empty since the Western genre died. Instead of seeing our heroes ride into town on a horse to save everyone from some evil criminal, we see our heroes fly in to save the world from a super-villain. There are countless examples of this, from Batman and the Joker, to Superman and Lex Luther, and even Spider-Man and the Green Goblin.

Image from IMDb

Superheroes also give us someone to look up to and strive to be like. Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist, suggested that superheroes allow us to find “meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for a good purpose.” Many heroes have their own personal problems they deal with, along with the responsibility of protecting/saving the world. A hero like Spider-Man helps enforce Rosenberg’s statements. He’s a character with which many people can relate.  Despite having superpowers, seeing him discover his own inner strength within all of the problems in his life is very inspiring. He’s a high school kid who has personal problems people can relate to, yet he doesn’t allow his struggles to prevent him from doing good. He’s a character that’s always on the verge of greatness, yet the responsibilities of his life prevent him from achieving his dreams.  

The argument can be made for cowboys too, but as mentioned before, long gone are the days cowboys ruled the screen. Superheroes are the dominating genre at the box office today. People look up to Superman rather than the Lone Ranger. Many wish they could be Spider-Man swinging around New York, Iron Man flying around with his repulsors, or Batman driving around in the Batmobile. Having that heroism in us is something that many of us strive to achieve, and watching a superhero movie helps us live that dream, if only for two hours in a dark theater; a research study even helped prove this fact.

A study from Kyoto University in Japan showed that humans are attracted to heroes, even before we have the ability to talk. The study had infants watch a video demonstrating someone acting heroic and the results showed that the babies were able to comprehend what they were seeing. They were even able to recognize the heroism shown in the video. The idea of heroism and being a hero is rooted inside each of us, which helps explain our attraction to such works. 

Ultimately, there are many reasons why superhero films make up the majority of box office hits. Superhero films showcase the classic “good versus evil” that has been missing since Western films, and they even have deeper themes baked into their stories. They also provide us with characters to look up to and inspire to be. Suggested in the research study, maybe society’s love for superheroes is biological, deeply rooted in our DNA as an uncontrollable attraction.

Sources: Screen Rant, Pop Matters, Den of Geek, The Guardian, The New York Public Library, Bustle 

Images: IMDb

Featured Image: Tt Shinkan 


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