When I (finally) saw Star Wars The Force Awakens last weekend, I was amazed by all of the superhero movie previews that preceded it. A thought occurred to me after about the 3rd one.
For several decades, the popularity of superhero movies has risen and fallen like a tide. Not quite predictable, but it used to be that no matter how popular a movie was, inevitably its sequels would fall, and for at least a brief time, superheroes left the silver screen. But then something happened, and all of that changed. Now every year, the box office features multiple highly successful superhero movies, and they show no signs of slowing down.
The Early Tides
The Christopher Reeves Superman was wildly popular when it came out, and its sequel likewise did extraordinarily well, if Rotten Tomatoes and box offices numbers are to be believed (and lets face it, many still consider the pair as the definitive Superman movies.)
Then came Superman 3, which performed dismally, and Superman 4, which….well, I try to forget these ones even exist.
Then there was Michael Keaton’s Batman, another wildly successful superhero movie that came a decade after the first Superman, and it was wildly successful! Batman Returns likewise did well, but less so than its predecessor.
Then…Batman Forever. Followed by Bat Nipples. Uh, I mean, Batman and Robin. Dismal failures.
X-Men seemed to follow that as well, initially. X3 was, at least to many, a dismal failure in what started as a very successful series, and the X-Men Origins movie wasn’t any better.
So went the tide of superheroes on the silver screen – ups and downs, with smaller successes (and failures) spotted throughout these time periods, many of which I won’t mention, even though there are some very fantastic honorable mentions (Hellboy 2 :D )
But when did it all change? It seemed to start with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy. There is heated debate on the success of the third movie. While the final entry in the trilogy was the most financially successful, Rotten Tomatoes rates it as the worst in an otherwise successful trilogy. Surprisingly, the Maguire series didn’t end because of failure, but due to internal disagreements.
But how could this be? The worst of the trilogy made the most money?! Since then, there has been a continued rise and fall, but in general, superhero movies have been on the rise, culminating in the colossus that is the Marvel universe.
So again, I ask the question…what changed?
I Need A Hero
Perhaps the most obvious cause is the quality of story telling, visual effects, and just how serious and not-serious film makers started to take themselves with these comic book adaptations. I mean, come on, for as fun as the Adam West Batman and the Nipple Bat era was, the pure campiness of them told us that the film makers weren’t taking them seriously. At least, that was my impression.
And I won’t discount that quality is a big deal. That surge in popularity that started with Spider-Man could possibly be attributed to that. After the first movie’s success, production companies saw that there was money to be made, so….Batman Begins. Iron Man. The Dark Knight. Superheroes were making money.
But I believe there was something behind that initial Spider-Man success that went beyond just the quality of the product. And that same source is what fuels the ever-increasingly popular Avengers and the upcoming Justice League.
Society’s rising need for hope.
It’s need for symbols to look up to, to feel like the world and the people in it aren’t all horrible and depressing.
I’m not saying there hasn’t been such a need before, but we live in a fortuitous time when producing movies about super powered individuals is much more feasible. Had the same cinematic technology existed during World War 2, I think superhero movies would have been a gigantic hit.
I am not downplaying Sam Raimi’s take on the web-slinging Spider Guy, he did a fantastic job! But it happened to come out shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack.
For the first time in a very long time, the U.S. felt vulnerable. And so did many other nations around the world. Unknown enemies could attack us on our own soil. The bad guys could hurt us. Were we ever going to be safe again? Can anyone protect us?
This is where the superheroes come in.
And let’s face it, as depressing as it is to admit, things haven’t really gotten much better. Continued terrorist threats, financial crises (they say the recession is over. I’m not seeing that, either locally or in the news,) and rising tensions between nations worldwide. That’s just to name a few. Don’t forget all of the natural disasters that have struck, such as Katrina and Fukushima.
With global news on the rise and easy access to it via the web and our phones, the world feels more and more terrifying.
For everything else that superhero movies are or could be, they are escapism. I’m not saying that’s bad. In fact, I think it is exactly what we all need.
We face the world and its terrors day by day, whether that terror is the latest disaster covered on Fox news, or our frightening bills overwhelming us. To be able to forget about all of that for just a couple of hours and focus on something good, something positive, something that gives us all hope…it can go a long way towards making life bearable.
I think hope is what keeps many of us going, when all else fails. And to see, read, or hear about heroes who stand for something greater than us, heroes who can rise up above the most terrible disasters, well…maybe for some folks, it is what keeps them going.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So where are we going with all of this? Is the titanic of the Marvel universe going to get too big and end up sinking? Will Justice League succeed or fall flat on its face? Will we ever become accustomed to how the world has become, and could remain for the foreseeable future?
It’s all conjecture and opinion. Maybe I’m totally wrong about why super hero movies are now insanely popular. Maybe it’s a simple fact that those who grew up reading comics are now old enough to make movies…but wait. Comics have been around for a very long time. So then why didn’t this happen sooner?
Tell me what you all think! Do you agree or disagree? Alternate theories? Supplemental theories? Or am I just totally talking out of my butt here?
Thanks for reading!