Why are superhero movies so popular?

James King , A&E Writer


A question that I often hear is why are there so many superhero movies? The obvious answer is that they make money and there is some truth to that. Of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time in the world, 4 of them are Marvel superhero movies. All of them making around the billion dollar mark in the worldwide box office. The return on investment into the movies can be staggering as well. Disney pumped over $320 million into just the filming of Avengers: Infinity War and the movie by itself made over $2 billion. Superhero movies are also helping to keep the American cinema afloat and are the genre most Americans are showing up for.

According to Joanna Piacenza of a Morning Consult, a data collection agency that surveys interpret the data for The New York Times and Bloomberg, 41 percent of Americans enjoy superhero films and want to see more of them. The biggest demographic of this group is millennials which make up 54 percent of the audience. This isn’t to say that millennials aren’t interested in non-superhero movies, many are interested in smaller more off-beat movies like Shape of Water from last year. The audience for these movies generally is starting to change as well. In the past, the majority of moviegoers for these films has been overwhelmingly white, but the Hispanic demographic and the female demographic for these films is now a larger part of the audience.

There are many reasons that people have made these epics, but most of what it comes down to are people’s reaction to the adversity in their lives. The biggest of which is that superhero movies are a reaction to 9/11 tragedy. Now, it would be disingenuous to say that they had no popular superhero movies before 9/11, both X-men and Blade and many other big name heroes had their time to shine before, but the big part of the boom happened after the tragedy, when the towers had fallen. The American moviemaking machine went from making 3-5 movies and shows a year about costumed super people to upwards of 20 if you count every piece of media that is even vaguely associated with superheroes. Superhero movies have used imagery to evoke patriotic values like the 2002 Spider-Man film with its abundance of American flags and a scene near the end when a New Yorker shouts “ you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us”. There have also been other movies that have come out a lot more recent that evoke imagery of the time like in 2016 with Marvel Studios’ Captain America: Civil War when General Ross shows the Avengers the extent of the destruction they have caused in all their previous fights up to that point. Buildings falling, people stumbling away from the destruction, and the sight of people getting hurt from falling debris are all similar to videos like the real-life tragedy of 9/11. Superheroes are a way to frame all this destruction in a way that removes them from the real world gravitas and reframes it as something that can be overcome given the right knowledge or strength.

Though physical tragedies are not the only things that have brought a wave of superhero movies to the box office, they can also be economic. For instance, superhero comic books were extremely popular during the great depression. In 2008, the year after the recession hit, Iron Man and The Dark Knight were some of the biggest movies of the year. The comic writer Mark Millar once said that “Good economic times usually signal the death of superheroes, and bad economic times see a surge in their popularity”. It not crazy to think people want a relatively cheap way to escape their very real-world problems.

The special effects of these movies can also be a factor in their popularity. CGI effects are becoming harder and harder to distinguish from reality. For instance, Robert Downey Jr. hasn’t worn a full Iron Man suit in any of the movies, in the first movie he wore a suit from the waist up to make it more realistic. Now they have Robert Downey Jr. wear Iron Man vests to help the CGI artists make the scene look more realistic. In many cases, the CGI is started on before even starts shooting. That’s to say nothing of the ageing effects in the Ant-man, Captain America, and Avengers movies that can add or subtract whole decades to a person’s appearance.

The culture also has an effect on what people want to watch, in that many of the people that watched and read superhero media when they were kids are now growing up are old enough to spend their money on these franchises. The 60’s had the popular Batman TV show and the beginnings of the silver age of comics where superheroes became much more relatable and more realistic thanks to writers like Stan Lee. For instance, an early Fantastic Four comic had them battling debt on top of supervillains. The 70’s through the 80’s also had small booms of superhero popularity like TV shows like Wonder Woman and the Incredible Hulk. With the early 90’s came the comic speculator boom, where many comics were selling for millions of dollars, and people believed that the #1 comics and variant covers would be worth something later. This was spurred on by the popularity of the 1989 Batman movie.

Lastly, One of the most simple and primal reasons that people love superheroes and Superhero movies is that they simply have the good guys winning over the bad guys. People see the world as full of corrupt people and evil institutions and they want someone to stop them. Superman was created as a way for his Jewish creators to fight back against the ills of the world like racists and thieves. Superheroes are today typically shown fighting terrorists and evil government systems. Without looking the morals of it, people love these big superhero moments like when Deadpool jumps down from a bridge to kill henchmen to the song Angel of the Morning , or when Wonder Woman crosses no man’s land with nothing but a sword and shield, and when the camera pans around the united Avengers as they stare off into the distance at the next threat. After all of that is said and done is it no wonder why superheroes have captured the public imagination.

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