The Age Of Heroes: Why Are Superhero Movies So Popular?

March 19, 2016
With this week’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and TV’s Daredevil, Arrow, Supergirl, Gotham, and The Flash, superheroes are everywhere. But why are they so popular now, and will this pop cultural domination last?

HEROES R US

Cinematically, it is the age of the superhero. The against-the-grain and idiosyncratic Deadpool has been a surprise smash; Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Age Of Ultron executed a box office raid of stunning enormity; the trailer for Captain America: Civil War was one of the most downloaded ever; the mutants are back in the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse; and DC’s just-about-to-release Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (with Suicide Squad to follow soon) has the potential to be one of the biggest superhero flicks yet. And it’s not just on the big screen either. On TV, The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been expanded into the company’s small screen series, Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and The Defenders. DC’s properties are being equally well served, with Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, Supergirl, and Legends Of Tomorrow. These movies and TV series are hugely popular, and their appeal is bleeding out exponentially from the rusted-on fan-boys-and-girls and young kids that have always been the obvious demographic. Superheroes have always been an essential thread in the rich pop cultural tapestry, but now they’re forming an even bigger part of the picture. Off the fringes, and into the mainstream, the superhero is front and centre, and the reasons behind this current campaign of pop cultural hegemony are just as multifold as the number of caped-and-cowled crusaders on our movie and TV screens.

TROUBLED TIMES DEMAND HEROES

“It’s a very delicate time right now on Earth, and there’s a lot going on that is pretty frightening,” Michael Shannon – who played the villainous General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel – told FilmInk just prior to the film’s release. “It would be nice to believe or think that there was somebody that could protect us from that. Man Of Steel is a very relevant movie.” Whether it’s random terrorist attacks, over-population, rising crime rates, the threat of financial collapse, the mental hangover of the Global Financial Crisis, prejudice, ignorance, infectious killer viruses, or just traffic congestion, our world is on a constant knife edge. And in troubled times, people enjoy escapism, and perhaps secretly wish that there were superheroes around to hose down all of the horrors of the world. “Good economic times usually signal the death of superheroes, and bad economic times see a surge in their popularity,” Mark Millar – an acclaimed comic book writer who has worked on a number of titles at Marvel, and was signed by movie studio, Twentieth Century Fox, to oversee and function as a consultant on all of their comic book properties, which include X-Men and the disastrous Fantastic Four – told FilmInk in 2013. “Superheroes were huge in the thirties during The Great Depression. The worldwide recession will probably last until the end of the decade. You’ve gotta entertain everyone through it!”

FILMMAKERS = FAN-BOYS

“It actually started with Uncle Scrooge, The Beagle Boys, and Disney comics,” Guardians Of The Galaxy director, James Gunn, told FilmInk in 2014. “I really liked those. Every time that I went to the grocery store with my mother, she would buy me one. I then started getting into Spider-Man and Thor and Captain America. I remember one called Scamp, which was Lady & The Tramp’s puppy. That was my favourite comic. I learned to read by memorising that comic book. I would just read it over and over again. My mother believed that I could read at the age of three, but I was actually just memorising the comic book that she had read to me.” By mere dint of their age, the right people are now making superhero movies. Like James Gunn, many of the filmmakers who have worked, or are currently working, in the genre – like Zack Snyder; Marvel’s president of production, Kevin Feige; Avengers: Age Of Ultron director (and now much publicised Marvel Studios drop-out), Joss Whedon, and more – are unashamed comic book nuts, and grew up obsessed with superhero stories. They know and understand superhero folklore and mythology, and believe that maintaining a semblance of connection to the source material is vital to a superhero movie’s success.

Superhero movies are now being conceived with intelligence and sensitivity. “I don’t know if you realise how hard it must have been to make X-Men,” legendary Marvel Comics writer, Stan Lee, told FilmInk in 2004. “Here are a few characters, each one with a super power, and they’re all so much bigger than life. How do you get an adult audience to accept this? And yet the director, Bryan Singer – I’m a big fan of his, as I am of Sam Raimi, who did Spider-Man – did it in such a way that even people who weren’t comic book fans were able to enjoy the movie. He made it intelligent, and it could have been silly in the wrong hands. I was very impressed.”

Gone are the days of low rent production companies like the infamous Cannon Films buying up the rights to superhero characters on the cheap. Not aware of the rich history of Spider-Man – which they bought off Marvel – the company had ridiculously envisioned the character as a half-man, half-tarantula mutant more akin to something out of David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Meanwhile, the idiotic script changes that producer, Jon Peters, asked of screenwriter, director, and fan-boy extraordinaire, Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats), during the pre-production of a failed Superman movie in the nineties are now legendary. “I don’t want to see him in that suit…it’s too faggy,” Peters allegedly told Smith. “There’ll be no flying, and he has to fight a giant spider in the third act.” Peters also thought that Sean Penn would be perfect to play Superman because he had the eyes of “a caged animal, a fucking killer!” Mmmm, right…

Superhero movies used to be made – or were attempted to be made – by people who had little to no idea of what they were working with. Yes, there were flukes. 1979’s Superman: The Movie was a much loved smash despite being principally scripted by Mario Puzo (The Godfather), who has never been described as a comic book geek, and Tim Burton’s 1989 hit, Batman, rode high on the dark vision of its director and the marketing might of Warner Bros. Today’s superhero movies are being made by talented, committed directors who are connected to the material. “Great screenwriters and great directors,” Mark Millar told FilmInk when asked to offer an opinion on why superhero-themed films have been so popular of late. “It cannot be underestimated. It’s something that comic book movies have actually been very lucky with. Having people like Christopher Nolan [the Batman movies], Sam Raimi, and Bryan Singer doing comic book movies has been great. Up until 2000, you could count on one hand the number of good directors doing comic book movies. And since 2000, it’s been incredible. It really is the upper A list, and you can never underestimate that. It’s shown in the films.”

These directors also know that there’s a lot more to superhero movies than explosions and action set pieces. “I really enjoy character,” Guardians Of The Galaxy director, James Gunn, told FilmInk in 2014. “I love directing big action sequences and putting those together. I love the mechanics and the puzzles of that. But there needs to be character and emotion. That’s the stuff that I really care about the most in a movie. And if the other stuff works, it’s because I care so much about that part. That’s what I bring more of, and that’s why they hired me.” The fact that comic book publishing house, Marvel, reinvented itself as a movie studio – and subscribes to the same story-and-character-first ethos as someone like James Gunn – is also a huge part of today’s superhero movie success, with the company getting all the details right.

And despite the fact that these superhero movies are all being produced by competing studios, their success actually helps – rather than hinders – each other. If all of the superhero movies are good, then ironically, everybody wins, and more of them get made. “I’m always rooting for DC and Warner Bros,” Marvel boss, Kevin Feige, told FilmInk, “because not everybody makes the distinction between a Marvel and a DC movie. I hope that people are now starting to see that Marvel Studios logo, and that they know what cinematic universe they’re in and what we’re doing. But frankly, I get asked all the time, ‘Aquaman? Who’s that?’ So I root for all of them, because if they’re all good, people keep staying interested.”

Guardians Of The Galaxy

Guardians Of The Galaxy

ROLLING THE DICE

Another big part of Marvel’s success is their willingness to take risks, despite what their box office surety might suggest. If the company was just chasing the dollar, they could much more easily churn out more movies featuring Iron Man. Instead, they’re constantly looking through their extensive catalogue for properties that offer variation and a point of difference. “We started talking about Guardians Of The Galaxy as a movie six years ago,” the film’s producer, Jeremy Latcham, told FilmInk. “At the time, Marvel had this one plan, which was to connect all the films that we were making. It was a crazy experiment in cinema, but it worked. But now we needed another plan, and to do something different, and Guardians Of The Galaxy was on the top of that list. We went ahead with this project because it’s so different, and it’s so out there.” It’s also what pushed Marvel to team up with streaming service, Netflix, on the series, Daredevil, which is much grittier and violent than anything the studio has previously produced. “Marvel wanted to try something a little more adult, a little darker, and a little more morally complex,” showrunner, Steven S. DeKnight, told FilmInk. “Not to take away from the other shows or the movies – because I enjoy all of them – but Marvel has enough content out there that they felt comfortable with trying something different, and out of the box.” To grow, you have to change, and Marvel has been doing that in spades, and inspiring other producers of superhero content in the process.

THE TECHNOLOGY IS HERE

“Studios are looking for comic book characters because they’re now able to do them properly thanks to the advances in special effects and computer generated imagery,” Stan Lee told FilmInk in 2004. “When you see the special effects in Spider-Man or X-Men, you can’t believe it. They couldn’t have done this years ago.” While Tim Burton could effectively make Batman in 1989, there’s no way that he could have pulled off a much more fantastical property like, say, Guardians Of The Galaxy, with equal panache. But with extraordinary advances in movie technology, filmmakers can now create almost anything that is in their head, and that has largely made the influx of superhero movies possible. “It’s everything combined,” director, Zack Snyder, said at a pre-screening Sydney Q&A for his 2013 foundation-laying epic, Man Of Steel. “It’s the modern mythology, it’s visual effects technology at its height, and it’s also, if done right, about compelling characters, especially now that we have so many A-list actors on board. It’s a Hollywood wet dream in that way, and then everything comes together in box office madness.”

And the younger, tech-savvy directors of today know (usually) exactly how to employ these special effects. “Zack Snyder is a visionary guy,” said the director’s Man Of Steel co-star, Kevin Costner, who is, of course, an Oscar winning director in his own right. “I see stuff like that and go, ‘Fuck! I couldn’t direct like that!’ I like to direct cowboy movies with fires and horses! I wouldn’t know how to budget the stuff that Zack does,” he laughed to FilmInk. “I wouldn’t know if anybody would allow me to do a movie like that! I wouldn’t know how to do it. So that’s when I’m very content to work with another director – you go, ‘Wow, you just blew up a whole town! How did you do that?’ That’s my whole budget right there – that town! That’s the whole budget for my western.”

THE TENTPOLE MOVIE: INSTANT RECOGNITION

It’s now an inarguable fact: movies are being made, distributed, and watched differently. Because of the now varied means through which viewers can access movies – both legally and illegally – when it comes to the big screen, Hollywood’s studios now have to look at a much wider market. They have to make big films that everyone around the world will have an interest in, and superhero movies fit perfectly into that financial reality. “It’s a very corporate environment,” veteran producer, Tony Bill – who worked on seventies classics like The Sting and Hearts Of The West – told FilmInk in 2013. “Movies get made because they have foreign appeal. They generally don’t get made with one source of financing unless it’s a studio. And studio films are definitely not what they used to be. There are a lot of wonderful films getting made that are more than a product or commodity, but 70% of our income comes from outside the US now. Filmmakers now have to make that an important consideration. We’re making movies for export. It’s not just, ‘Let’s make a movie because it’s going to be good.’ There’s no longer an ample enough motivation for somebody to invest in a movie that they don’t think is going to turn out well. Now people want to invest in a movie because it’s got a big star in it, or because it’s based on previously successful material, or because there are tie-ins with McDonalds. You’ve got huge foreign appeal because you’ve got explosions, or vampires, or superheroes. It’s much more calculated now.”

When studios pump millions of dollars into a film, it obviously salves their concerns when it’s one that will register with audiences immediately, whether it’s Mad Max: Fury Road or Pitch Perfect 2. And there’s nothing more instantly recognisable than superheroes. For Hollywood studios, it’s an easy sell. Whether it’s China, Japan, Australia, or England, everyone knows who Superman and Batman are. “You’re dealing with a worldwide brand,” Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice producer, Charles Roven, told FilmInk. “There’s built-in pressure when you’re dealing with something so iconic. It’s amazing to think how many people have grown up admiring someone like Superman for over 75 years.” As long as superhero movies are easy to sell, studios will keep making them.

THE BALANCING ACT

One of the most difficult challenges that any superhero movie has to undertake is pleasing the hardcore fans, while also appealing to the audience at large. The best films in the genre have successfully walked that tightrope, and have appealed to both elements of the audience, leading to continued popularity. “It’s always a concern of the filmmakers,” producer, Ralph Winter – who worked on the initial X-Men films – told FilmInk on the set of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. “The people financing the movie want to be sure that it gets to the widest audience; they can’t just spend this kind of money on a narrow audience. But critically, you’ve got to pay attention to that narrow audience, and know that they’re repeat customers. They’re the ones who talk on the internet, and they set the tone and the buzz for everything else. We’re watching the internet. We’ve got our own geeks on board who are watching what people are saying online, and we’ve got our own internal set of controls on that. Achieving that balance is important to us. But you defy that when you know that you’re doing the right thing for the story. In the comics, Hugh Jackman’s not the same height as a character like Logan, but Hugh Jackman’s the right guy for the role.” Says Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice producer, Charles Roven: “The internet is both your friend, and also a frustrating companion barking in your ear. Sometimes you want to say, ‘Just shut the fuck up for a minute!’ [Laughs] But it doesn’t.”

Spider-Man

Spider-Man

A LITTLE ALCHEMY

“There are no rules,” Stan Lee told FilmInk in 2004. “A film has to be a good film, whether it’s from a comic or not. If you’re doing a screen version of a bestselling novel, the most important thing to think of is, ‘What made it a bestselling book? What was the element that the public liked?’ Then you make sure that you keep that element in the movie. So many times I feel that they miss that. A perfect example is when they did a live action Spider-Man series for television in the seventies. I didn’t think it was good because they omitted everything that made Spider-Man popular. They omitted the humour, and the personality. He was just a guy walking down the street. He’d see a crime being committed and go, ‘Oh, I’d better become Spider-Man!’ Then he went and caught the crook. There was no dimension. A superhero movie has to be a good movie by itself. It needs to have characters that you believe in and that you care about, and situations that you understand and that you want to know what’s going to happen. Those rules apply whether it’s based on a comic book or whether you’re writing a movie. There’s no difference.” In short, a superhero movie – like any movie – has to have a certain intangible quality that just, well, makes it work…and the best ones do, and the best ones are what keep audiences wanting more. “You need the storyteller,” Captain America himself, Chris Evans, told FilmInk. “You need someone who has the ability to tell a story, and someone who just knows what’s good. You need someone who can watch a scene and say that it’s not working. It’s intangible. I don’t know how to describe it. Let’s call it magic.”

TO BE CONTINUED, OR ‘NUFF SAID?

“I sometimes enjoy them because they are basic and simple and go well with popcorn,” Oscar winning The Revenant director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, told Deadline of the current swarm of superhero movies. “The problem is that sometimes they purport to be profound, and based on some Greek mythological kind of thing. And they are honestly very right wing. I always see them as killing people because they do not believe in what you believe, or they are not being who you want them to be. I hate that, and I don’t respond to those characters. They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t say anything about the experience of being human.”

Though they’re hugely popular, superhero movies are not popular with everyone. Whether it’s Nightcrawler director, Dan Gilroy (“Independent films are holdouts against a tsunami of superhero movies. We have survived, and that’s true spirit”); Aussie Infini filmmaker, Shane Abbess (“I love the superhero films, but the origin formula, I mean, Christ, I get it, you have to be relatable, and you have to overcome adversity. Fuck, I get it”), or Kiwi actor, Martin Henderson (“The superhero stuff is something that I’m personally not a huge fan of…it doesn’t appeal to me as an actor”), the public detractors are certainly out there, and they’re more than happy to have a swing at something so popular. Have superhero movies reached saturation point? “Oh sure, we’re worried about that,” X-Men Origins: Wolverine producer, Ralph Winter, told FilmInk way back in 2009. “I mean, is there a saturation point on talking animated animal movies? I’m amazed that they keep making them! It’s about whether we can continue to deliver good stories. People always want to see a good story about a hero.”

Marvel boss, Kevin Feige (who has movies planned out until 2019), has been asking himself this very question for many years now. “I’ve worried about that since I first started at Marvel fourteen years ago,” he laughed to FilmInk. “After X-Men 2, I started being asked, ‘How long can this last?’ I always thought: I think that it’s going to last a long time, as long as they’re all different, and as long as they’re all unique. If every movie had just been a kid in his bedroom putting on a mask and fighting crime, we wouldn’t be making many more of them. Thankfully, the Marvel characters are all so unique, and we have thousands and thousands of characters to draw from. Could they all be movies? Probably not. But as long as they’re interesting, we can keep doing them for a long time.”

With Marvel Studios in full swing, the relatively nascent production house will now have a true rival with The DC Extended Universe set to crank into overdrive with Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice just the first shot (Man Of Steel was more like the loading of the ammo) in what will be a sustained cinematic salvo, with Suicide Squad set for release, Wonder Woman currently in production, and films featuring Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg, Green Lantern, and more all slated for future release. Warner and DC will then unleash its version of a nuclear strike with two Zack Snyder-directed Justice League movies (in 2017 and 2019), which will bring together all of the aforementioned characters. “We’ve been talking a lot about where we’re going to go with Justice League…we kind of knew what Justice League was going to be pretty early on, which allowed us to lay the groundwork in a lot of ways,” says Zack Snyder. “When you see the movie, you’ll really get a sense that there’s a second layer coming, and filtering down through the film, as far as what’s possible. We slowly introduce the other characters and how they play and what is their purpose and where they are in the world. Justice League is about turning the whole thing up to eleven as much as you can, with all these guys trying to work together, if that’s possible. That’s a lot of fun for me.”

It would appear that the age of the superhero is far, far from over…

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is released in cinemas on March 24. Captain America: Civil War is released in cinemas on April 28.

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