The superhero genre is big. If you want to be guaranteed big money, then you make a superhero movie. This was demonstrated by the recent Avengers Endgame. And that it smashed the Sci-Fi spectacle Avatar out of the number one spot from the box office. It seems that nothing can stop the rise of this genre. It’s surpassed all of its rival genres in popularity, box office takes, and fame. And that’s generally all taken place within the last twenty years; since the start of the second millennium. But how? All of a sudden people started to watch the ‘superhuman’ as a hero on the big screens far more often than any other genre. Well, the answers lie in film history, technology, and the psychology of the viewer at the time, which will also play into its eventual fall.
The Rise of the Superhero Genre
It could be argued for hours over what the first superhero film was. The earlier films, supposedly in the genre, are kind of controversial; it’s thought by some that The Mark of Zorro was the first superhero film, releasing in 1920, starring Zorro as the ‘Superhero’. But that’s literally 100 years old. The modern perception of what a superhero is didn’t really emerge until somewhere around 1940, with the rise of Marvel and DC comics. Therefore, it probably all began with 1978’s Superman, and the three sequels that spawned after that, alongside a forgotten (and fairly poorly rated) Supergirl film. Thus, the rise of superhero films began.
After this sparse ten years of superhero films, with the Superman series quickly declining in popularity alongside their quality, a few other heroes joined the mix. Four installments of a Batman series rolled out from 1989 to 1997, and similarly to Superman, gradually declined in quality and ratings. Though, despite the quality, these were the beginning of a long line of incredibly popular franchises. Marvel had a stab in the dark next with Blade, but it wasn’t until 2000’s X-Men that the genre started its growth, popularity, and intoxicating box office takes. Over the next ten years, the superhero genre grew and it was now common for a few superhero films to be released into the cinema a year.
Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman trilogy is also a partial reason for such rapid growth of the superhero status in the industry. It grossed more than double its closest rival, at $800 million. And the series went on to gross over $2.5 billion from 2002 to 2007. But we all know the massive popularity for superhero movies that we know today comes from 2012’s The Avengers. And you know the rest.
Why the Sudden Growth?
It’s all well and good knowing about which superhero films elevated the genre to its current positioning today, but it’s more important to understand why to also help determine when it will decline. Firstly, in 2000, the superhero genre was new and barely explored. The early Superman and Batman series barely scraped the material that it came from and it also kept to a fairly linear storyline. It was only with X-Men that the universe of superheroes was being truly explored. It also helped that audiences were becoming bored with the Sci-Fi genre that was dominating the industry, and that high budget superhero movies were new. And everyone loves new.
Psychologically, the genre was also appealing to all ages. Sci-Fi and other genres follow very similarly storylines whereas superhero films are very different. Thus, looking for change was also key. First of all, it’s important that they are (kind of) set in our own world/universe. Secondly, we can project ourselves into the character of a superhuman individual (which the first point helps) and explore the fun and powerful ways that character can traverse through the story. It’s the closeness to reality, as well as the fantastical distance, that allows an individual to escape reality, whilst placing the story in a realistic situation, helping to drive its emotional affect.
Money, Escapism, and China
It also helps that with Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, among other successful superhero orientated films, a lot of money was accumulated. And fast. That’s why sequels were made, new franchises were launched, and reboots were planned. All, in turn, making more money, fuelling new superhero films as interest continued to spark as of the escapist reality that audiences so enjoy. It was also at this time when China’s cinemas were allowing more Western Films. Which why superhero films always outperform Sci-Fi (Star Wars in particular) and other genres in China. Perfect. A spiraling growth of money, enjoyment, and fame. Where could it go wrong?
Remember the Western genre, and how it became so popular in the early to mid-twentieth century? That’s a clear example of a genre that was huge at one point and had no signs of slowing down, as it was always successful in bringing money in. It has so many classics. The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But none of those names are recent; all are fifty years plus old.
People liked to lose themselves in Westerns; like today we like to lose ourselves in superhero films. In between the two was Sci-Fi. Rather than being interested in the romanticized (and somewhat inaccurate) history of the Western USA, people began to prefer to immerse themselves in something newer and more foreign; space. It also helped that the realities of the more grueling expansion into the West were coming to be accepted. And on came Star Trek , Star Wars, Alien and Back to the Future. The 1970s, 80s, and 90s was the period of Sci-Fi, helped by the increased interest in space and space travel. Barely any notable Westerns were produced in this period. This is because cinema was now global and wasn’t distinctly American as it was up to 1960.
Today, the Westerns that are produced are largely failures at the box office. The Lone Ranger, Cowboys Versus Aliens, and A Million Ways to Die in the West, were all closer to tragedies at the box office, the Westerns of the 1950s/60s. Why did it die? The answers; the globalization of cinema, new ideologies, and most importantly, the exhaustion of the genre.
The Past, Present and the Future of the Dominating Genre
The Western had its period of about thirty years of success, from the 1930s to the 1960s. The superhero genre is nearing around its twentieth. Sci-Fi dominated from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. So based on this idea, it looks like the superhero genre has about ten years left until it exhausts itself. Which currently, it shows signs of doing. We had almost ten high budget superhero films in 2018. All, like the Westerns, having very similar plots. Although there is a lot of comics material to base this genre on, there was also a lot of historical material for Westerns. And still is.
Inevitably, the superhero genre will collapse just like the previous two. And it’ll probably be in the next ten years or so. But until then, I’ll continue to enjoy Spiderman (hopefully in the MCU) and many other heroes doing the superhuman when I’m stuck in my seat for the eighth time in a year with a bag of popcorn next to me. For more on movies, the MCU, and other stuff, check out some more of our articles.
Callum is an avid writer, not just of gaming articles, but of short stories and scripts. Besides gaming, he enjoy travelling and trying new things.