Why are superhero movies so popular?
Look, up on the screen! It’s a comedy, it’s a drama — no, it’s a superhero movie!
Men and women in costumes and masks are increasingly common in movies, as superhero films have exploded in popularity. Since 2000, when “X-Men” was released to critical and commercial success, 58 superhero flicks have taken off on the big screen, according to Box Office Mojo.
And since 2008, when “Iron Man” grossed more than $300 million at the box office, 29 more superhero adventures have gone POW! BANG! and ZOOM! into pop culture consciousness. These include “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” which, combined, grossed almost $1.1 billion in 2012.
But why have these superpowered beings struck such a nerve with the public?
“I think even if you’ve never read a comic book, movies have always been a great form of escapism,” says Stephanie Morrow, who teaches Introduction to Film Studies online in the College of Humanities and Sciences for University of Phoenix. “We love rooting for the underdog, and superhero movies have that underdog quality. You get to see a fantastic story where the good guy wins.”
Even “Avengers” director Joss Whedon says he continues to be intrigued by superheroes, telling Forbes magazine, “I still want to see the ones that make me feel galvanized and excited and really moved, and that make me feel really invested in the people I’m watching.”
As the status of the genre has grown, bigger names both in front of and behind the camera, like Robert Downey Jr. and Kenneth Branagh, have given superhero films even more of a substantive feel.
“You are starting to get mainstream people to star in and work on these films,” Morrow says. “The storylines are becoming so popular they are attracting top-notch talent. The characters have gotten more charismatic, and people love the characters.”
Unlike many of the violent action films of the past, today’s superhero movies are generally rated PG-13, giving younger viewers a chance to see the adventures of these larger-than-life characters on the big screen.
“These movies are now hitting two or three generations of ticket purchasers,” Morrow says. “My husband grew up reading these comics, and now our daughter is obsessed with superheroes. When you see a film like ‘Spider-Man,’ you have adults in their 30s and 40s, teenagers and little kids. And those fans remain very loyal.”
There have, however, been some missteps among superhero films. Audiences were indifferent to both “Hulk” and “The Incredible Hulk,” while “Catwoman,” “Daredevil” and “Green Lantern” drew critical brickbats.
Those critically slammed but money-making superhero movies proved to be outliers, though, so expect Hollywood to continue to mine comic books for good stories to tell.
“Superhero movies aren’t foolproof, but even if they flop, they still make some money,” Morrow says. “The studios won’t totally lose, so they will keep putting them out. And the already-made fan base will be there.”