You don’t need a superpower to know that superheroes are very hot right now in cinematic media. Ireland has Cuchulain, Japan fears Godzilla, and the U.S. hails the iconic Batman and Superman. It’s fascinating to me how popular superhero fiction is, despite it being representative of a time period decades before our own. Just what is the psychological appeal of the superhero genre that results in them dominating the box office year after year? You can argue many other franchises are not so fortunate. As these films and shows seem to contain generic premises that don’t quite correlate to the changing dynamic of everyday life, you would think that ones with more diverse plots would perform better. However, there are a variety of reasons as to why they outshine almost every other popular franchise. Here are five main ones.
- It’s a Cultural Event
Humans are very social creatures, and whether you want to admit it or not, you need people to function in life. Social interaction is thought to be even more important than exercise. Almost everything we do has some kind of underlying social motivation. Multiplayer games like Call of Duty or Dragon Ball FighterZ are popular because they fulfill this subconscious social need, and it’s no different with movies.
The Marvel franchise in particular is known for its extensive world-building, not only in the comics but in the films as well. What happens in Guardians of the Galaxy has ramifications in Thor. This idea to connect all these films together was revolutionary, and it resulted in much fuel for conversation and speculation. Before and after a big film, fans rush to social media sites and forums to discuss what will be the fate of the heroes in the next film and that enigmatic cliffhanger. When choosing what to watch on Netflix, I am usually more inclined to watch something that I can talk to my friends about. Since superheroes are such pop cultural icons, a release of a film becomes a big, and almost ceremonious, event. With larger-than-life characters being celebrated at such a level in popular culture, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that there is almost a religious component to these films. Just think about all those Black Panther t-shirts you keep seeing everyone wear.
- They’re a “Compromise”
Some deride many filmmakers as “lazy” for basing their films off of 70 years worth of comics. These critics might have more of a preference for unconventional directors like David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick. But the thing is, these superhero films are the result of a calculated economic solution that measures what will sell all over the world. The superhero movie is a global compromise; it has something to offer everyone, while not being completely for anyone. When you are investing millions upon millions of dollars into a film, you need to have some assurance that the product will, in an economic sense, be worth your time and effort. And the market doesn’t lie, just look at how much Infinity War made. There is less of a risk involved than with other popular franchises, so you can’t really blame Hollywood for sticking to the superhero trend. They have something for everyone in their films: humor, Sci-Fi, fantasy, thriller, drama and more.
3. Right Amount of Old and New
Not only are the superhero films a mixture of multiple genres and comics, they are also a mixture of both conventional and unconventional storytelling. A major reason why superhero film and television has been so successful as of late is that the directors making these films aren’t straying too far from the source material. Bane from the celebrated The Dark Knight Rises was much more like his comic counterpart than the one from the notorious Batman & Robin. Many of these filmmakers being fans themselves, they know what fans want. While surface-level components of the story may change, the fundamental and essential aspects of the comic story lines stick around.
While people like knowing what they are getting, they also appreciate films that have the right amount of innovation and convention mixed together. Films that contain such a dash of the weird and subversive, such as Blade and Deadpool, merge well with the comics we have known and loved for over 70 years. They take what made the comics great and add some sugar and spice. Certain characters who were of primary importance in the comics may be not as important in the films. Bits and pieces of different comics, mainly the Ultimates, are ordered differently, twisted are incorporated, and given new characters as well. Marvel is constantly growing and taking risks, even though the adaptation of superhero comics may not seem like such a risk.
- The “Nostalgia Drug”
While there is no denying that there are many of these superhero films, especially from Marvel, are quality films in their own right, there is another factor at play that is responsible for their popularity. Many would argue that what happens to you during childhood sets the stage for the rest of your life. People who grow up with superhero characters are going to have a softer spot for them as they get older. Right now there is a major nostalgia renaissance going on, with the resurgence of series such as Star Wars, Pokemon and Power Rangers in popularity.
A lot of adults tend to dwell on the good old days when they first experienced Spider-Man fighting Green Goblin in the movie theater. And no other franchise, except for maybe Star Wars, has as much credibility as the Marvel/DC characters do. You tend to create this romanticized notion of a time in life when everything was great and feel good thinking about it. Then, over time, you start chasing this nostalgic feeling like a drug. Even if you get sick of superhero films at one point, you may continue to watch them compulsively to relive every drop of yesteryear you can, or the feeling you got when the first Avengers came out.
- The Same Reason Action Movies are So Popular
When attempting to understand the appeal of superhero films, you have to first answer another question: Why do people like action movies so much? Superhero films are, at their core, action films. Just what keeps drawing people consistently to watch big budget films such as Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars over other films with compelling stories? While I personally like to think I prefer films with less action and more interesting characters/stories, I end up gravitating more to shows and films like Arrow and Star Wars than I do others. Since Hollywood’s inception, movies in the action genre have risen steadily each year in popularity. While other genres, such as horror and comedy, have certain peaks and falls, the rise for action films has remained consistent. A major reason for this is the advancement of technology; films in this genre are much cheaper to make, since special effects like explosions are easy to generate with computers.
Action and Sci-Fi films also translate better globally. People who watch these films will most likely get satisfied in some way, whereas genres like comedies and horror can be more hit or miss depending on the person. I also think there is that primal enjoyment we get through watching violent sports and playing video games that draw us to these type of films. We are by nature competitive and aggressive, so it is not surprising we would watch films like these.
Just because superhero films tend to do better financially, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily everyone’s favorite film or that they are objectively the greatest out there. But they are a staple of American culture as anime is to the Japanese. While they aren’t overly complicated in plot, the stories they tell are, nevertheless, intriguing. Watching the newest Marvel film becomes a consumer responsibility akin to voting or reading today’s paper. And with technology only getting better, it is unlikely their popularity will decrease anytime soon.