The State Of The Superhero Genre

iron_man___tony_stark_by_maxkennedyIt is interesting to consider the recent comments of acclaimed actor and entertainer, Dustin Hoffman, who suggested that the increase in superhero films , has caused the film industry to be the “worst that film has ever been”.

Are we really experiencing a low point of the cinematic age? Are films. these days, actually lacking quality or excellent stories? I began to consider the ever popular Superhero genre and the constant comments made about its over-saturation of the market. To what extent is the superhero genre indicative of the overall film industry of 2015? In answering this question, I have identified three films that I believe highlight the state of the film industry today, and give us a clear representation of the ever changing landscape of cinema.

The superhero genre has not only become the most financially successful genre of the last fifteen years, it is also one of the most influential, creating a cinematic era where films that are normaly branded as stereotypical, unintelligent or purely adaptions of comic books have became critical darlings. The thematic and narrative value presented within superhero films have become significant in changing the way critics have viewed ‘genre’ films. While there are examples of studios and franchises taking advantage of this surge in popularity, the following examples demonstrate that the superhero genre is not only a label for a bunch of films about people wearing costumes, but also representative of the current generation of film. It represents an evolution of cinema, rather than a failure or low point in the industry.

Example One: The Avengers (2012) directed by Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo.

No other superhero film has ever had the impact that the original Avengers film had in 2012. Not only did break nearly every box office record in its sight, but in many cases it rewrote the history books on the idea of the franchise. What does it mean to say that the film industry is lacking? To me it suggests that films are either not being received as well as they used to be, are being made only to create a cash flow, or that audiences are simply not interested in the films being presented. It would be near impossible to categorise The Avengers under any of those labels. Not only was The Avengers incredibly well received by critics and audiences alike, but it represented a ground-breaking step in the ability of franchises to interweave stories, giving characters larger, more expansive roles. Films were no longer contained to a 90-120 minute running length, but instead become more episodic, enabling characters and stories to play vital roles in other films. This should not be viewed as a bad thing. The Avengers highlights that a story can still be told in a singular way, while also allowing for participation in the wider ‘cinematic universe’ to enhance the viewer’s immersion in the narrative. In this sense, The Avengers can be compared to films like Stars Wars for its revolutionary, profound impact on the way cinema is created. It has molded a world that is accessible to viewers not just through one one viewing experience, but through many. Isn’t that the role of a film, or the film industry; to provide and entertain the masses? The superhero genre ultimately allows for an increase in box office numbers, but also gives directors, producers, and other creators larger, more expansive mediums to work with, which as a result means simply, a better film.

Example Two: Birdman (2014) directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.

While some may not classify Birdman as a film of the superhero genre, Birdman is ultimately a film that deals with the idea of a superhero as it relates to the reality of life perspectives and identity. Although this aspect of the movie was portrayed in a limited manner in the actual film, it was promoted heavily in trailers, giving the impression that the film belonged to the superhero genre. The idea that Birdman can be interpreted in multiple ways, and the commercial viability that that implies, is indicative of the power of the genre.

Indeed, Birdman provides a meta commentary on the rise of fictional superhero properties in popular culture, and the implications this has for the entertainment industry. While the film in itself can be argued to be in opposition to the superhero genre, but what cannot be denied is this idea of blurred lines. The fact that Birdman, a film that contains elements of the superhero genre won the Academy Award for Best Picture, is representative of the changing perception of such movies. It is also significant to note that the film contains a dramatic representation of themes such as state of humanity, and signifiers such as men and women with extraordinary powers fighting villains. Indeed, Birdman could represent an expansion of the superhero genre from mere presentation of visual effects and action sequences to something more regularly associated with weighty ideals. How can the film industry be in an age of doubt when the superhero genre can incorporate and present more than preconceived stereotypical elements?

Cinema is not two-dimensional. Rather, it is in an era of change where a film does not need to be constrained to a single genre. Instead audiences are becoming adjusted to seeing movies that embody multiple meanings, contain different contexts, and ever-evolving relationships. Birdman is indicative of this change. It is something that is incredible and ground-breaking for cinema in general. Audiences are being presented films that present more than one type of film-going experience, combined with distinctive, intellectual thematic concerns. Superhero films are no longer just appealing to drama fans and superhero nerds; they are appealing to general mass audiences as well.

Example Three: Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) directed by Zack Snyder, starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, and Jessie Eisenberg.

It is my belief that in order for a genre, such as the superhero genre, to be successful there must be some form of competitive nature. The genre needs to be larger than just one studio, one franchise, or one collective form of entertainment. It is for these reasons that I include the yet-to-be-released, Batman vs Superman (BvS), on this list. Batman vs Superman, demonstrates how commercially successful ideas are often replicated by other studios. Again, it is easy to see how this could fall under the category of filmmaking “just for money”, where studios realise the presence of a cash mine and replicate formulas in order to capitalise on it. While I cannot yet speak to the value or quality of Batman vs Superman, its pure existence highlights some interesting points to consider when analysing the superhero genre and what it means for the larger film industry.

In order for films to be successful, there must be a constant reimagining of ideas, otherwise content simply becomes repetitive and stale. If this were to happen then the film industry runs the risk of creating films that are lacking. There are instances where this is the case, particularly where some superhero films are incredibly similar to others. But the competitive nature of film making within the context of the superhero genre also raises the bar, creating an informed audience that have become more aware of the quality of films. Not only does Batman vs Superman represent this in regard to Marvel, challenging the studios dominance of the genre, but it also highlights how the film industry is able to cater to the needs of many in a way it never could before. Not only can films create universes to expand on stories, but through the competitive nature of the industry, more and more fans get to see the worlds they want to see be visualised. In this way, the superhero genre creates a relationship with its viewers, being able to appeal to many demographics. Ultimately, the film industry is in an era of change, where films are constantly evolving and increasing in quality. Most importantly, they are appealing to ever wider demographics entertaining more people, and telling authentic stories in inventive and captivating ways.


The featured image accompanying this piece, entitled ‘Iron Man Tony Stark’, has been used with the permission of artist, Max Kennedy.

5 thoughts on “The State Of The Superhero Genre

    Poopoo McGee says:

    Hi there Jamie,

    Just atrocious in my opinion. Disengaging, wrong, absysmal, insignificant; a pathetic waste of general existence. It’s the written equivalent of “The Phantom Menace.” Not worth the disk its saved on.

    Anyway so yea. Have a greatish day friendo.
    Love you hun xx
    – Everyone.

    C. Warren says:

    An interesting perspective of the superhero genre that I am sure will make many rethink their preconceptions. An enjoyable and engaging read.

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