I grew up with super-heroes. I had Batman pajamas, I played with my Spider-man action figure constantly, and I mourned the day I had to throw out my Superman shorts. It was inevitable that I’d end up reading comic books, but only my parents could have predicted that they’d be all I’d read for the next four years. My reading rate slowed in high school, but that’s only because my focus shifted to film. To take a cue from Tezuka, if cinema is my wife than comic books are my mistress. When the Marvel movies started to come out, I was the first amongst my friends (or possibly anyone) to tout that they’d be the biggest thing ever. I waited four long years for The Avengers to come out and after it did… well that’s a story for later. Regardless, in the past couple years I’ve found my enthusiasm for the big screen versions of my favorite characters waning.
My interest in these films has continued to an academic one (see my previous essay) and I’m not alone. In fact I’d say the attention paid and weight given to these films academically is… far greater than the evidence given. That being said, super-hero films are, in many ways, quite fascinating.
It’s been claimed that super-hero films are a genre and, while I wouldn’t go that far, they certainly qualify as at least a sub-genre. Yes, they have their own sets of tropes, character archetypes, and story arcs, but the stories themselves aren’t nearly as iconic and flexible like horror, mystery, or romance. Their origins are muddy and complex, much like another famous genre: the western. While the western is more reliant on location, it still has a set of themes, stories, and characters that it frequently deals with. That being said, you can still categorize most western stories in genres like adventure, drama, or romance. Similarly, most super-hero films obviously fit into sci-fi or fantasy, but also adventure, drama, comedy, or romance. Despite all this, to call super-hero films a “genre” feels a little off for me. Why is that?
Like a lot of other genres, super-hero films are adaptations more often than not. However, unlike the aforementioned Western, super-hero films are by definition adaptations. Super-hero films are specifically and intentionally based off the comics from which the genre itself arose. It’s been noted that genres go through cycles, and if you look at even something as small as horror, which constantly goes through cycles of adapting formulas and then rejecting them, you can see this. However, super-hero films constantly buck these rules, with films that would be considered post-modern takes on older stories coming out before more classical films. This is because in its original medium, comic books, “super-hero” is an actual genre, not sub-genre, that has already gone through its cycles. Batman’s gone from goofy (50s and 60s), to slightly darker (70s and 80s), to incredibly dark (Late 80s and 90s), to lighter but more complex (Late 90s and 00s), to darker and simpler (10s). If you looked at the movies you’d see that Batman started campy (‘66), swung far darker (‘89 & ‘Returns’), got progressively lighter (‘Forever’ & ‘and Robin’), then straight back to a far more realistic cynicism (Nolan trilogy). With far less creative entries, this progression makes proportionally less sense. The cycles are there somewhat, but they’re more financially than creatively driven.
It’s hard to call the super-hero genre evolving when the stories that are considered deconstructive caps on the genre, like Watchmen and Kick-Ass, come out before genre keystones like The Avengers. Without an ample material to derive examples from, a long enough time span (the actual beginning of the sub-genre in earnest is sometime between 25-15 years ago), or clearly present cycles, it’s hard for me to classify super-hero films as anything but a sub-genre. Perhaps if they survive the upcoming bubble burst, but if not they will remain a soon forgotten trend like 70s disaster movies. Without the typical story-based cycles present to steer the future of super-hero films, we really have no clue as to what its future is at all. Perhaps by looking through the history of this awkward and fledgling sub-genre we can find some patterns that will give us a vision of the future.
That being said, this is the very long introduction to one such retrospective. Over the course of god knows how long, I’ll be watching every notable theatrically released super-hero film, from 1978 to the present. In total I’ll be covering about 70 films, the names of won’t be revealed until the review itself comes out. We’ll see if I can make it. Each film will get an approximately 800 word review that’s formally written, but if the film strikes me a certain way it’ll will warrant an additional longer, and more personal, essay. I’ve seen most of these films before, but not for a long time, so this will be as much a trip through film as it is through my childhood. I hope you’ll join me on what will hopefully be an interesting journey.