The superhero movie genre originated in comic books at the tail end of the 1930s and flourished during one of mankind’s darkest epochs viz. World War II. Since the conclusion of that war, superhero comics have been struggling for acceptance as an art form in its own right.
Often perceived as juvenile literature, superhero comics only entered the realm of mature adult recognition in the 1980s with creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller pioneering the ‘graphic novel’ format that finally earned superhero comics mainstream acceptance and critical acclaim.
Two decades later, this critical and commercial acclaim was translated into box-office success with blockbuster franchises like the X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman and of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) dominating the movie industry. But after a decade of unparalleled growth and earnings, there appears to be an increasing backlash against the superhero movie genre from the likes of famed directors like Martin Scorcese, Jane Campion and Ridley Scott.
Even Alan Moore – the writer most responsible for dragging the superhero genre kicking and screaming into literary excellence – has claimed that the genre itself is ‘infantilised’ and laments its immense popularity. Are these critics right? Is the superhero genre a regressive concept – meant only for pre-pubescent consumption and not suitable for right-minded, mature-thinking adults?
Frankly, Moore’s comments are too generalised to be taken seriously – surely he is not dismissing an entire genre regardless of content? That is incredibly sloppy and lazy of someone like Moore, who has time and again proved that the superhero genre is worthy of serious literary consideration. Ironically, Moore’s greatest achievements in comic books were only possible through a deconstructive approach evident in such masterworks as Watchmen, Miracleman and Swamp Thing.
Ironic because when the deconstructive approach has been approached in superhero movies, these have proven to be the most divisive amongst both movie critics and fans. Look at the mixed reception afforded to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Justice League movies and also to Chloe Zhao’s Eternals.
These movies tended to treat the superhero movies with great seriousness and by and large suffered the wrath of critics who prefer the jokey, winking self-parodying attitude of most of the MCU movies, as epitomised by Robert J Downey’s portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man.
But surely, there is space for different iterations of the superhero movie genre and to demand only one stylistic choice is narrow-minded and anti-art as well! By now, Marvel Studios and DC Films must be aware that this slapstick, slapdash approach to superhero movies comes with diminishing returns. In respect of Marvel taking a huge risk with Eternals, this demonstrates Kevin Feige’s recognition of the need of the MCU to expand beyond its own stylistic limitations.
Much has been predicted about the demise of the superhero movie – pointing to the poor box office of the MCU Phase 4 thus far and the schizophrenic presentation undertaken by DC Films but surely it is still too soon to announce the death knell. Perhaps the MCU needs to relent a tad on the number of movies (and streaming TV series) that it releases and DC Films needs to find some consistent thread in its messy slate of properties.
Is the superhero movie boom over? Unlikely, let’s wait and see what happens in the next couple of years before forming any judgements.
… still there’s more …