The superhero movie genre is now the dominant genre in the entertainment industry. From a 1% market share in 1998, the superhero movie genre grew to a 20% market share in 2018. Marvel Studios – now owned by Disney – is the undisputed leader in the genre earning over $22 billion at the global box office in about 12 years, since the release of Iron Man in 2008.
Even Warner Bros. Studios – which controls the rights to the DC Comics superheroes – has managed billion dollar earnings with recent movies like Joker and Aquaman, despite its relative failure to establish an interconnected shared universe like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This failure stemmed from the 2017 Justice League fiasco where chronic management negligence on the part of Warner Bros. crushed any hope for a commercially successful DC Extended Universe.
The recent mainstream acceptance of Zack Snyder’s Justice League blockbuster streaming event on HBO Max has once more divided opinion amongst fans and followers of the superhero movie genre as to what constitutes a ‘good’ superhero movie. This has caused the #ReleasetheSnyderCut online campaign (which resulted in the movie’s release) to evolve into a #RestoretheSnyderVerse movement, which Warner Bros. are actively resisting.
While there has always been an element of Marvel vs DC that has been carried over from comic book fans to movie fans, there is now also the added factor of pro-SnyderVerse and anti-SnyderVerse. Our observation of this phenomenon over the years has resulted in a conclusion that this division derives from different understandings of the superhero movie genre completely. These understandings are so deeply rooted that they affect objective judgments altogether to such an extent as to become flawed reasoning, mostly confirmation bias and bandwagon fallacies.
However, before we dive into the analysis of the superhero movie genre proper, we first need to at least have some general understanding of the superhero genre itself, as established in the comic books. Comic books, basically began life as a collection of newspaper comic strips in the 1930s, and cover a wide range of genres.
The first superhero was Superman, who first appeared in Action Comics in 1939. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the character would capture the imagination of the American public of the 1940s and launched the superhero genre, spawning a host of imitations and variations on the theme, most notably including Batman (also DC), Captain America (Timely Comics/now Marvel) and Captain Marvel (now Shazam).
A couple of tropes were established during this heady days when superhero comics sold in the millions – aka The Golden Age. For instance, superheroes had special abilities – usually obtained by mystical or fantastical means, secret identities, hidden lairs, fancy costumes, were always the ‘good guys’ and always won. The superhero was basically a power fantasy role model for pre-pubescent boys. Unfortunately, considering the time they first appeared, superheroes were also mostly male and white and during the war years fought against stereotypical (racist) expressions of the enemy.
The Golden Age effectively ended when WWII ended. The popularity of superheroes waned and did not re-emerge till the mid 1950s when DC Comics ignited a superhero revival, commonly dubbed The Silver Age. This process mainly involved an updating of Golden Age characters to accord more with science fiction story conventions.
Thus, characters like the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman were revamped, and scifi-based characters like the Martian Manhunter were introduced. These five characters would join the mainstays of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to form the Justice League of America in 1960. Even though the superheroes were modernised somewhat, the characterisations had not improved much from the Golden Age, and superheroes were simply super-powered do-gooders who were flat and one-dimensional. Superhero comics of the time were not written for adults, pure and simple but for children.
Ironically, the success of the Justice League of America would inspire the next superhero movement that would ultimately render DC Comics obsolete. This game-changer was Fantastic Four #1. Co-created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the comic book would borrow from the DC silver age scifi reinvention and add one more critical element – a 2nd dimension of characterisation. These superheroes were no longer generic do-gooders and there was a darker aspect to their personalities.
Together with other key creators like Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Wally Wood, Larry Lieber et al, Kirby and Lee introduced a slew of new characters and concepts which would ultimately form the Marvel Universe. Thus, the now-familiar household names of X-Men, Avengers, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Daredevil, Dr Strange, Spider-Man etc would all see light of day during these exciting times. The difference with Marvel Comics now was that the stories were targeting (and reaching) an older audience, college students and this minor tweak in the characterisations made a deep impact that is still felt to this day.
However, by the 1980s, after twenty years, it was time to reinvent the superhero again. Enter : Alan Moore, an English writer who deconstructed the superhero concepts and tropes with characters like Marvelman and Watchmen. Moore asked a simple question – what if superheroes were real? His answer was visceral. If Superman was real, would he not effectively be a god among men? What would be the real world implications of that? If Batman was real, what would the personality of a person fighting criminals be really like? Would he not be mentally disturbed?
Alan Moore – and to a lesser extent Frank Miller – examined these ideas in his superhero comics of the 1980s, which once more changed the way everybody looked at comics. Unfortunately, many inferior creators jumped on this ‘deconstruction’ bandwagon and turned superheroes into grim, gritty, mentally disturbed characters, notably at Image Comics in the 1990s. All of which in turn reduced superheroes to a stereotype once again and robbed the genre of its creativity.
Apologies that our explanation of superhero tropes took much longer than expected but we needed to set out the three basic understanding of superheroes in order to appreciate how superhero comics have been adapted into film over the years.
Just to recap, we have what we will called the DC trope where superheroes are basically one-dimensional do-gooders. Then we have the Marvel trope, where superheroes are slightly more multi-dimensional and might have real world problems, for example. Then finally, we have the Deconstruction trope of Moore and Miller where the first two tropes are taken apart to highlight their flaws and contradictions and to present them in a more ‘realistic’ fashion.
For the most part – before 2000 – superhero movie adaptations were mainly focused on two characters viz. Superman and Batman. These adaptations basically adopted the DC trope. In the 1960s, the Batman TV series doubled down on the DC trope and satirised the superhero by making the heroes buffoons. This TV series would do massive cultural damage to superheroes in general, and it was impossible for anyone to take superheroes seriously for decades.
In 1978, the Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve became a landmark pop cultural event. The success of the movie hinged on Reeve’s uncanny casting as well as the improved special effects of the day. The stories and characterisation however were basically influenced by the DC trope but to be fair, Mario (The Godfather) Puzo’s script did a good job with thematically equating Superman with Jesus Christ, and foreshadowing Moore’s deconstruction trope of the 1980s, if superficially. But of course, most of this was not apparent to most movie goers but understood by deep thinking geeks.
A decade later, Tim Burton’s Batman movie once more revitalised superheroes in the public eye and while Burton certainly was influenced by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, most of the story and characterisations were still deeply rooted in the DC trope. Like Superman, a slew of sequels would follow the initial success but the quality of each succeeding movie would fall exponentially. Before the new millennium, it did appear that the superhero movie was once again dead.
For about four decades, no movie adaptations of Marvel Comics characters were successful. But this all changed in 2000 with the X-Men movie. Produced by Fox, this well-received movie would herald the ascendancy of the superhero movie genre. Between Fox’s X-Men and Sony’s Spider-Man franchise, the Marvel trope was now thriving and would be given its full expression when Marvel Comics themselves set up Marvel Studios to unleash the Marvel Cinematic Universe on an unsuspecting world. The rest, as they say, is history.
Warner Bros. had in the midst of all this Marvel-branded superhero revival, gambled on Christopher Nolan’s reliance on the Deconstruction trope on a new Batman trilogy. The consequent critical and commercial success of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy prompted Warner Bros. to hire Zack Snyder to launch the DC Extended Universe.
Unfortunately for Warner Bros. both critics and the casual movie goer had by then been indoctrinated by the Marvel trope into believing that that was the only way the superhero movie genre could be presented and were upset with Snyder’s approximation of the Deconstruction trope – especially with the much maligned Batman V Superman : Dawn of Justice.
Warner Bros. panicked and threw Snyder under the bus, bringing in Geoff Johns and Joss Whedon to collectively transform Justice League into a bad hybrid of the DC and Marvel tropes, resulting in disaster. AT&T’s subsequent acquisition of Time Warner, the Warner Bros. parent company, has made things even messier with the corporate overloads approving Zack Snyder’s Justice League which at 4-hours is a magnificent cinematic treatise on the Deconstruction trope.
But of course, fans of the DC trope, you know the folks who love the CW TV series and enjoyed Aquaman, Shazam, Bird of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 (!) absolutely hate Zack Snyder and his adherence to the Deconstruction trope. Marvel zombies will of course hate all things DC and tied themselves slavishly to the Marvel trope – making superficial sense of superheroes in the MCU, while loading up on too much unnecessary humour.
There you go, where do you stand, dear reader? Perhaps it’s time to breakdown exactly why you feel a certain way about the superhero movie genre and maybe expand your preferences somewhat. You would certainly get to enjoy the superhero movie genre, a great deal more!
… still there’s more …