Superhero movies are all the rage in the entertainment industry these days. From blockbusters like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy to lesser-known films such as Ant-Man, superheroes have stormed in and taken over Hollywood.
Ten years ago, such stories were scattered trees. Now, thanks in large part to the success of the Marvel film franchise, the scattered trees have become a forest. A thriving forest that seems unlikely to die anytime soon.
Marvel’s Phase 3 is set to kick off in smashing style with the release of Captain America: Civil War in May, followed by ten additional movies over the next four years. Meanwhile, DC, desperately trying to keep pace, has some major offerings of its own, led by Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman. Several TV shows have also jumped aboard the superhero bandwagon.
The trend is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Which begs the question: why are superhero stories so popular? What makes them capture our attention and draw crowds of fans to the theaters like dwarves flocking to a barbecue party?
I see five main forces driving this trend.
Let’s admit it. Being able to cling to walls and ceilings like Spiderman, zip around in a self-designed suit like Tony Stark, or summon lightning like Thor would be AWESOME!
Defeating an army of Chitauri. Saving your city from destruction. Thwarting the efforts of an obsessed pseudo-Nazi. Swinging like a modern-day Tarzan through the skyscrapers of New York City. How cool would that be?
Superhero stories are filled to the brim with amazing exploits that while unrealistic at times, still echo with the sound of what it means to be human. There are plenty of things in life we wish we could have, or do, but we know it won’t happen. Tales featuring extraordinary characters doing amazing things allow us a way to fill that gap.
2. Vicarious living
In a sense, books and movies are escapist because they allow us freedom to let our imaginations soar, unshackled by the realities of life and science. We form a connection with the characters, and it’s as if we slip into their skin and make their experiences our own.
Through the magic of storytelling, we grieve in their pain, sense their dread, rejoice in their triumphs, revel in their escapades. We relate to their ups and downs on a basic level. We see fragments of our lives played out in their experiences.
To paraphrase George R.R. Martin, “Viewers live a thousand lives.”
3. Adventure and adrenaline
Today’s culture demands bigger and better. More destruction, more action, more pulse-pounding moments. While it can quickly become overkill, superhero movies, with their plethora of godlike characters, massive battles, advanced technology, and are primed to fill this demand.
For the most part, they seem bent on outdoing the last movie. People keep watching for the epicness. The movies keep delivering. Everybody’s happy.
4. Cross-generational appeal
Unlike certain genres, superhero stories appeal to a wide audience. Many adults undoubtedly remember reading comic books as kids, and now they get to experience those stories in the sensory-stimulating environment of the theater. The characters are three-dimensional, animated from their static existence on the page of a comic book.
Of course, kids of all ages adore superheroes. They’re the good guys who fight the villain, do incredible things, save the day. What’s not to love from a child’s view of the world?
5. The ordinary in the extraordinary
With the exception of some key characters, most superheroes are (or were) average Joes and Jills. Nothing special or intrinsically amazing about them. No inherent powers or abilities. Consider Steve Rogers. A skinny kid from Brooklyn who looks vulnerable to a strong gust of wind. He undergoes quite the change, and now as Captain America is anything but ordinary.
This ties back to wish-fulfillment and vicarious living. Realistically, none of us will undergo such a startling transformation. Yet because of our connection with the fictional Steve Rogers, we get a small taste of what it would be like to go from ordinary to extraordinary. That feeling intersects with the ability to have our fantasies brought to life, and voila. We have a character we relate to, whose story we want to follow.
Another aspect at work here is the powers, the plots, the people all taking place in our universe. In familiar places. The new, different side of reality brings up the question “what if this actually happened, and furthermore, what if it impacted our world?” The answer brings an intersection of science and fiction, reality and imagination that makes the stories vibrate with life.
Why do you think superhero movies have gained such popularity?