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Superhero Movies: It Feels Like We Only Go Backwards

The new Superman movie came out this weekend. Man of Steel, it’s called, the seventh full-length Superman movie to grace the silver screen. I haven’t seen it, probably never will, but I did happen across the trailer a few weeks ago. As is the case with most superhero movies, the trailer has a definite air of seriousness. Of creased-brow melodrama and devout patriotism. It also has a lot of YouTube views – over 35 million at the time of writing. After some heated whispering, wide-angle shots of the universe, and the father-son destiny talk, Superman launches himself into the stratosphere faster than you can ask yourself why his cape is maroon. It’s a true underdog story, a story of rugged CGI individualism that YouTube commenters have taken note of. Says the top comment, “lol. U mad? Sorry it takes the Avengers to stop an alien invasion, but Superman is able to do it alone.”

Rock superman

Since the 1970s, over a hundred feature-length superhero movies have been produced. We Americans, it seems, just can’t get enough of the genre. Each summer spawns another crop of blockbusters, their budgets growing higher and higher. Some of the more ill plotted superhero movies seem no more than a vehicle for special effects. Few, however, have been complete flops. Last year’s The Avengers grossed over 1.5 billion dollars at the box office, and I expect that Man of Steel will have quite a run of its own.

But how is it that superheroes have remained such a big part of American culture? (For this truly is an American phenomenon.) Cultural theorists have come up with arguments that bring together nearly a century of socio-historical criticism. Back when comic books were so widely distributed and highly politicized, these arguments certainly make sense. But now, now in this blessed era of high tech cheapie capitalism, I think some of the intellectual pretenses can be done away with. Yes, Superman kind of represents the acceptance of outsiders because he comes from another planet. And we’re all two-faced, so we can totally relate to his Clark Kent dual-identity crisis. But maybe people just really like special effects and violence. Maybe superhero movies are popular for the same reasons professional sports are so popular. We have a side to root for. There’s action! Suspense! Loads of branding opportunities!

From a studio perspective, there’s a degree of reliability in the decision to produce a superhero movie. In times of economic uncertainty, superhero movies are a surefire way to ensure box office turnout. Likewise with remakes and sequels. Original content – that’s what’s risky. Just look at the list of the 10 highest grossing films of 2012:

1. The Avengers

2. Skyfall

3. The Dark Knight Rises

4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

5. Ice Age: Continental Drift

6. Twilight Breaking Dawn – Part 2

7. The Amazing Spider-Man

8. Madagascar 3

9. The Hunger Games

10. Men in Black 3

Superheroes, sequels, and adaptations. It’s morbid, is it not? Hate to get all 1984 on you, but it seems like Orwell’s description of the prole-tailored pop music – mindless, formulaic, robotically produced for mass appeal – has certainly reared its ugly head. Of course there are books worth adapting and certain movies worth revisiting. But it’s pretty hard to justify the production of a seventh Superman. While loads of High Quality films are being made each year, these are usually not the ones marketed to the masses – is it the studios who have low expectations for their audience? Or is it the audience who has low expectations for their movie options? Either way, it causes me to wonder how much longer mass media’s force-fed superhero sagas will continue to generate such enthusiasm.

Last summer I worked at an amusement park that held a superhero meet-and-greet for a week in late July. Although the characters were no more convincing than Tobias Funke as The Thing, families waited upwards of three hours for their sunburnt toddlers to be photographed with Spider-Man or Captain America. Because most of the children were wearing superhero costumes of their own, I couldn’t help but wondering why a selfie would not suffice. Regardless, they waited. I also noticed that a lot of the adults were wearing superhero t-shirts. I found this creepy, but whatever. What really bothered me was how few girls were lined up to meet the superheroes – and how few female superheroes there are in the first place.

I mean, if superhero movies are going to continue to be the It genre of American cinema, can we please get a Wonder Woman movie thrown in there every once in a while? (In my mind it would be a campy portrayal with an aesthetic nod to the character’s midcentury roots.) Yes, the original comics were conceptualized during all the 1940’s gender role doom and gloom. But it’s not like we haven’t taken anachronistic liberty with the rest of our superhero movies. For a female superhero to be on the big screen, it seems she must be either hypersexualized (see: Catwoman) or playing a subordinate role in one of ensemble-type movies (The Avengers, The Fantastic Four).

Superheroes are cool and all, but hopefully we can expect some more progressive representations (race, gender) in the years to come. Hopefully we can expect some summer blockbusters that – despite their entertainment value – do not rely on plots and characters conceptualized over fifty years ago.

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