In the last two decades, superheroes have taken over not only American theaters but screens across the world.
Collectively grossing over $13 billion at the global box office, Marvel Cinematic Universe is the highest grossing film franchise of all time. Starting in 2007, they have produced 17 superhero films, including The Avengers ($1.5 billion) and Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 billion), two of the highest grossing films ever.
Marvel’s superheroes are not the only favorites. Among the top 20 highest grossing series are X-Men, Batman, Spiderman, the DC Extended Universe, and Avengers (standing alone). The Superman, Iron Man and Captain America series are not far behind.
Dr. Todd Petersen, director of Project Based Learning at Southern Utah University and expert on the superhero genre, has a few arguments for the popularity and significance of superheroes.
"Superhero films are currently popular for a number of reasons. The CGI technology has allowed filmmakers relatively inexpensive ways to bring the spectacle of comic books to the big screen.”
Historically it was difficult and expensive to make this genre of movies satisfying to moviegoers. The audiences of dedicated comic book fans didn’t guarantee the kind of box office revenues that large-scale special effects-heavy films would require.
“There is a history of cheap serialization and campy adaptations, leading up to Richard Donner’s Superman film in 1978. This was the first attempt to treat a superhero film seriously. It wasn’t until the late 80s when anyone would try it again with Tim Burton’s Batman film. Each time, however, superhero films failed to stick, devolving into ridiculous parodies of themselves."
According to Dr. Petersen, Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (2002), and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) were the major pictures that moved us forward into the abundance of films today.
"It’s easy enough to think of this popularity as the result of marketing, but I think it’s more than that. In the past, superhero films created an interest but that interest faded quickly. By the late 2000s, filmmakers figured out how to create these films as part of a large-scale serialization. These aren’t individual films anymore, they are part of massive systems of stories that connect into entire cinematic universes.”
In the next two years alone, installments in the Avengers, Ant-Man, Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy series are being produced. As well as the additions of Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Aquaman.
“Each time a film is released, especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it participates in a mega-narrative,” explains Dr. Petersen. “Even though these narrative systems are most easily seen in the superhero genre because of the scale, it’s part of the whole studio business model.”
Franchises like Star Wars, The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Fast and Furious, and Jurassic Park are all structured this way.
“Each film is an incomplete installment, which creates narrative tension. People keep seeing these movies because the story is unfinished. If you take a look at the Marvel Movies, the credit sequences kindle interest not just in the sequel, but they ignite an interest in another different, new line of films, all tied together."
Beyond the technology and underlying strategies, Dr. Petersen thinks there is something deeper driving audience reception.
"We live in a world that comes across as unstable and deeply troubled. Catastrophe lurks around every corner. Systems we’ve come to believe in are falling apart. Both major superhero text systems on screen at the moment are essentially the same story: an external threat is on its way, a few unique and special individuals are gathered to fight it, they are able to intervene, but it comes at a great cost. In the end, the story’s job is to calm our fears and give us hope that no matter how bleak things are, someone is out there fighting for us. They are imperfect like we are, but together they are strong enough to overcome. This is a story people want to believe in, especially because they see so much division and discord in the world."
Dr. Petersen’s research focuses on screen aesthetics, visual narratives, heist and superhero films, as well as film adaptation.