Superhero Films are Dying

At the end of my X-Men: First Class review, I made a bold statement. I stated that “[A]fter watching this, I’m convinced the superhero movie is in its death throes.” I’m not sure if my readers saw this as some form of sensationalism or simply glazed over it, but it served as both a conclusion I made after I saw the film and a tease for this piece. I think the superhero movie is dying.

My major reason is that the entire American movement (the superhero films being made are American production after all) that built around the superhero movie has reached a symbolic end. The war against terror sparked by the 9/11 attacks helped bolster the superhero movie by exploring fears of the American subconscious. That era symbolically ended with the death of Osama Bin Laden.

Yes, the war still rages and it will probably be a good few years before the war starts to wind down, but with the major target of the entire war being accomplished, this is a symbolic end to the war on terror. But what does the war of terror have to do with superhero films? These films, as much as they appear to simply be popcorn flicks, have helped capture and deal with some of the rising fears from this war.

The fears of militarization manifest themselves in the superhero Iron Man, Iron Man 2, X2: X-Men United and The Incredible Hulk. These films pit their hero against power hungry government figures who seek to push military power beyond acceptable bounds. In the growing unpopularity of a war, this expressed the fear Americans had of both the military overstepping its bounds as well as backhanded political deals perpetuating warfare.

In X2: X-Men United it was the fear of the government in general, the threat of the people in power turning against and oppressing certain individuals, not unlike the racial profiling that became a hot topic issue for many years. In Iron Man 2, it was a fear of the government being in bed with the private sector and the privatization of the military.

But the film that changed the superhero film forever was The Dark Knight. The film is a not so thinly veiled parallel to America’s war on terrorism. What is the Joker if not America’s greatest nightmare? He’s a terrorist who takes delight in striking fear into the heart of citizens, bombing a hospital and turning the crime bosses against each other.

And the way Batman ends up tracking down the Joker is surprisingly similar in logic and policy to a certain Patriot Act. Here, the freedom of people’s privacy is sacrificed in order to capture the villain, but it’s approached with some misgivings by one of the characters in the film. It’s an issue the film almost glazes over in the scheme of the entire movie, but an important one as the only way to defeat the Joker is also the only way to ensure his victory.

The Dark Knight is the superhero movie where the badguy wins, where he corrupts the good man, where he strikes enough fear into the heart of the hero to pit him against the people he is trying to save. It’s an uncanny and timely parallel to the real world issues that developed out of terrorism as the current president was faced with the lowest approval ratings of any president ever. The Dark Knight a great summation of what the superhero film subconsciously meant to the American psyche.

Therefore, The Dark Knight was the complete fulfillment of why the superhero film became vastly popular on a subconscious level. For many, it is the pinnacle of the genre. And since, superhero films have lived in the shadow of something there’s no way they can possibly fulfill. There’s still some meaningful subtest to glean from post-The Dark Knight superhero films, but none come close to reaching the pinnacle of cultural relevance that The Dark Knight achieved.

Since then, superhero films have suffered. While there are arguably some good features there it’s clear that the films have begun shifting drastically in tone. Spoof and satire became an approach, looking at ways to now poke holes into the conventions the genre developed in a very short span of time. Films like Iron Man that were supposed to be more straight-forward superhero films are heavily laced with humor and poking fun at the idea of the stoic, selfless superhero.

Kick-Ass is the big example that showed just how easy it was to deconstruct and satirize the genre. It takes little more than a sense of grounded realism to show how messed up and ridiculous the notion of superheroes is. And yet, at the same time, the film expresses why superheroes are something that remains popular among young males. Sadly, the film leaves its satirical first half in order to become an all-out exploitation flick in the second hour.

A much more compelling and insightful feature is the revisionist superhero film, Watchmen. It benefits from being an adaptation of the graphic novel by Alan Moore that sought to revise the notion of superheroes in the mid ‘80s. While the politics are of its time, the film works perfectly today as an anti-superhero film.

The superhero is no longer a determined, outstanding individual, but a psychotic, sexual impotent or freak of science. They’re psychologically troubled, misguided and occasionally brutal individuals are often not better than the enemy they face. While some cool action scenes and a slick visual style permeate the film, this is a film devoid of the idea of a heroic superhero.

After watching the disappointing X-Men: First Class, which took the relevant and timely series and made it outdated and culturally stagnant, in huge part because of the cold war setting, I concluded that superhero films are dying. What once spoke deeply to us is now no longer immediate and relevant as it once was. Yes, a lot of these films still have universal truths, but the immediacy of those truths is no longer impactful, and neither is the genre as a form of entertainment.

It’s been oversaturated and many viewers are expressing fatigue at the output of more and more superhero films over what are being perceived as lesser and lesser characters. More of these features are on the horizon, and while some of them are likely to be good, it’s just they won’t be the cultural milestones or moments of zeitgeist that the superhero film once held.

I think we have to look no further than the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger movie to see that the latest output of superhero films are misguided and out of touch with modern audiences. Centering on a character that promotes the kind of flag-waving patriotism and American identification that many Americans have tried to distance themselves from in the last decade shows how outdated these films are before they’re even released.

Therefore, I think the superhero film is dying. It’ will likely be a slow, painful death, with probably a good five to ten years before the industry moves on, but the golden age of the superhero film has passed. In 20 years, I think we’ll study the superhero film like we study the hardbody action films of the ‘80s, something indelibly of its time, part of a larger socio-political climate.

The fact that the entire Spider-Man franchise has to be rebooted already shows that the genre is stuck in a rut. It’s going to take a massive overhaul in order to keep the genre afloat. Even if it gets back on its feet, it will never be able to achieve the cultural and popular attention The Dark Knight had. Plus, Joss Wheadon is making a superhero movie now, and we all know what happens to everything that guy touches.

The wild card is The Dark Knight Rises. Will Nolan be able to break the curse of the third superhero flick or will the hero of the genre fall? In the absence of Heath Ledger’s Joker it’s not likely to matter. The chances of it being the same cultural milestone are very slim. As morbid as it sounds Ledger’s death helped that film rise to the status that it did and his absence will be on the minds of moviegoers when they watch the film.

And even if the film succeeds, what then? No film since The Dark Knight has been able to capture the serious gravitas and grounded crime drama that made the film click for many viewers. If anything, everyone else making a superhero film has tried to do the exact opposite, with disastrous results. I’m afraid the golden years of the superhero film are behind us, our latest efforts will only make us more aware of how timely and strong the stint of 2000-07 superhero films were.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing