There's Nothing Super about Superhero Movies

Last year, six of the top ten movies at the domestic box office were superhero movies. In the ten years since the release of Iron Man, films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) have consistently performed at the top of the box office. Twenty films have been released in the MCU thus far, with three more slated for release this year.

Meanwhile, comedies and dramas have been reduced to a second-tier status among the average film-goer. Long-form dramas are either relegated to narrowly released independent films, television series, or miniseries—and they are not watched by nearly as many people as the superhero movies.

Superhero movies provide an entertaining escape from reality. The tropes of the genre are pretty simple: a villain poses a grave threat to all of mankind but is defeated by the protagonists through grand feats of superhuman power.

These were not the sort of movies that dominated the box office once upon a time. The popular films were more relatable to everyday life. Character-driven dramas and comedies once reigned supreme. Even popular action films were better grounded in reality. These movies tended to show an ordinary guy performing extraordinary tasks on behalf of some noble cause—and he did so through sheer determination, not through the good fortune of having a superpower.

These older movies also featured characters who were difficult to classify as good or bad, having some moral ambiguity the audience had to sift through. The moral progression of these characters often provided powerful lessons and insights on human nature.This is not to say that the superhero films contain no lessons, but they are a sign of how the expectations of the audience have shifted away from moral development. Instead,  superhero movies are popular for their prolific use of CGI, escapism, and happy endings; so they are not often meant to teach  some moral truth through complex character development and dialogue.

The Godfather, released in 1972, is generally viewed as one of the greatest films of all time. Today’s award winners are rarely those that make the most money, but The Godfather was a triumph critically and commercially. It was one of the highest grossing films of all time upon its release, won the Best Picture Oscar, and is the number two film on the IMDb Top 250, as ranked by nearly 1.4 million users. Meanwhile, today’s award winners tend to evoke responses like: “I haven’t seen that,” or “I’ve never heard of that movie.”

The Godfather has a runtime of nearly three hours, its plot is complex, and there are many characters to follow. The primary action of the movie is comprised of dialogue. It is a work of fiction, though with a grounded basis in reality, centering on the mafia. There are those within who want to get out but can’t, and we can comprehend the pressures these characters face. This is why we tend to be supportive of the Corleone family even though we know the horrible things they do.

The superhero movies of today will not outlive the lasting legacies of great films like The Godfather. Their special effects will grow stale as the technology further develops, and the spectacle of the superpower will lose its novelty.

The movies that endure are those which best depict the triumphs and tribulations of the human condition. They are not merely reliant on spectacle, even if the stories that seem larger-than-life. We most remember great characters and their stories, and these are the elements lost in too many of the superhero movies of today.

There are multiple Batmans (with five actors assuming the role in three series of films over the past three decades) and Spider-Mans (three series released since 2002, not to mention the new animated feature), reminding us that “heroes” are easily replaced. Different actors can be brought in to complete a cookie-cutter formula because the end result is always the same: some new villain will arise and there will always be a hero there to save the day.

There is only one Vito Corleone. The role is so great, in fact, that it’s the first thing people think of when they hear “Marlon Brando.” Even those who haven’t seen the movie have some impression of the Don. The classics are not so easily replicated; they are unique, and they will always  remain in the collective social consciousness.

They really don’t make movies like they used to, and it’s our fault. Audiences continue to support the Marvel/DC universes with numerous reboots and sequels instead of more serious works with fresh ideas, new characters, and original stories. Gone are the profoundly human struggles, the tragic everyman heroes of old. We go to the theater to watch and wait for the Avengers to save us when we should be learning to save ourselves.