Another day, another think piece on the inevitable death of the superhero genre. And all written with a sort of smug pleasure at the idea, as though it means that we can finally get back to adult movies. Obviously, the only thing preventing the rise of the summer blockbuster based on Remembrance of Things Past is guys in masks.
It’s baloney, of course. I suspect that, had the internet been a thing in the ’50s, you’d get just as many think pieces on the inevitable death of the Western genre. In the ’30s, the inevitable death of the musical. And, of course, you do get think pieces on why Westerns and musicals are both dead genres, which are usually followed by tentpole releases like Hateful Eight and Into the Woods. The genres aren’t dead, just not quite as popular. Someday, this will be true for superheroes as well.
Until then, I plan to relish the frequency of release of movies of my favourite genre. This is not a popular statement, and I suspect that, in some people’s eyes, I’ve just disqualified myself as a film buff, a film critic, and just about any other phrase with the word “film” in it. However, as I’ve said elsewhere, I have loved superheroes and superhero fiction as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is being taught the difference between stalactites and stalagmites by Spider-Man. I don’t care if people disagree with me; the only movie with X-Men in it that I didn’t see in the theatre came out when my son was bare weeks old. And I even managed Man of Steel while nine months pregnant!
Don’t get me wrong; I eventually saw that other X-Men movie, and lord, it wasn’t good. It’s certainly not as though I claim every superhero movie is; I’ve seen Spider-Man 3. And I haven’t seen Batman and Robin, because it turns out I like myself just slightly more than I like Batman. Which was a pleasant surprise, I guess. Or perhaps it’s that I do like Batman as much as I do, and I didn’t like what they’d done with him.
This is the thing. When superhero movies are bad, it isn’t because they’ve got superheroes in them, any more than bad Westerns are bad because they’ve got horses. It’s because, basically, all they have is horses, and no one’s put any thought into where the horses are going or who’s riding them. If all that happens in a superhero movie is that a guy (it’s usually a guy, which is another problem) puts on a mask and punches people in the face, yes, that’s boring. It was boring when the same guys did it without wearing masks, too. Why blame the mask?
Everyone is entitled to an opinion on the subject, and people are entitled to not like superhero movies. What bothers me is the attitude that there’s something wrong with you if you do like them. The attitude tends to be that you’re immature. That the movies are only for kids. And, again, I don’t dispute that some of them are. Of course, I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with movies for kids, and neither do most people. I guess where I differ there is that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with watching kids’ movies when you’re an adult, whether you have kids or not. I also resent the idea that putting a mask on a guy punching someone in the face means the movie is for kids. This is how you end up with seven-year-olds going to the theatre to see Watchmen.
I believe that some of the themes explored in the better class of superhero movie are deep, intelligent, and powerful. So, yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe appears to run on Daddy Issues. Yes, I’m a little bored with that. However, I do believe the movies have explored other things as well. Age of Ultron was, in my opinion, at least in part an examination of the concept of adolescence. Maybe that’s given people some ammunition to claim that that’s who all the movies are for, but that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t worth exploring anyway.
When people say that superhero movies are childish, they are not short of examples. I can help, if they’re looking for more obscure ones. On the other hand, one of the best minor details of the MCU is the notebook Captain America (Chris Evans) keeps with him to write down all the things people tell him he has to experience. That felt real to me. After all, wouldn’t you have something you would think he’d just have to see/hear/taste? The thing you love most about the modern world? And wouldn’t he be surrounded by people with just that one thing? So he writes it down. It’s a throwaway reference, but it’s one that serves to make the world a little more real. A lot of “adult” movies wouldn’t bother with that.
It’s also true that, when you boil superhero movies down to their truest essence, they have a lot in common with Westerns. And horror. And sci-fi. And all the other genres that get ignored. (The closest thing to a superhero movie ever to win Best Picture is Birdman; it is the only one ever nominated. Superhero movies don’t even win in the technical categories.) They are movies exploring the uses of power. They are about the hope that Good Will Triumph Over Evil.
I have spent most of my life unable to see my favourite genre in the theatre. Maybe one movie every couple of years. The fact that I can see three or four in some years and have them all actually entertain me? I’m going to celebrate that as long as I can. It won’t last. I just don’t think the genre will die as completely as the think pieces would have you believe.