A Cultural Longing
While a trip to the movies may not be as commonplace is in years past, box office records continue to be smashed yearover- year—particularly in summer months.
Summer and winter are the two seasons in which movie attendance typically jumps up. Think about it— it’s too cold in the winter, and too hot in the summer, so where’s a guy to go for a couple hours of some outof- the-house, indoor entertainment? Movies are the perfect getaway for folks looking to escape the elements.
But whereas the colder months have come to be known as “Oscarbait” season, when studios release their ‘best’ films—movies made largely to garner as much critical attention as possible—in summer, the big-budget blockbuster reigns supreme. And for a good part of the last two decades, it’s been the ‘supermovies’ leading the way.
Superheroes, as well as the comic books they appear in, have been a huge part of popular culture for decades, but it’s only in relatively recent times that their influence and popularity has spilled over into the more mainstream world of film. Though there are some notable exceptions, such as Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), movies based on comic books have, historically and as a whole, been pretty awful. But more recently, beginning with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), the ‘super-movie’ has gone from being wildly inconsistent (and sometimes laughably bad) to one of the movie industry’s most bankable genres.
In 2008, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the second installment of Warner Bros.’ rebooted Batman series, was released to universal critical acclaim and was a box office smash, earning more than $1 billion in ticket sales and becoming the fourth highest-grossing picture of all time. But more importantly, this was perhaps the first instance where audiences as a whole were treated to a movie that could be watched and enjoyed by adult audiences everywhere—not just fans of comic books.
If Bryan Singer cultivated the soil with X-Men, and Christopher Nolan planted the seed with The Dark Knight, then it was Joss Whedon who reaped the harvest with The Avengers in 2012, a film that pushed the superhero genre into the stratosphere, showing that not only could movies based on comics be widely popular and critically well-received, without having to resort to the ‘dark and gritty’ approach to do so. The Avengers was at one point the third-highest grossing movie in history, behind only Avatar (2010) and Titanic (1997).
TIRED OF TIGHTS
Even more recently however, some moviegoers have expressed feelings of weariness with the comic-book/ superhero genre. Almost about everyone has a friend who’s just flatout tired of seeing movies about guys in colourful tights, solving problems with their fists. I mean, if nothing else, it’s not setting a real good example for our kids. The tights, I mean. Gross.
On some level, I get the fatigue. Depending when you read this, we’ll only be a couple days removed from the launch of the third Sony Picturesdistributed Spider-Man series in fifteen years! That means that in less than two decades, we’ve seen three different actors (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and most recently Tom Holland) don the spidey-suit suit and swing from threads on the big screen.
I’ll give you another example: [in 2017], the 17-year-long cinematic saga of “Wolverine” came to its conclusion with the ultraviolent Logan. That means that people who had just become teenagers the first time they saw Hugh Jackman retract his adamantium claws would have entered their 30s this year. If you were one of these kids (like me), you’re probably feeling pretty old right now. If you’re a parent of one of these kids…well, I can’t imagine you feel much different.
Since the early to mid-2000s, the pace at which these movies have been released has picked up dramatically. We’ve had 15 films released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Robert Downey Jr. first assumed his now-iconic titular role in Iron Man (2008). Fifteen! In less than a decade! And to top it off, we have nine more coming between  and the end of 2019!
And all that is to say nothing about DC Comics and Warner Bros. Studios, who have publicly declared they’re not planning on standing idly by and letting their rivals at Marvel/Disney gobble up all the box office pie—five films are set to release by 2020 in the DC Extended Universe.
To say we’ve been inundated would be an insult to understatements. One could forgive even the most hardcore of comic book fans if they said they were “a little tired” of superhero movies at this point. Just writing about the sheer volume of these movies is enough for me, a super-movie superfan, to say, “Hmm, maybe we should pump the brakes on this.”
But then, I’d have to convince a bunch of Hollywood executives to stop loving money.
The reality is that these movies continue to clean up at the box office. No matter how many people anecdotally say they’re tired of seeing movies about superheroes, the fact is, they’re still making enough money to keep getting made. And as long as we keep buying tickets, that’s not about to change anytime soon.
So why are these movies so popular, even after all these years and so, so many releases? And for Christians, what value do these works serve, if any? Are they any more than just a distraction? Or might they provide some insight into mainstream culture that could be useful?
There are many explanations as to why movies based on comic books have seen such enormous popularity in recent years, but it’s probably best to start with the simplest. Erin Free, a writer at Australia-based FilmInk.com argues that basically, superhero films “fit the mold” of the type of movies that studios are most likely to greenlight—the “tent pole movie”—properties with name recognition, flashy effects,, and most importantly, something they can take to the bank. Movie-making on a Hollywood level is not cheap, and because comic book films come with a built-in audience of fans, studio executives are willing to bet big bucks that a sizeable number of geeks, fan-boys/girls, or (more politely) people with an existing interest in the source material will flock to check out the movie version—even if they only come out to complain about how the director “got it all wrong.”
But unlike in years past when movies about superheroes were seen as a quick cash grab by some aloof studio boss, in recent times we’ve actually seen some quality franchise care on the part of production companies commissioning these projects. We actually have real comic book fans sitting in the filmmakers’ chairs! And this is undeniably a good thing, not just for fans of comic books, but also for fans of movies in general.
The best superhero movies are the ones that can nearly make you forget you’re watching a movie about superheroes:
- The Dark Knight is a hard-boiled crime drama that just so happens to have Batman as its main character.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a terrific spy thriller that just so happens to star one of Marvel’s most iconic heroes.
- Guardians of the Galaxy would stand on its own as a pretty solid comedy, if that were all it was aiming to be. But it also holds up pretty well as a quirky space opera with some solid special effects.
These are just good, entertaining movies that happen to star comic book characters.
Gone are the days when studios would pawn off ‘super-films’ on accomplished but unacquainted writers and directors, who might have been talented as filmmakers but were unaware and unequipped to craft compelling films, based on the source materials at hand. We now have men and women making movies that are familiar with the stories they’re adapting, who know the stories and the characters well enough not just to appeal to the hardcore fans, but to general moviegoers as well.
It’s sort of like finding a preacher who’s knowledgeable enough about preaching the Bible to know that not everyone is on the same level when it comes to hearing the Bible. We need experts to dig for the most compelling parts of these stories and present them in a way that’s not alienating to non-insiders—a very Christian notion, if you think about it.
AND ON THAT NOTE…
A lot could be written about the biblical parallels between superhero stories and the life of Christ. Smarter people than me have written far more extensively than I could hope to achieve here, so I won’t bore you with another “Batman = Jesus” style of article. What I will say is that I think there are compelling components present within these ‘super-good versus super-evil’ stories that we, as Christians, may be able to contextualize a little more deeply for our spiritually uninitiated friends.
Christians, like everyone else, want to be difference makers. Perhaps not to a greater extent than our non-Christian or even non-believing friends, but in a way that seems to carry some extra weight or considerations. There’s an inherent ‘looking outside ourselves’ aspect to our desire to be difference makers that we as believers have a much easier time articulating. It’s about wanting to be do-gooders in big ways, and to know that injustice can be met and conquered by people like us—to know that we can do good for the sake of itself, and that ‘good’ as a concept is self-apparent and something worth striving after.
And while perhaps stories about superheroes don’t give us the most realistic depictions of what that looks like, or more specifically what it can look like for us as everyday guys, I think it does tap into a need that we have as men to know that right is right and that doing good isn’t just something we do for no reason.
PREPARE FOR TURBULENCE
Comics writer Mark Millar (Swamp Thing, Superman: Red Son, Ultimate X-Men, and Marvel’s Civil War mini-series, to name a few) says that the popularity of superheroes seems to coincide with turbulent economic times as much as anything else.
“Superheroes were huge in the thirties during The Great Depression,” he says. “The worldwide recession will probably last until the end of the decade. You’ve gotta entertain everyone through it!”
While this might be an overly reductive way of assessing the mega-popularity of the superhero genre, I would argue that Millar is on the right track. Perhaps in some part we are just looking for something to help us forget about harsh economic times, crowded job markets, and mounting debt realities. Maybe superheroes are an extension of the same way we’ve always turned to big dumb action movies for a bit of escapism in times of trouble. But perhaps there’s a deeper (and at the same time simpler) reason for these stories being such a big part of our current cultural imagination: maybe believing in super-powered heroes helps us to fulfill a fantasy of being looked after and cared for. In the same article from Filmink.com, actor Michael Shannon (ie. General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel ) tells Erin Free that troubling times make the idea of superheroes that much more comforting.
“Whether it’s random terrorist attacks, over-population, rising crime rates, the threat of financial collapse, the mental hangover of the Global Financial Crisis, prejudice, ignorance, infectious killer viruses, or just traffic congestion, our world is on a constant knife edge,” Free writes. “And in troubled times, people enjoy escapism, and perhaps secretly wish that there were superheroes around to hose down all of the horrors of the world.”
“FACE FRONT, TRUE BELIEVERS!”
Look, I get it—superheroes aren’t everyone’s thing, and maybe at the end of the day they are just a silly fantasy that we manbabies like to escape to from time to time. But we, like the heroes that culture has come to idolize (and maybe now more than ever), have a choice to make: we can adopt a posture of indifference and dismiss what’s happening as just a silly hobby from a bunch of easily-distracted automatons.
Or, we could wake ourselves up to the fact that movies based on comic books and their starring superheroes are more than just a fringe movement. This is clearly something that people are interested in, evidenced by the reality that they’re obviously still making a pile of money. So the question we need to ask ourselves is “why?” And is there something present within that fascination that can open up a conversation about longing, insecurity, or the need for Jesus?
I’m not saying that that’s an easy conversation. Clearly, somewhere between “boy that Incredible Hulk sure is incredible,” and “hey, can I tell you about my personal Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?” there’s at least one, probably two, transitional conversations. But if nothing else, at least it gives you a common interest, and deepening friendships, even non-spiritual ones, is never a wasted exercise.
One final thought: once upon a time, there used to exist a small corner of Hollywood that would produce a genre of films called ‘The Biblical Epic.’ From it, we got movies like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and later on The Prince of Egypt—generally well-made films that could attract a mainstream audience.
Times are not the same. Biblically based movies of usually fall into either secularized Hollywood ‘re-imaginings’ that draw more protests than praise, or low budget fringe films that do a better job of preaching to the choir than reaching the un-churched.
Perhaps in today’s growing post-Christian society, stories of beings with mythical powers and larger-than-life personas are a signal that people are looking for something bigger than themselves in which to find inspiration. Maybe we can lead them there—and it’s not like we shouldn’t have been doing that anyway.