Get Ready. In The 2020s, Superhero Movies Will Look Very Different
Superhero films became the dominant movie genre over the past decade.
A comic book blockbuster become the most dominant film of all time, with Avengers: Endgame (2019) pipping Avatar (2009) at the box office as the highest grossing movie ever ($2.78 billion USD, for those of you playing at home).
The ticket tally bookended a decade that saw audiences differentiate between the good (Captain America: Winter Soldier), the bad (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and the ugly (Suicide Squad). So too did wailing about superhero movies being the death of cinema, sparked by comments from filmmakers so far outside of the target audience they’re intergalactic (Scorsese? Shot. Francis Ford Coppola? Chaser).
It was incredibly frustrating, largely because much of this lamenting acts as if superhero movies are a new thing.
Sure, we might not have been getting them five times a year previously. But Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) was a sensation: after all, it’s the movie that made you believe a man could fly!
There were three sequels in 1980, 1983 and 1987, along with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), which was a Batdancing phenomenon worthy of Prince ffs. In the words of filmmaker Kevin Smith, it was “an important moment” for the culture.
“If Superman was the Star Trek of superhero movies, then Batman was definitely the Star Wars,” he said on the Fatman On Batman podcast.
There were also plenty that failed during the era: The Rocketeer (1991), Catwoman (2004), Daredevil (2003), Elektra (2005), The Shadow (1994), Judge Dredd (1995) and The Phantom (1996) among them (although low-key The Phantom is great and really deserves a cult resurgence).
Yet the ones that did succeed were massive. Hugh Jackman’s launchpad X-Men (2000) kickstarted a franchise that spanned 20 years and 12 films. Then 85-year-old Tobey Maguire taking a break from poker to play teenage Peter Parker in Spider-Man (2002) was seminal, with all three of the movies -- yes, even the jazzy one -- breaking box-office records at the time.
Punisher: War Zone (2008) marked the first superhero movie directed by a woman in Lexi Alexander, while the Blade trilogy (1998 – 2004) picked up where Michael Jai White’s Spawn (1997) left off and gave us a black superhero.
The Dark Knight (2008) crossed a billion dollars at the box office, while also causing such an outcry over not receiving a Best Picture nomination the Academy Awards had to change the category rules forever and expand potential nominees from five up to ten.
The point? Un Certain Regard filmmakers of a specific vintage might have just noticed their existence enough to be annoyed by it, but superhero movies have been in the culture for more than a minute.
Heck, we started the decade mocking them with flicks like Kick-Ass (2010) and Super (2010). You can only make a successful satire when the object of your sh*t-stirring is well-known enough that people get the jokes. There were already five toes deeeeep into the pond by the time The Avengers (2012) hit and changed the game forever.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) dominated the conversation largely because they had people calling the creative shots who weren’t ashamed of the source material like, say, the folks over at Warner Bros. Zack Snyder fretting about whether or not his emo Superman would wear underwear on the outside of his pants or not in Man Of Steel (2013) turned out to be not as important as, say, making a film that depicted the values of an iconic character accurately.
Or one that was even good.
Outside of Marvel and DC, there were a lot of other options: Chronicle (2012), Big Hero 6 (2014) and Incredibles 2 (2018) all had something important to say, even if they didn’t take three hours and 29 minutes to say it.
X-Men: First Class (2011) offered one of the best entries in an old franchise, Logan (2017) scored a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nod, and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) learned from the mistakes of previous period superhero fare to successfully deliver earnestness.
In the words of President Jed Bartlet, “what’s next?” And what does the past 10 years tell us about the upcoming ones?
The tail end of the decade has been the most revealing. The importance of Black Panther (2018), Wonder Woman (2017) and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018) not only existing, but being very good and very successful sets the tone for the future.
Black Panther wasn’t built around a character who was incidentally black: his blackness and the blackness of those around them was a defining trait. From the crew to the cast to the soundtrack to the fact it became the first superhero film ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it was black excellence top to bottom. And it set a precedent: the next decade of superhero movies is all about alternate voices and alternate views.
Up until now, the majority of comic book blockbusters have been a) white b) straight and c) male. Not to mention mostly made by filmmakers who fit that description.
The evolution is starting right out of the gate, with the Margot Robbie-led Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020) releasing in February. It has a Chinese-American director in Cathy Yan, a Taiwanese-British screenwriter in Christina Hodson, a female-led production company in Margot Robbie’s Lucky Chap Entertainment, and an entirely female main cast that just so happens to feature women of colour as Cassandra Cain (a sometimes Batgirl) and Black Canary, but also a Latina woman over 50 fronting a superhero movie.
That. Is. Important.
There’s Wonder Woman: 1984 with Patty Jenkins back in the director’s chair, Eternals (2020) from Chloe Zhao, and Marvel’s Asian superhero feature Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021).
Superhero movies in the 2020s are giving us nuance. That’s not to say they won’t still be viewed as theme park rides or whatever the comparison is that week by people who don’t consider them to have artistic merit.
For those us that do, we will soon be able to see it and be it: a version of the world as we live it, with versions of ourselves reflected on the big screen outside of the white, straight, and male experience.
It’s something the Western genre never did. It’s something the crime genre still struggles to do. Yet it’s something the superhero movie can offer us for the next 10 years as it evolves.