Steven Spielberg has stated that he believes the bubble of success around superhero movies will burst and at some point they will go the way of the Western and fade away. Now Spielberg certainly has more qualifications than myself in the realm of film (although I don’t believe he studied Journalism, Film and Media at Cardiff University as I did), however I can’t help feeling he is being somewhat short-sighted and misguided in his view. It’s the same viewpoint that those who dismiss comic books as ‘for kids’ have incorrectly shared throughout the years- that these superheroes fit inside a specific, limited story space and cannot advance beyond these imposed limitations, such as those the film genre of Westerns finds itself boxed into.
However the superhero genre allows a much wider field of inter-genre access than Westerns. Westerns are limited to a time, place and a certain type of character archetype. Yes there are variations such as the hero and anti-hero, plus the occasional foray into other realms (Cowboys and Aliens a recent, failed example) but it is a restricted genre of film. Superhero movies allow a much greater variety within their genre. Certain elements will always be associated with these movies; hero, villain, costumes of some sort, action etc. Yet the very nature of this genre allows us to experience elements of science-fiction, fantasy, romance, thrillers and more.
If you were to compare most Westerns there will always be multiple shared points throughout those films. While elements of romance and drama do appear, the genre as a whole is relatively stable and familiar. In contrast, superhero movies allow a greater variety of genre crossover and variation in style and thus the genre itself is far wider and allows greater freedom. Let’s look at a few examples:
The first movie, subtitled The First Avenger, is set during World War 2 and has as many elements of a war film as it does a superhero movie; the cantankerous general, a map-based montage of battle movements, a motley group of mixed soldiers. The second movie, the critically acclaimed Winter Soldier, takes our hero into a new genre- the thriller. We have elements of conspiracy and betrayal and established thriller star Robert Redford interwoven with the action and thrills of a superhero movie. The final movie of this trilogy, the impending Civil War, will see heroes fight heroes in what the directors have described as containing elements of psychological thrillers mixed in with the usual tights and capes. This one hero has therefore experienced several genres across his three solo films and is a clear example of what film makers can do with a single character.
Due out later this year, Dr. Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous hero, a former arrogant surgeon who becomes a master of the mystic arts. This is essentially a tale of magic and fantasy and could/should be vastly different from what we have seen from Marvel so far.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Are the heroes in this film actually superheroes? They have abilities for sure but mainly due to their individual species genetics as opposed to accidents and mutations. The movie is more of a grand space opera in the vein of Star Wars and Flash Gordon.
Clearly a superhero movie but clearly offering something different, this movie was aimed at an adult audience and included meta-textual humour and R-rated scenes of violence, sex and language. A far cry from Spider-Man indeed.
Despite failing to capture an audience, this adaptation based on the classic comic of the same name by famed comic book creator Will Eisner was a neo-noir film that used digital background technology (much like Sin City) to develop a unique look and style.
So far we have had a gothic version from Tim Burton, a family-friendly version from Joel Schumacher and the realistically crafted version from Christopher Nolan. Three very different versions of one character over a period of 25 years or so, some more liked than others. A dark, brooding and aged version repercussions played by Ben Affleck is up next in the forthcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which many fans have taken to online due to the similarities between the costume glimpsed in the trailers and that used in (some of) the comic books. Batman is often referred to in the comic books as ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’ yet this has never been apparent on screen. Could a solo movie focus on his skills as an investigator?
Just these few examples show how the genre of superhero movies is a vast and impressive field that, if creators are allowed to, can be pushed in any direction to create varied, fresh tales based on the wide collection of source material. Superhero comics vary from the standard capes and tights fare to darker stories involving rape and murder with most stories dealing with moral dilemmas and emotional repercussions of the actions therein. Marvel has experimented with their universe on the big screen and the small (notably with their Netflix series examining the darker side of being powered) but has shown a willingness to change style and genre types throughout, particularly as they have enjoyed more success and grown in confidence. Film makers should be encouraged to push the boundaries of what we think of as superhero movies so that we can continue to enjoy this genre for many years to come.
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