It’s no secret that the superhero film genre is in its cinematic golden age. Why is that? What is it about superhero comics and the films that take inspiration from them so impactful to our society? Let’s explore the idea that the superhero genre exists as current mythology for the modern age.

The Source of Mythology and Superhero Film Genre

Comic books have been around for close to 100 years or more, spanning multiple genres and narratives. The most prevalent by far is that of the superhero. The stories that follow men and women with powers and abilities beyond the average. Obviously, the biggest publishers of said superheroes would be Marvel and DC Comics. Characters like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Iron Man have become staples and icons not only in American pop culture, but also on a global scale. These characters have lived on the pages of comics for decades.

For example, Batman has been around for almost 85 years. Captain America since 1941, hence the first issue’s cover having him punching Hitler in the face. The point is, generations of people know who these superheroes are. Also, similar to the mythological heroes of ancient times, while the average person might not know every tale and legend about Spider-Man, I’m willing to bet they could tell you something. His real name, how he got his powers or the code he lives by (with great power, comes great responsibility). Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone with no knowledge of these heroes or have never heard their names.

Superheroes: Updated Versions of Ancient Heroes

The belief I have, and I’m sure others do too, is that superheroes don’t just have the same kind of name recognition as mythological heroes. They also exist to have similar narrative conventions as well, albeit in a more modern context. Take the Greek hero Achilles for example. His mother dips him in the River Styx, granting him uncanny strength and invulnerability. No warrior could defeat him on the battlefield. However, because his mother did not dip his heel — the part of his body she held — it’s his one weakness.

Superhero Film Genre
Image from History.com

Now, compare Achilles to Superman. His parents sent him away from his dying homeworld to a new world. The new world’s sun grants him uncanny strength and invulnerability, among other fantastic abilities like flight and heat vision. However, the irradiated pieces of his homeworld, kryptonite, are able to weaken him. Funny enough, the phrase “That’s my kryptonite” is now commonly used in a similar fashion to the phrase “Achilles’ heel.” Both phrases refer to one’s weaknesses. Some superheroes, like Marvel’s Thor, even take those actual myths and update them for today, putting the actual Norse mythology into their current continuity. They get updated and revised a bit, but Thor, Odin, Loki and more have all become part of Marvel’s vast universe of characters.

Superhero Film Genre
Image from DC Comics

Several other references/comparisons could be made, but one thing is for certain: The superheroes of today exist in our society in the same spaces that heroes of myth did then. It’s more than likely that years and years from now, they way people will see Batman and Spider-Man could be the same way we see Achilles and Hercules today.

The Superhero Film Genre Is Typically Visually Stunning

Just like the heroes of old, the tales of the superhero are now told across a variety of mediums. Over the last few decades, film is arguably one of the best and most popular mediums for the superhero. Films like Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN and Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy in the early 2000s set the precedent that the visuals on the comic page transition easily to the screen in a very satisfying way for audiences. The level of action shown with powers that defy our reality is exciting and intriguing. How could it not be?

Superhero Film Genre
Image from Marvel Entertainment

Even the conventions of crossover events and heroes joining together in team-ups across a large narrative universe has obviously proven successful on the big screen. Ever since 2008 with IRON MAN, Marvel Studios’ films have existed within the same Marvel Cinematic Universe akin to what we see in Marvel Comics. DC Comics and Warner Bros. have all done the same with their heroes. Films like JUSTICE LEAGUE and the AVENGERS movies act like those big crossover events, with all the heroes we’ve seen in prior films joining together to save the world. But is it really just the big action and powers that make superheroes so compelling? Not by a long shot.

Superheroes Have An Amazing Relatability

It’s not just the powers that make superheroes so great. It’s the character behind those powers and the scenarios they’re put in. How they react to situations and with each other can be just as interesting. Sure, watching the Incredible Hulk smash everything in sight as a rage monster is fun and cool to watch. There are far more dynamics and depth of entertainment in watching Dr. Bruce Banner struggle with the beast within in addition to said action.

Superhero Film Genre
Image from Marvel Entertainment

With specific admiration for Marvel, the reason why superheroes have struck such a strong chord with our society is that many are incredibly relatable. Peter Parker is just a kid with spider powers. He doesn’t just have to deal with stopping crimes and super-villains. He also has to go to math class on time while making sure his superhero identity stays a secret to protect his loved ones. He’s not the most popular kid and struggles to live a normal life.

Superhero Film Genre
Image from Marvel Entertainment

It’s simple things like that that make him relatable to those reading/watching, they who might be in similar situations, sans superpowers. They can identify and see themselves in these characters.

The Superhero Film Genre Inspires

Furthermore, even if a fan isn’t in the same situation as the superhero they’re watching/reading about, they can still be inspired by said hero. Batman is willing to fight for justice, albeit operating in the shadows. Even so, he holds to his principles. He doesn’t kill and is committed to protecting Gotham City and those he loves in it. Even with the intense childhood trauma of his parents dying, he molds that trauma into something he can use to better himself and his city.

Superhero Film Genre
Image from DC Entertainment

Despite our flaws, our past, the things that have damaged us; we can move beyond and still do good for ourselves, and for others. Captain America inspires us to do what we think is right no matter how many people tell us it’s wrong, which we see in WINTER SOLDIER and CIVIL WAR. To stick to our moral code regardless of the pushback. The stuff that superheroes deal with and how they react to personal problems when they’re not saving the world is sometimes my favorite part of superhero films.

Superhero Film Genre
Image from Marvel Entertainment

Inspiring is what the best superheroes do. Even if we can’t completely relate to them at the moment, they inspire us to be better than what we currently are. We can strive to be like Cap, Spidey, or Batman. The superhero film genre isn’t just entertaining for entertainment’s sake. It shows men and women who have been gifted with special power and using that power for all different kinds of good. We might not have super-powered abilities, but we can use the abilities and gifts we do have for good too.

Side Note: Bill Maher Has No Clue

It should be clear after reading this post where my feelings stand about the superhero genre. It has weight and value. No doubt about it. However, there are some who don’t. That’s fine, and everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. What’s lame is when people like Bill Maher are moronic about it, making claims and opinions that come from a close-minded stance.

Superhero Film Genre
Image from WSJ.com

Shortly after Stan Lee passed away, Bill Maher had this to say in a blog post:

“The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess. The assumption everyone had back [when I was a kid], both the adults and the kids, was that comics were for kids.”

He goes on to say that “adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff” and “pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” After the obvious backlash he received on Twitter, he doubled down on his comments, telling those he upset to grow up and stop liking the things they liked when they were 10.

Beyond the glaring issue of Maher taking a shot at Lee, a man who had a large impact on our pop culture and who had just passed away, I take issue with Maher’s bold statements that purely come from a place of pettiness and misinformation. He tells comics fans to grow up and that comics aren’t a sophisticated form of literature. I would counter that perhaps it wasn’t as developed or sophisticated as when he was a kid. I would venture to say that comics have grown over time into a sophisticated form of literature and art.

Closing Remarks

The superhero film genre has developed as well into a multi-million blockbuster machine. Try having a ten-year-old explain the concepts Christopher Nolan brings to the DARK KNIGHT trilogy. Superhero films aren’t just for kids. If they were, you wouldn’t have so many people, adults, going to see these films. They’re invested in the narrative and the characters within them. Why? Because they’re well-written on a higher level than Maher claims.

Superhero Film Genre
Image from Marvel Entertainment

Maher himself has a cameo in IRON MAN 3…so it certainly seems like he doesn’t mind getting checks from Marvel. Yet he still makes his self-serving and basically ignorant opinions anyway. There’s more value to superhero comics and the superhero film genre than he’s willing, or cares to admit. Beyond its entertainment value, superhero comics and the superhero film genre have a huge impact on our society as modern mythology that helps to inspire us to be our best selves.

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