From B-Movies to Blockbusters: The successful superhero genre of recent films

November 18th, 2010

With the release of Megamind on Nov. 5, Paramount Pictures rehashes the classic film industry argument: Why are superhero movies so popular?

Six of the top 12 box-office openings in history belong to the genre, and since 1990, superhero movies have grossed over seven trillion dollars. What explains this phenomenon? The answer, it seems, is not so simple.

The rise of the superhero movie in Hollywood has been much like, in essence, the rise of the superheroes themselves. Once mild-mannered Saturday morning serials, the superhero genre found its mainstream start with 1978’s “Superman,” directed by Richard Donner.

Released in the middle of a tough economic time in America, Superman gave an entire nation an escape from the realities of inflation and the Cold War, even if for just under two hours. It also opened the floodgates for more movies like it.

The 1980s allowed more characters to wander off the pages of their comic books, with the most prominent being Batman.

In 1989, Tim Burton took the Caped Crusader’s dark world and brought it to life on the big screen.

In sharp contrast to the vibrant color and high-flying Superman series, the first Batman installment brought a dark and moody vision of Gotham City to life. While its three direct sequels were not as popular, Burton’s Batman played the darker foil to Superman and created the other half of the superhero spectrum.

As fortunes in America began to turn for the better in the 1990s, the superhero genre began to decline.

No new franchises were released, and many of the movies were similar rehashes of previous stories. Only when the Blade franchise began in 1998 and X-Men followed two years later did superhero movies find their revival. Those franchises, coupled with the dark times our nation faced in the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East, spurred a new generation of movies and fans. Films not only took on a brighter tone and message, but they also took on a bigger scale.

The movies gave people a reason to hope again during a time where many were looking for a real hero.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-man gave Americans a picture, in some ways, of themselves.

Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in some ways embodied the country: talented and capable, but unsure of how to make their lives work again.

The decade ended with Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful Batman films and Jon Favreau’s pair of Iron Man films.

The four films remain the four-highest grossing superhero films of all time.

While both films contrasted in tone, they were blockbusters set on a grand scale which people could escape to.

That is what superhero movies have always been about: escape. It is also what has made them so popular.

For two hours, people can forget about finances, school, work and personal problems.

Superheroes give people hope and a hero to look to even when one is nowhere to be found in real life.

It’s safe to say that you can grab a good seat and some popcorn, because the wild ride of superhero movies isn’t going to end anytime soon.