Unmasking the Superhero Movie


Everybody loves a hero, people line up for 'em, cheer for them, scream their names, and years later tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who told them to HOLD ON a second longer.” - Aunt May (Spider-man 2)

2012 is a significant year for superhero movies. They have dominated the box office. There’s a reason why Avengers Assemble has become the third highest-grossing film of all time. For 10 years, we have invested in superhero movies because they’ve saved us from the darkness of reality when we needed them the most. Not discounting earlier efforts of Richard Donner and Tim Burton’s superhero flicks, the last decade has cemented the heroic symbols of justice in history as not only being a modern movie going experience but a celebration of what cinema is capable of. General moviegoers don’t question the ridiculousness that is presented to them on the screen because they have what they expect from a movie – entertainment. On the contrary if look back at the success and weakness of these movies, ignoring the battle for financial supremacy, I believe there is a deeper reason to why we appreciate these films – whether your young or old, we all want to be a superhero.

Now to remove my glasses and unveil an obvious truth – I am one of them. Missing a particular figure at an early age, I turned to a superhero when I needed to see a brighter side to the world. Idolizing a strong individual taking on evil inside continuous squared panels one after another used to be a window for escape. For modern audiences, the superhero movie is that window.

It took one day for the world to become serious - September 11th 2001. The moment we saw the horror of those events, we became more alert to the harsh acts that people could do. Within the ‘War on Terror’, we needed a hero. Spider-man emerged disguising this darkness by over emphasizing its patriotism with brightly coloured aesthetics and purposely avoids mention of 9/11 in favor of a more respectful portrayal of society. It worked and went on to make over $800 million. This avoidance was a recurring convention for later superhero movies and they began to focus on different themes. Fantastic Four – was a faithful but E! Product placed inflicted portrayal of a family of superheroes. X2 stayed more to its original roots of evolution and our expectance of ‘otherness’. Stylistically the superhero movie has always stood out. Sin City excellently embodies its original artwork thereby feeling like the pages of the novel are brought to life. However the superhero movie has had its moments of kryptonite. Who can ever forget Peter Parker doing a Saturday Night Fever strut? Nicholas Cage as Ghost Rider? Or the abysmal Green Lantern? Superheroes may look ridiculous at times, but that doesn’t mean they are. We can have fun with their world but we must not exploit (for marketing purposes) or disregard what these characters are – symbols of hope.

In 2005, an ace was pulled out of Warner Bros. sleeve – The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). A series of films that embraced a post 9/11 atmosphere and made itself more than just superhero movie. In other words - beneath the theatricality were ideas. We began to explore deeper into the definition of a hero and what makes them ‘super’. As well as Watchmen, Superman Returns acknowledges that even with ‘super powers’, it takes the intelligence and strength of mind to become truly extraordinary. Furthermore by applying the iconography of terrorists to The Joker and Bane, we explored pure evil as well as tortured minds – another key motive to the superhero movie success. Behind the personas of ‘super’ villains are psychological issues that we deeply want to explore. Let’s be honest, some heroes can be ‘too righteous’ – Captain America is a clear example. Now and again we want to watch individuals cross a line that our heroes would never cross. That’s part of the twisted fun-side to these movies. We all loved Heath Ledger’s Joker for his unexpected behavior and his demented view on the world being a ‘cruel joke’ – some of us may agree with this at times.

In a strange development, V for Vendetta (2006), to Alan Moore’s despair, questions the act of crossing lines. Modernizing its original story to appeal to audiences of the post-Bush presidency and exploring a terrorist that from another perspective could be considered a political hero. Contradictory is the word here. Other films have embraced a ‘real’ environment and challenged the true identity of a superhero - Kick-Ass and Super are examples. Two films, which explore ordinary individuals, put on costumes because to them, that is their true identity. An underlining message: we can’t be super, but anyone can be a hero. Audiences love Iron Man because he embraces the best of both worlds. Tony Stark, an intelligent, billionaire showoff that can be two identities without hiding one in a mansion or even a suitcase. Heroes and villains will forever exist. The superhero movie helps us break away from our own perception of those personalities and teleports us to a “different” world. Whether it’s real cities like New York City or fictional metropolises such as Azgard, as filmgoers, we automatically immerse ourselves into these worlds to extract their morals and values, which we relate to our own experiences. Of course the superhero movie was not the first to do this. Cinema has been doing this since its existence.

Superheroes are adaptable philosophers. Since 1938, the superhero universe has expanded through multiple mediums - comic books, radio, Television, video games and more. Audiences have grown up with these heroes and followed them on many adventures, disregarding how convoluted the story is or ridiculous the concept of putting underwear over latex trousers is. With cinema, they travel from one genre to another carrying with them a good vs. evil story, widely exaggerated through special effects and over the top characterizations. In addition superhero movies are changing/influencing the way we make movies. Sam Mendes is quoted to saying that The Dark Knight was a big influence in the making of Skyfall, interesting coincidence to the fact that Nolan was inspired by the Bond movies. For the moment and until further notice, the superhero movie will continue to dominate the film market and target a majority of audiences because of a universal feeling – pain. Superheroes teach us to rise up from the knockdowns we take in life and reassure us that the world has not ended.

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