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Welcome to the Age of Heroes


Picture Credit: Marvel Studios

I recently attended a local game night with some good friends. We meet up once or twice a month for dinner and drinks, and discuss our favorite hobbies and pastimes. Board games and sports are the usual topics but on this night, I brought along the DC Heroes Deck-Building Game, a card game where players can play iconic heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The conversation soon turned toward comic-based movies and TV shows, like Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and The Flash, and how the modern comic-book fan lives in great times with new movies and shows debuting every year.

So DeShawn, do you think we’re reaching superhero fatigue on the big screen yet?” one of my friends asked.

The question was valid but it caught me off-guard at the time. I answered with a vague “no” and cited a few forthcoming projects I’ve learned about, but the question stuck with me the rest of the night and during my drive home. Comics are no longer designated as a hobby pursued by eccentric or under-socialized teenage boys and men. Women and girls are part of the club now, and not just because they enjoy Wonder Woman, Thor, or Black Widow. The modern comic book fan lives in an age of wonder—where the stories we’ve followed for years are finally in formats that we can share with our parents and children.

Are movie-goers reaching superhero fatigue?

Not by a long shot.

The past fifteen years alone has given us a dearth of superhero films. Movie studios are making hand-over-fist cash with franchises like Spider-Man, Batman and Iron Man. Batman has long been DC Comics’ most successful franchise, with seven films to its name beginning in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman. In 2005, the franchise was rebooted with Batman Begins to positive reviews.

The true kick-off of the “Age of the Superhero,” however, began in 2008 with Marvel Studios Iron Man. The Dark Knight released that same year, giving fans a now-expected doubleheader of movies focused on rich men with issues using technology to fight crime. Both were commercial successes and opened the door for other movies from both franchises as well as other properties from Marvel and DC Comics. Since then, Marvel Studios has set the standard in the genre with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the shared world that all of their heroes inhabit.

Marvel, unlike DC, built their universe on the idea of their heroes teaming-up in the future. In 2012, Marvel’s The Avengers broke box-office records, making $1.5 billion dollars through the story of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow banding together to save the world. Fans flocked to the theaters for the movies showcasing these characters individually, or in tandem with the Big Three (Cap, Thor and Iron Man) so the motivation to watch them all at once was built in over time. DC will release Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016 and attempt to catch lightning in a bottle when Justice League releases in 2017. We’ll see if they can find the formula that’s made the Marvel Cinematic Universe so successful.

But why are superhero films and television shows connecting with audiences more at this time better than in the past? Four factors have contributed to the rise of the superhero: developed characters, good stories, special effects, and a shared world.

Developed Characters:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice releasing 2016 [Picture Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures/Zac Snyder]

Superhero movies involve people with (and without) fantastic powers fighting menaces that normal people can’t imagine. The core of these stories are stories about people who are granted, born with, or outright steal the power to make a difference in the world. The real world in 2015 is a harsh place. People in every country are divided on topics like religion, crime, sexuality and more. We enjoy watching people with the power to change their world struggle with answers to questions that plague everyone. Creating a powered exoskeleton or being infused with a serum that grants peak human attributes doesn’t happen in the real world. Fans of these films and television shows will suspend disbelief at the more fantastical elements of the story to learn how their favorite heroes deal with the high costs of power. What are the personal costs? What makes someone a hero? What limits do they place upon their power and why? Common criminals and super-villains don’t like interference. What is the “right” amount of force to use?

Developed Stories:

Developed characters are only part of the equation. The stories built around them must make sense. Today’s fan is fortunate that there are now directors and producers in Hollywood that take the creation of a story based on a comic-book with the same gravity that goes with filming an Oscar-contender. This wasn’t the case twenty years ago. Many people enjoy the campiness of Adam West’s Batman and the films of the 1960’s starring the pair. Joel Schumacher imported the same campiness to Batman & Robin in 1997 to disastrous results.

The degree of realism necessary for a coherent story varies with audiences but several examples of good stories are present. Last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, broke box office records as an emotional story with political elements. Captain America is a soldier in a world he doesn’t recognize, but he refuses to compromise his principles in defense of his country. The CW’s Arrow, based on the Green Arrow comics, focuses on Oliver Queen’s journey from billionaire playboy to killer vigilante to true hero. Oliver struggles with the best way to carry out his mission, as well as the personal costs in family, friends, and even his fortune. He also struggles with questions of why he continues to do a thankless job for people who view him like the criminals he saves them from every night.

Special Effects:

Fifteen years ago, movie technology had advanced greatly from where it was in the 1970’s and 80’s. Audiences were able to see Wolverine’s claws and Cyclops’ optic beams for the first time and weren’t disappointed. Now, the idea of superhero movies pushing the envelope on special effects is not just expected, it’s a hard requirement. When X-Men arrived, the technology needed to fully realize an Iron Man film was still in development. When Iron Man showed us a man inside suit of powered armor fighting other men in suits of powered armor, audiences speculated on how Thor’s powers could be illustrated. The depiction of enhanced senses has evolved from a close-up shot of Superman’s ear, to Daredevil touching a door with his fingertips and feeling the number of heartbeats inside, smell the oil of the guns they’re using, and knowing that the man two feet behind the door has a bad knee that will give out with a swift kick.

A Shared World:

The idea of a shared universe isn’t new but being able to see our favorite heroes square off before they battle the bad guys is one of the bigger positives to come from superhero movies. The battle between Iron Man and Thor during The Avengers let fans of both enjoy a small rumble between the heroes as part of the story. Marvel’s formula of connecting their heroes through post–credits scenes also lets them tease upcoming films and give cameos to our favorite heroes. Easter Eggs like Captain America’s shield or a world map showing the location of Wakanda, home of the Black Panther, not only drives interest in the current film, but drives endless fan speculation on who will get a movie next and what it all means for the larger universe.

Superhero movies are gaining steam and the future is bright. As long as these stories continue to deliver strong characterization, intricate stories, expand on the worlds our favorite heroes inhabit, old fans will keep coming and they’ll bring newer fans with them, bridging generational gaps a few hours at a time.

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2 Comments on “Welcome to the Age of Heroes”

  1. dragonmonkeymanagement March 31, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    Yes, yes and yes to everything. I agree with everything you said. Superheroes are here to stay for a while!

  2. Daniel Hansen April 2, 2015 at 3:21 am #

    There are so many great stories to tell from comics. And still many characters to bring to life. I think like the Westerns of old we are gonna see at least a good ten to fifteen more years of Superhero movies, Tv shows and such. People love to route for a hero and to see the heroes the loved in comics come to life. The real question will be who does it better, Marvel or DC. With DC gearing up to try and take on Marvel in the movies time will tell who does it better in the fans eyes.

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