You would have to be blinder than Daredevil not to have noticed the dominance of superhero movies in cinemas these days. While some critics have bashed the major production studios for their sausage factory approach to filmmaking, the numbers don’t lie. These movies are getting arses on seats the world over, commanding an impressive market share and grossing outrageous sums of money for both Marvel and DC (owned by Disney and Warner Bros, respectively).
Only 10 years ago, superhero movies grossed about US$584 million for the major studios, making up about six per cent of the total market share. That’s half a billion dollars — certainly nothing to sniff at. But compare those numbers to this year’s (and remember, we’re only just over halfway through, with plenty more major comic book movie drawcards still to come) and superhero movies have already grossed well over a billion dollars, soaking up almost 19 per cent of the total market share.
So what’s going on? Why is the global movie-going population so keen to see a nonstop stream of spandex on the big screen?
It's because superhero movies are the new westerns. From the offset, these genres don't seem to have much to do with each other. But Stephen McFeely, one of the screenwriters behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War (both of which were well-received by fans and critics and netted about US$700 million for Marvel) put it this way:
“You went to the movies in the ’50s and ’60s you went to a western. So at this point, you’re going to a superhero movie. It’s taking over that same black hat, white hat myth-making surface. I don’t have a much smarter answer than that.”
That answer is kind of smart though. There are more than a few parallels between the popularity of westerns back in the ’50s and the rise of superhero movies over the past decade or so.
the threat of war with China or North Korea and an increasingly unstable United States has meant our yearning for escapism is back on the rise
After America dominated World War II and entered into a protracted nuclear standoff with Russia, filmmakers made westerns to help people escape from the complex political dramas of modern life. Why deal with the impending nuclear apocalypse when you can go back to a nostalgic era of goodies and baddies? Into a fantasy land where evil-doers end up buried six feet deep and the Clint Eastwoods of the world ride off into the sunset after winning their ladies’ hearts.
Similarly, after the global financial crisis rocked the world in 2008, the superhero genre came into its own. That year the market share of superhero movies jumped from about six per cent to almost 14 per cent. There was a small lull after that but over recent years an increase in terrorist attacks, the threat of war with China or North Korea and an increasingly unstable United States has meant our yearning for escapism is back on the rise. It’s the Cold War 2.0 and movie-goers want their westerns — but this time the good guys wear capes instead of ponchos.
Of course, there are other reasons for their increasing popularity. Advances in CGI technology have made it possible for Superman to fly and the Hulk to wreak havoc in downtown Manhattan without the need to build expensive sets or rely on special effects. Also, the people who grew up reading Marvel and DC comic books are now the screenwriters and studio executives green-lighting these projects, as well as the overgrown nerds going to see them.
Will the trend continue, though? Yes, at least for the next few years. Marvel has movies planned well into 2018, and Warner Bros is looking to beef up their offerings with the DC extended universe continuing to expand all the way till 2020 — at which point, if things keep going the way they are, we’ll probably be living in some kind of George Miller-esque Mad Max apocalyptic wasteland and there will be an even more desperate need for good old-fashioned escapism.